Sunday, July 17, 2011

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.

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