church of second chances

30 Oct

Yesterday was a really great day.

I resolved a criminal case in a very short hearing and the result was such that my faith in the wisdom of judges and the system working the way it should was restored.

I got this client because she was a civil client of my law firm’s first and she ended up in jail but my firm needed her signature on some documents. “Who knows how to get into see someone in a rural jail?” they asked themselves…”Oh, that’s right – YOU know how to get into a jail.” Which is how good adventure stories always start.

I gave her my card as I met with her on these civil matters and a week later, she called and told me that she was unhappy with her court-appointed lawyer and could she hire me? And I said “yes, of course” like I always do.

And then I started to worry because I wasn’t sure that there was very much I could do for her given what I knew of her sad situation. All I knew how to do was show up and advocate for her. Then her mother called me, demanding to know my credentials. Then I heard that the court-appointed attorney had said that I didn’t know what I was doing. That I was new and couldn’t do any better than he could. Then I talked to the assistant DA who said that the offer wasn’t going to be reduced. That everyone in the whole county had bent over backward for this young woman and they were tired of her. She’d had too many chances. They were done.

I was defeated before I ever even started. Then Henry lost his backpack and had a complete meltdown on the way to school. His little shoulders slumped over as I watched him walk away from me – down the block and into assembly. Crying. Him and me. Him over the backpack how disappointed his teacher was going to be – and me over that and just everything else.

On the way out to the rural county, I was stopped by a wreck on the highway. I already didn’t know where the courthouse was and now I was going to be late. Unwelcome and tardy and bearing no hope or good news for my client.

When I got there, I met with the prosecutor in a room full of other prosecutors and we struck up a big group conversation. I was completely at home with the discussions because I lived this for so long. The boss of the office told me they had two vacancies and asked me to apply. I said that I couldn’t and then he went upstairs and brought me an application and said “Please. You can work from home except when you need to be in court.”

I was flattered. I even entertained the notion. Then I remembered how much I love my work now. And then I had to go talk to my client and tell her that our best chance was to set the case for a hearing and tell her story to the judge and literally throw ourselves on the mercy of the court. The hearing would be a few months later.

She cried. I nearly cried. She asked if we could just do it today and get this over with. I wasn’t ready for a contested hearing, but if she didn’t want me to call any witnesses for her, then there was nothing to gain by giving the state more time to build a stronger case against her while my case stayed exactly the same.

So we did it. We went into court, she pled true to every allegation against her. She cried. She admitted her failings. She said that her three children needed her in the home and not in the penitentiary. She cried. I was hard on her. I made her admit every failing and I asked her how she planned to address those weaknesses and failures in the future. She gave good and thoughtful answers.

I argued that society would not be served by sentencing this single mother with three young children to the penitentiary. That their daddies weren’t any good, that their grandmother with whom they lived was already overburdened with the care of her elderly mother. That the children deserved some stability and that there was no benefit to anyone – not to my client or to her mother or her children or to society – by sentencing her to the penitentiary for seven years or ten years or two years to teach her a lesson. That teaching someone a lesson is rarely a good reason to do anything.

And then I rested. And laid my client’s fate at the mercy of the Court. And the judge did this:

“You will stay in jail until noon on December 24. And when you get out on December 24, you will be off probation and have a chance at starting a new life. Good Luck to you.”

And she cried. I almost did. She was sentenced to seven weeks in the county jail when her exposure was ten years in the penitentiary.

She thanked me and she said “I think it’s because I owned my $#!+,” and I agreed with her. That’s exactly why. Because when you will own your own $#!+, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. They will offer grace and mercy in ways that they won’t do when you make excuses and blame other people.

It was a great day for justice. A great day for my client and a great day for me. We found Henry’s backpack and so it turned out to be a great day for him, too.

**Church of Second Chances is the name of a place of worship in one of my fave Anne Tyler books: Saint Maybe. I think I will read it this weekend because it is just so apt.

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One Response to “church of second chances”

  1. Robyn October 30, 2014 at 11:51 am #

    And this made me cry! Thanks for sharing.

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