The Solitude of Us
I felt the weight of this trust and responsibility on my shoulders. Anxiety crept in. Tension arose within me. I questioned myself. Was I worthy of this position of trust? Was I equipped and prepared enough to chaperone her through this dramatic dilemma?I forged into the courtroom assigned to us for trial. The bailiff sent the prosecutor and I to the judge's chambers. There, we sat and discussed the case. The state had accused my client of crimes that, if found true, carried life sentences. We traded numbers. Ultimately, the DA offered to dismiss the life counts if my client pled guilty to other charges and accepted over two decades in state prison.
The judge excused me to talk to my client. I slipped into the holding cell that hid behind a camouflaged courtroom door. Across the glass, my client sat alone on a wooden bench. She rose and we met, just the two of us, face to face, at the window for this fateful conversation. We stood on the brink of trial. A crossroads confronted my client that afternoon: trial or the deal.
After some niceties, the conversation turned serious. Holding the complaint up to the glass, I listed the charges. I reminded her of the possible inculpatory evidence. I highlighted her trial rights. I detailed her potential defenses and the witnesses we could call. I explained the best and worst case scenarios of trial and everything in between; she could be acquitted and go home or be convicted and potentially spend life in prison. I explained how and when she could parole if sentenced to life. I assured her of my readiness to fight if she chose trial over the offer.
I described the offer, the charges she'd plead guilty to, the amount of time she'd serve. I predicted her release date. I described the various consequences of a guilty plea; no guns for the rest of her life, deportation if she wasn't a citizen, strikes on her record.
She stood silent. Confusion consumed her face. I offered to illustrate the options I had presented. She took me up on the offer. I pulled a pen from my pocket and a notepad from my file and diagrammed, in my childlike handwriting, the various scenarios. One set of circles and scribbling illustrated trial; another set reflected the offer. The confusion lifted.
She let out a sigh. She grappled with her choices. Silence interspersed with exchanges. In between her questions, asides, sighs and hmms, I glanced around. No one else there. No other voices in the room. Not her mother, best friend or jail confidants. No paralegal, intern or colleague of mine. Just us. As we discussed further, I had an out of body experience. From my perch in the upper corner of the room, I saw us talking. Just the two of us in that holding cell, face to face at the window. The solitude of my client and I.
In those critical, life altering moments, my client only had me, her public defender. The court and my office entrusted me with navigating my lost client through the thorny maze of the criminal justice system, placed her vulnerable, shaking hand in mine to guide her through this determinative decision. I could be the accurate, trusty compass. Or I could be the sherpa walking my blind, inexpert client off a cliff. I could be getting it all wrong and she wouldn't even know it. She was stuck with me.
I felt the weight of this trust and responsibility on my shoulders. Anxiety crept in. Tension arose within me. I questioned myself. Was I worthy of this position of trust? Was I equipped and prepared enough to chaperone her through this dramatic dilemma?
I found solace and relief as I inventoried my time representing her. I had prepared for this momentous moment. The many jail visits. The countless conversations and court appearances together. The nights and weekends dedicated to reviewing each page of discovery. The mental energy expended identifying and crafting defenses. The investigation. The time spent researching legal issues, sentencing schemes and parole procedures. The brainstorming with colleagues about reasonable potential outcomes. The back and forth negotiations with the DA. The painstaking preparation for prelim, for trial. I had, to the best of my imperfect ability, shepherded my client with love, concern and attention to detail.
My client took the deal. I hope she didn't feel alone as she made her decision. I hope she felt me walking beside her. I hope she didn't feel blind as she traversed this crossroads. I hope she experienced illumination and clarity by virtue of my guidance. I hope I was a worthy partner in the solitude of us.