Sunday, July 17, 2011

Like Having to Pee

Writing is like having to pee. I can ignore the urge for a while, but it always comes back, sometimes stronger. The entries below are from 2004 or so to 2009, and the house remodeling blog (This Old House It Ain't, which I also hope to make accessible from this site) dates from 2003-4. New entries will be coming soon.

How To Spell Apologize

Everyone in the courtroom is angry. The judge is frustrated with the bailiffs, who are short-staffed and delay in bringing the defendants from holding up to the courtroom. My attorney is furious with the co-defendant’s lawyer, who presented a last minute witness who laid the alleged armed robbery at the feet of our client. Our client’s mother is fed up with my attorney, and during every break coaches her on evidence she needs to bring up or contest. The client’s mother puts excessive emphasis on small discrepancies between the governments’ witnesses: the complaining witness said the gunman was about 5’10”, but her son is 6’1”. The first officer said the umbrella the gunman carried was white and blue; her son’s is white and green. My attorney already went over this while each witness was on the stand. “But Miss Charles, it’s your job to bring that out more!” our client’s mother says.

“I know how to do my job, Ms. Jones,” my attorney replies. Our client is charged with armed robbery. He is eighteen. He was stopped by police while wearing a distinctive pink jacket with sports patches, carrying a Tech 9 submachine gun, with three crisp $20 bills in his pocket. His friend carried four additional $20 bills. The complaining witness ID’ed them as the two suspects she had described to police a few hours earlier, after she reported being robbed at gunpoint of $140 in twenties by two young men, one of them carrying a submachine gun and wearing a pink jacket with sports patches on it. It is a difficult case.

I wonder if anyone should be angry at our client, this cute, lanky young man who happened to be in possession of a loaded machine gun, and who possibly pointed it to a stranger’s head and demanded money from her. He reminds me of my first boyfriend, who wore Rolling Stones t-shirts and made inappropriate jokes in class. The defendants are teens just like any others; they push boundaries, miscalculate danger, and can’t visualize the future. Their mothers come to court every day; they are concerned, respectful, pulled together. They are normal-looking parents with normal-looking kids who somehow end up carrying dangerous weapons and facing years in prison before they even graduate high school.

I watched a video of a police interrogation of one such young man. He came on camera cocky and demanding a soda, and was escorted off camera six hours later, crying and wiping his nose on his T-shirt. In between, he’d confessed to a robbery gone wrong which ended with him shooting and killing a 74 year-old barber. After copping to the crime, at the detectives' suggestion, the boy began to write a letter to the barber’s widow, explaining what happened and seeking her forgiveness. The kid sat in the interrogation room, writing, erasing and re-writing for about 10 minutes. Then he stopped and looked up at the detectives. “How do you spell apologize?” he asked.

My attorney says the saddest part of her job is when she sees kids she represented as juveniles back in court, facing new charges as adults. Not losing cases, not getting motions denied, not getting overruled on objections, but knowing that for some clients, even if they are acquitted it’s not over. I loved working at the PD's office this semester. It’s a real privilege to be allowed into the clients’ lives, especially for these confused and painful moments. It’s rewarding be able to help them understand, order, and improve their situations. But there is a lot of anger to go around in these cases, and a certain frustration, because no one knows how to make things right.

Mixed Feelings

Our client, Mr. X, is a very polite. He refers to my attorney as “Miss Charles” and nods and says, “Yes, ma’am” when she informs him he’ll have to take another day off work and return to the courthouse tomorrow for the conclusion of his trial. But further than that, he is a nice man. He nervously tries to make small talk about the newspaper headlines while the interns and I wait with him outside the courtroom. The news of the day is the woman in SE who killed her four daughters and kept their rotting bodies in her house. Mr. X shakes his head and says, “It’s a crazy world, that’s for sure.”

Mr. X is charged with attempted rape of his step-daughter. My attorney believes he is innocent, that the girl is lying because she is angry that Mr. X and her mother have recently separated. My attorney cross-examines the step-daughter mercilessly, trying to trip her up and show inconsistencies in her testimony. “And you said when Mr. X came up behind you, you saw his shadow where?” she asks.

“Uh, on the floor,” the girl answers. She is about twelve. She often looks over at her relatives sitting in the audience. She has the hiccups. After every stifled hiccup, she says “excuse me,” quietly into the mic.

I can’t remember now what grade I was in when this happened to me. Sixth or seventh, I think. I remember that some of my friends wore bras – I didn’t, and I wondered if that’s why the man outside the library approached me and my friend. It wasn’t nearly as bad as this – in fact, it was almost nothing, just quick groping through our clothes until we got away from him and ran inside. There was another girl, younger than us, that the same man approached inside the library. He grabbed her and put a lighter to her hair. My mother knew her mother. But that girl didn’t press charges, so only my friend and I went to court. We had to take off school. One classmate said dismissively, “You’re sending a guy to jail because he grabbed your butt?” Another said, “He should have to pay you a lot of money for that!” which sounded wrong at the time, but I couldn’t say exactly why.

Before the trial, my mother talked to my friend’s mother, who was a highly respected attorney, on the phone. They decided that we would not wear our school uniforms to the trial. My mother doesn’t remember hearing this at the time, but someone told me that my friend’s mom had said that “ninety percent of these cases are decided based on appearance.” We wore blue jeans and button-down oxford shirts. I remember my friend said it was OK to roll up the sleeves. At the courthouse, my father talked to the defense attorney before we testified. He said the defense attorney told him that the main defense was that “it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.” On cross examination, all the defense attorney asked me was if the defendant had removed our clothes (no) or touched our genitals (no). The defendant was convicted, and we took the rest of the day off school.

My attorney thinks the step-daughter has been coached about what to say at trial. There is a big focus on what she did after she got home from the house where Mr. X allegedly assaulted her. What did she say to her mother? How did she feel? Was she angry, my attorney asks, noting that her aunt had testified that she “stormed upstairs.” The prosecutor objects: “Relevance, your honor! This has already been addressed in previous testimony!” The girl looks confused. The judge directs her to answer the question.

“How did you feel, when you got home that day?” my attorney repeats.

The girl pauses. “I guess you could say I had mixed feelings,” she says.

On redirect, the prosecutor asks the girl how she felt when she was giving her statement to the police. Again, the girl seems confused. “I just felt like I didn’t want to be there,” she says. The prosecutor asks her what she means. “I felt like I wanted to go to sleep,” she offers. The prosecutor asks her why she wanted to go to sleep. “Because you know, when something bad happens, sometimes I just want to go to sleep,” the girl says. She doesn’t seem able to explain why. Her insight, which she cannot fully articulate, hits me hard, and I think that if she’s been coached, whoever orchestrated that testimony was a pro. I wonder if the girl will ever forget this.

In the end, the judge believes the girl, and finds our client guilty. I am afraid to look at Mr. X’s face while the verdict is read, because I can tell from the way his shoulders are tensed that he is either crying or holding back tears. He is a nice man, and I don’t want him to know I see him like this.