Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Truth Is Out There

My attorney asks me to take notes at the hearings, because sometimes the court reporter won’t turn out a transcript in time. I guess they are useful to her; my harried summaries of who says what, when they change their story, when they are caught in a discrepancy. The notes are an overload of information, with cross-outs, abbreviations, symbols, but between the lines, I try to piece together the real story of what happened. I start with the bare bones of the plot: here, our client is charged with murder and obstruction of justice. As a matter of practice, my attorney doesn’t ask the client what happened. Instead, she asks, what will the police say happened? In this case, the police say our client shot and killed someone. The police say there were multiple witnesses. The police say our client threatened the witnesses to discourage them from giving statements. Our investigators find one of these witnesses, a woman named Ms. Mills, and she tells is that she is not afraid of our client. To present this information to the judge, we subpoena her, but she comes to court very reluctantly. She does not want anyone to see her at the courthouse. She does not want to sit in the courtroom. I wait with Ms. Mills in a secluded area, making sure she does not leave in case the judge wants her to testify.

My attorney asked me to find out if our client actually threatened Ms. Mills. But Ms. Mills makes only vague statements to about the case. She thinks our client is “a good person,” but after speaking to the police about the shooting, she started to “see things differently,” and was “uncomfortable” when our client started showing up at her house unexpectedly. She accepted a placement in the witness protection program, left her apartment, and moved into a hotel room in the suburbs paid for by the government. While in at the hotel, her apartment was robbed. They took her TV, she said, and she wondered if it was because of the shooting. Who robbed your apartment? I ask. I have no idea, she answers. She tells me again that she is “very uncomfortable” to be involved in the case. By way of explanation, she says, “I have to live on these streets.” She shrugs defeatedly and tells me she doesn’t know who to trust. I nod, to acknowledge the difficulty of her position, but I have nothing reassuring to say.

At the hearing, one woman in the audience sighs loudly when witness intimidation is mentioned. She seems frustrated, but I can’t tell if it’s with my attorney, who argues that the alleged obstruction is being blown out of proportion, or with the prosecution, who argue that witnesses truly fear for their lives as the result of our client’s actions. The prosecution paints our client as a big wheel in the neighborhood drug and gang underworld. Our client is young – probably under 21. His eyes meet mine in the courtroom, and he freezes like a deer in headlights, staring at me blankly before looking away. There is no confrontation in his eyes. I find it very hard to imagine him killing someone. Could it have been a mistake? A heated argument that got out of control? Self defense? The police imply that it was premeditated. I wonder what emotion could so seize a person, what thought could so inhabit his mind, that it would drive him to murder. The only thing I can imagine is that maybe it’s like being in love -- desperately, obsessively in love -- when everything else fades away and all you can do is think about your crush, talk about him to anyone who will listen, wait for him to call. An email from him makes your day; absence of one ruins it. I wonder if our client felt this way about his neighborhood scene, if its petty interactions had become his be all end all; if the world beyond it had ceased to matter, or in his mind, never really existed at all.

My attorney fights very hard for our clients, but in court, she rarely talks to them, smiles at them, or touches them. Usually she acts as if they are not even there, and they try to do likewise, their faces expressionless as the events unfold. But their eyes often give them away, darting back and forth amongst the actors in the courtroom. I wonder what they think about, while their actions are evaluated and their lives hang in the balance. I ask my attorney if our client will testify on his own behalf, and she looks surprised. “He has nothing to add,” she says. Then, in a flip tone, “He wasn’t there. He has nothing to say.” Whatever he would say, I guess, would be unsatisfactory, vague, confusing. It may add to the clutter of information, but it can’t make all this make sense.

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