Not Guilty Means My Redemption
Redemption. I’ve always wanted to believe in it. I’ve always hoped that anybody could come back. That no matter what they have done, what they’ve seen, they could find a way back. I don’t know why I needed to believe, but I did. For a long time, as a criminal defense attorney, I think that it was because it was simply a philosophy I needed to embrace, professionally. In fact, I now realize that that was bullshit. I did it for one simple reason. I needed to believe that I was redeemable. That I could come back. That I could believe in myself again. But to be really honest, because of how life has played out, I've doubted that, until just recently.
And it came at me at the worst possible time and with a brutal vengeance.
I'm getting ready for another trial and this Courthouse is packed. However, I have one goal as I walk down a busy hallway with somebody I’ll call Jennifer. I'm trying to understand how her boy, 20 year old Samuel, could be in this place facing a decade in a steel box. At this point, this is not about me or anybody else, it is about Samuel.
He is charged with having a gun, a Smith and Wesson 9 mm Ruger to be precise, when he’s a convicted felon. To be entirely honest, I don’t give a shit whether he had it. I’m a criminal defense attorney and I just wanna win. Ever the cynic. Right?
Jennifer is slight. She’s small in size but strangely even smaller in presence. Not that she's not a survivor and intelligence but rather, its as if life has punched her straight in the face over and over again and she knows that the next punch is coming any second. I have to be honest, I'd be worse than she is. I couldn't survive what she has seen. She's younger than I am but looks much much older. Her hands are worn from working hard her whole life. Multiple minimum wage jobs that simply didn't bring in enough. Unfortunately, the impact of being gone so much had a real cost on the boys which she didn’t have the luxury to quantify at the time. I see the sadness and fear in her eyes only overshadowed by the regret that she couldn't fix it.
Jennifer found herself pregnant and 15 with her first son and had Samuel a short 16 months later. Imagine being 17 with two baby boys. Poor. Single. Homeless. Helpless. Thinking you know everything and knowing close to nothing at the very same time. As if that weren’t enough, the boys' father was shot dead in the street only a couple of years later. Just in case you thought you weren’t alone, right? This is Jennifer.
I’ve seen this story again and again to the point that I’m not always sure when one starts and the other ends. In fact, in this job, it is really hard to not become calloused and cynical. We see pain and tragedy and brutality everyday. It sometimes washes over us and envelopes us in a way that we barely notice, like the mortician who sees a dead child with a toe tag on a cold stainless table and only sees another job to do. The problem is that it is really hard to leave it at the door so we carry it with us, when we see our own officemates, friends, our own kids, our own spouses. And slowly, its easy and maybe even reasonable that we establish this strange disconnect and numbness that we use as self protection like some sick M&M candy-coating. But, it helps us function in this setting. Right?
As Jennifer and I stand in the crowded hallway, the punch to the head comes at me like so many that Jennifer has taken. This is my mom. This woman's view of the world is very similar to how my mom saw her own. All of a sudden, its not just about looking for an angle, looking for a win. Rather, its that Samuel deserves redemption. But something else happens. I realize that I desperately need it too. That for so many reasons, I need to fight my way back to a place where I can believe too. That I can remember who I was before all of this. This . . . insanity. I feel the candy-coating starting to crack and crumble. That my efforts to survive and continue are peeling away and I think about how I’ve changed and what it has cost me, cost my family, for me to do this. But I’m in the middle of a trial. Fuck!
I know I have to win. I have to find a way to help her, help Samuel. I have to sit down with him again and try to really get what the hell is going on here. I have to. We need this. All of us. Not just Samuel. I need it. Me.
When I’m picking a jury, I'm trying to assess who will see this kid as I see him. I don't give a shit about justice at this point. I don't care whether they can balance the facts and come to a just and fair decision. I look at them like I imagine a surgeon looks at somebody before they start cutting. I'm trying to strip away the bullshit as I ask questions to find somebody who will see me when they see Samuel. They must. They have to. Of course, as this is happening, I’m also thinking about stripping away my own bullshit. Timing has not always been my strong suit. Shit!
I look at the spectrum of this jury. They are quite a crew. Fro Man, as I call him, on one end. Young, very cool, young with long hair and very hipster-like with the carefully grungy clothes purposely picked to appear haphazardly chosen. Perfect. On the other, briefcase boy, a middle aged man with short cropped hair with grey streaks who walks in with his briefcase everyday like it is his lucky blanket. And everybody in between. So who do I strike? Who won't believe? Who won't believe in hope, in second chances, in what the police say just because they say it?
