When you go on a lot of first dates, you tell your story a lot. A significant chunk of my story that comes out over coffee or a beer is that I used to be a Public Defender. Depending on how well the date is going, the conversation veers in one of two ways. If it’s just okay, then I usually say I went on to a small firm as if it was a natural transition. If it’s somebody I’m getting along with, I’ll usually be honest and say that I couldn’t do it anymore.
I have a script, almost. You do that when you have these conversations a lot. I say the same things over and over. I say:
- I took over all the juvenile cases. And it broke me.
- That stereotype about the tough, hard-drinking criminal defense attorney is there for a reason.
- I thought it would be better because the juvenile system is more focused on help. But it actually made it harder.
- I appeared in front of one judge who found every single client I ever brought in front of him guilty regardless of the circumstances.
- I had trials in Juvenile Court every single week.
- I also started handling all the drug cases in my county.
- When I left my office I had over 700 open cases, over 100 of them juveniles.
This stuff is okay for a first date. It shows a glimpse of the reality, makes it clear I took my job seriously but doesn’t reveal too much.
When I get closer to someone I may reveal that I was having panic attacks before I left my job. That just driving to the courthouse where I knew that Judge wouldn’t listen to a word I said would bring a physical tightness over my whole body. Then there was the time I cried in court. It only happened once. It was on a small case, a stupid case, a fight in school, the kind of thing that should never have come to court at all. And it was the ridiculousness of the charges with the hopelessness of my case that got me to break down. I have no idea what my client thought about that, a 13-year-old girl seeing her grown up attorney so angry she has tears streaming down her face.
I don’t tell that story often to anyone because I still can’t talk about it without crying. It was that raw.
Telling any of these stories require that I hold back. Because I can go on. And on. About my very first month in Juvenile and my first three trials which were all Child Molestation cases with flimsy evidence and I lost all three and felt like I’d failed those kids who were most likely innocent. I didn’t realize yet that I’d lose most cases, even plenty I deserved to win. That no matter how well I did, that was how the system worked.
I think sometimes it was because they saw a troubled kid and they figured it made sense to bring them into the system. That’s my guess, anyway. I don’t know how much of it was race or class.
I liked the kids because they wouldn’t plead guilty. I kind of admired their stubbornness, even when the evidence was stacked against them. I had more trials than pleas most of the time.
Adults are different. With adults, you’ll have them come in and you’ll hear their story and you’ll be ready to fight and then when the plea offer comes in they take it. Because they’re scared and tired.
I failed people all the time. Everything I had was generally not enough. And then when you’d have a win, and kid went home and got my You’re-turning-17-that’s-adult-court lecture, and then got himself Accessory to Murder charges a few months later. There was a lot of failure.
I thought of this last night while watching my Twitter feed. This feeling of frustration in my stomach, of knowing this outcome was going to happen, but hoping it wouldn’t like I’ve hoped plenty of times before. This is a feeling I know.
It’s a feeling I had every day when I was a Public Defender.
And it’s why I can’t go back.
Recently I was on a date with a lawyer and he tried to sell me on the idea of putting out my own shingle and taking on court appointed cases. And during our conversation I entertained the idea.
But no, honestly, I don’t think I can do it. My outrage gets too big. I know Ferguson stirs up strong feelings in people. Today a lot of us are angry on behalf of a family we’ve never met in a community we’ve never visited. It’s a shadow of a feeling I know well, one I don’t miss. But it’s hard to describe how it is when you’ve talked to a person, looked into their eyes, heard their story, been their appointed counselor, been the only person on earth who will stand up with them in judgment and fight all the way down. There is something so powerful in that. I loved it. I loved knowing that no matter what you did or didn’t do, you had me and I had your back. Because you were a person and you deserved that much.
And the worst of it? Is knowing that even though I’ve left that job, there are still people every day who still need that help. That there are still all the people who are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, agreeing to take on fines they can’t pay, needing rehab or health services they can’t get. It happens every day in every community and I feel so guilty that I’m not there standing up beside them.
It was perhaps the most noble thing I’ve ever done. Definitely the most important thing I’ve ever done. And you can’t really understand how much is happening all around you, how much loss and turmoil and injustice there is in your city, until you’ve been in it every day. Yes, your city. This happens all around you all the time.
I wondered last night if I was cynical because I didn’t expect an indictment in the death of Michael Brown. But then I realized, no. I’m not cynical. I’ve just been here before. Different names, different times, different places, but there. And to survive there you learn to expect the worst. That’s one thing I haven’t forgotten.
For now I don’t know how to work for something better the way I once did. There should probably be more to it than a blog and a Twitter account. It’s a journey I’ve been on for a long while, to try and figure out how to find something that vital and important that will also let me live my life fully.
I’m still looking.