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Walking With The "Wretched"

It's one thing to stand with and work to exonerate the innocent. Surely, that's a special privilege. But it's another, deeper, unique gift to stand aside and hold the hands of the guilty. So the tears sprouted from deep gratefulness to work as a public defender representing the indigent in our communities, to meet and connect with these clients like Mr. M and Mr. S, to sit in intimate spaces of jail interview rooms, holding cells and courtrooms with and by them, to be in their company and to often be the only person willing to do so.

I stepped out of the office into the San Jose sunshine, turned up Tupac Shakur in my headphones and strolled toward the jail to visit two clients. I crossed Mission Street, looked up and noticed a familiar face also on foot. Our eyes touched and we stopped in our respective tracks. There stood my trial client from several years prior- Mr. M. Back in 2012, I would meet him at the jail during the pendency of his case (he couldn't afford bail), sat next to him over the course of several days of trial and despite what I hope was my best effort, a jury convicted Mr. M. of a child molest felony. A judge sentenced him to state prison.

And now, there we were, walking the same streets, the two of us stumbling into one another. We shook hands and stood face to face. I peppered Mr. M with questions that he happily answered. He served his sentence without incident (although he shared the daily struggle to conceal the nature of his convictions and to remain safe), completed parole, endured a recent heart attack, avoided any new contacts with the criminal justice system and consistently complied with his sex offender registration requirements. In fact, he had just come from registering at the San Jose Police Department because his birthday was coming up.

I apologized for the outcome of his case but he kindly affirmed me and said I had done a great job; his face revealed no angst or animosity so I believed him. I told him how happy it made me to see him in regular, non jail clothes and breathing the fresh California air. We grasped hands again and said our goodbyes.

As I walked away, tears pooled behind my eyes and my chest clenched. I sat outside the jail, inhaled, exhaled and processed what laid beneath this groundswell of emotion. After seeing Mr. M., I felt just as I did when I represented Mr. S, another client, at a trial just a few months ago. Mr. S, a man confined for three decades in state prison for several sexual assaults, stood on the brink of a life commitment to a state hospital as a “sexually violent predator.” For weeks, we battled together at a court trial to convince a judge that he didn't suffer a diagnosed mental disorder and that he wasn't a risk of reoffending. After weeks of anxiety inducing litigation, we ultimately prevailed in securing in his release and another shot at life on the outside.

As I remembered standing aside Mr. S and reflected upon running into Mr. M., I realized: these were tears of gratitude.

It's one thing to stand with and work to exonerate the innocent. Surely, that's a special privilege. But it's another, deeper, unique gift to stand aside and hold the hands of the guilty. So the tears sprouted from deep gratefulness to work as a public defender representing the indigent in our communities, to meet and connect with these clients like Mr. M and Mr. S, to sit in intimate spaces of jail interview rooms, holding cells and courtrooms with and by them, to be in their company and to often be the only person willing to do so.

The tears were of thankfulness for the honor to humanize and touch these people that we forget, neglect, ostracize, demonize, condemn. To call them by their names rather than bodies, defendant, monster, molester, sex offender. To not define them by their worst moments. To understand and unearth the roots of their crimes, to tell their stories, to hope for, believe in and highlight their, and in turn our collective, capacity for rehabilitation.

The tears were laced with appreciation and awe that I proudly stand and walk with these beings, the most publicly flawed, complicated, traumatized. These are my people- the “wretched,” the poor, the “menaces,” the criminals, the broken, the “diseased” and “depraved”- for I am one of them. Together, we walk to reclaim our humanity and fight for our redemption.

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