I'm feeling the desperation grow in me. I'm surgical still but this one is different. I need it. I keep looking back and seeing Jennifer sitting in the gallery. She won't look me directly in the face as we make eye contact. She is always looking down slightly and her eyes meet mine at a slight angle, like a wounded animal. She looks at me with the experience of a world champion boxer's sparring partner who regularly gets their ass kicked. In other words, nothing is going to change. Nothing is going to be different. She's just waiting for the punches and preparing for the pain. I can feel every punch as I look at her, every brutal scene I’ve experienced doing this and every hole in which I tried to bury it. This is not good. I need to focus.
Opening statements come and the Prosecutor is very workman like. She’s very balanced. Very fair. Very honest. I hate that. Juries like it and I have absolutely no interest in that at this point. I wanna win. I sneak a peak back and Jennifer is staring at the ground like she is watching something bad that happened years before. I feel the same, trying to remember exactly when I broke. When I quit believing. I feel numb. I look at my shoes. And I start to feel angry. I’m not done. I can’t be. I just can’t I refuse.
I stand for my chance to speak. I try to say with confidence, “Samuel didn't do it. This cop jumped to the wrong decisions.” And here's the thing. After going back in to talk to Samuel, he says a couple of things that just don't make sense based upon the reports and I know these reports cold. I could quote them. I've been dreaming about them. And I know all of the photos too. And the Prosecutor’s case just isn't adding up. There is something wrong and I can't seem to figure out what it is.
As the Prosecutor puts her case in, I'm listening. What's wrong? What's wrong? I keep asking myself. The photos roll through my head as do the words from all of the statements. I hear how this one cop sees Samuel with a dark black object that is a gun in his waistband. How the cop sees the handle and the grip. On and on and on. The testimony is devastating and the jury is just eating it up. Even Fro Man is swallowing it.
Here's the problem. Its not true. It didn't happen. The officer’s incident report is totally different and this cop seems to be adding all of these damning facts as an additional guarantee that Samuel will go down. I don’t believe him.
I have a strange feeling inside my chest. It scares me. A heart attack? But then I realize that I’m starting to remember me. But me in the way that I was before this case, and the thousand others like it. And before the cynicism, the numbness and maybe even the darkness.
I'm outraged and I take it out on the officer. The jury seems to sit up straighter and listen more carefully as I pound on this guy. And he starts to represent all of the numbness, the darkness. As I do this, I feel something down deep in my soul. Something like hope that both Samuel and I deserve to find our way back. As I look back at Jennifer, she is sitting up a little straighter too but unsure what to think.
As the Prosecutor continues, her case seems to deteriorate underneath her. And slowly, very slowly, I can feel a shift. I see it in the jury, the demeanor of the prosecutor and even in myself. It is at this point that I know. I am this kid. I know what it is to be without hope. Without help and that I need redemption. I need to know that I can come back. I can be more. That how I’ve changed isn’t permanent.
I look back at Jennifer. I see that she sees that I get it. That I somehow understand her. That I get Samuel. That maybe I’m Samuel. I see a kernel of something there I don't think has been there for a very very long time. Hope. Is it her hope or my own?
Closing arguments are crazy. As I listen to the Prosecutor, she sums up so cleanly that I start to doubt again. She's very smart if a little cold blooded. But I'm not done. I believe. I do. I have to.
I get up and give the best damn closing of my life. I feel like I'm fighting for air. Like I'm fighting for my mom. I imagine her sitting in the gallery and I'm fighting for her in a way she has fought for so many years without acknowledgement or credit. But as I fight for Samuel, I am fighting just as hard for me. And then I start to see jurors slowly shake their heads with me. I feel it.
All of sudden, all of a sudden, I see my mom's eyes in my head. And I see her smile and my eyes fill with tears. Tears for Samuel. Tears for Jennifer. Tears for my mom. Tears for myself.
The problem with having lots of empathy and using it in trial is that you sometimes can’t control it. Sure, you can pour it by the bucketload into the jury box until you hope the jury is floating around in it like its a kid’s blowup pool. The problem if you’re honest is that it opens you up and cracks that sick candy-coating open and makes you realize the extent of your own disconnect and numbness and what you have morphed yourself into in order to do the job. Its also makes you realize the impact that it has had on all the people you actually care about until you have no fucking clue who you were or are.
Sometimes, as criminal defense attorneys, we have to remember the cost, the impact, and that the brutality we experience has a cost and carrying or hiding it is not the answer. Rather, we have to be conscious of it and hopefully address the realities and maybe find the lightness in life and embrace that for the authenticity that we hopefully all are seeking.
When the jury comes back after two days with a not guilty, I stare blankly into space. Samuel throws his arms around me. I look back at Jennifer. She stares me straight in the face for the very first time, tears running down her face and I realize I’m weeping too. And I know without doubt that not only does everybody deserve redemption, but that I do too.
And I finally believe . . . again.