Angela’s case puzzled me from the start. After I received the file and read that she was charged with fourth offense prostitution, I expected to also find out that she was in jail. But she wasn’t. The judge who arraigned her and took her plea of not guilty also released without requiring her to post any money. I expected her to be in jail because judges routinely set bonds of several thousand dollars on alleged hookers, especially those with records that reflected “experience in the field.” These people, who in my experience were almost always women, or men who dressed as women, virtually never posted these bonds and thus had to wait in jail until their trial dates because, after all, if you will take $30 for oral or actual sex, you probably don’t have $500 available to you. Almost everyone I represented on prostitution charges was only after enough money to get another rock of crack. They were not feeding a sex drive or a drive for money. They doing the only job their addictions would let them hold and were doing what they had to do to get the thing that would get them the precious little white rock. They were stripped down, literally and figuratively, to their cores and were willing to do virtually anything to feed their addictions. After they were caught trying to get money, and crack, they waited in jail because they didn’t have any money to post bond.
Angela had been set free, however, and I couldn’t understand why. I looked at her record and her release seemed even more strange. She had at least eight prior prostitution convictions. The reason she was charged with only a fourth offense was simply that the law of the City of Omaha stopped counting after four offenses and required an automatic six months in jail for anyone convicted of this. Angela had already served several fourth offense six-month terms, so it was apparent to me that she was not a new addict who had finally hit rock bottom. She had been living there for quite awhile and had never bounced back up, apparently.
It came as no surprise, then, when Angela missed the appointment she scheduled with me. I sent her a letter, telling her to schedule another one, but I knew the chances were slim. I reviewed the police report and it read like many other prostitution incidents. The officer described how she flagged him down, got in his unmarked car, asked if he was a cop and then agreed to give him a “blowjob” for $20. I knew we would have a hard time winning at trial because I had lost dozens of these trial as judges believed police over prostitutes. I couldn’t say that I blamed them because most of the clients I represented on these charges admitted to getting into a car with a strange man at a late hour in a bad neighborhood. Circumstantially, things usually looked terrible for my clients charged with prostitution and they usually ended up with convictions, no matter how cleverly I cross examined the arresting officer.
Like a few hundred other prostitution cases I had handled, there was nothing for me to do but appear at Angela’s court date, call out her name and see if anyone would answer. I didn’t expect anyone to answer when I stood at the front of the courtroom and shouted out Angela’s name. People charged with prostitution, especially the “non-Johns” whom I represented almost exclusively, rarely appeared in court voluntarily. A charge of failure to appear was very common in prostitution cases and I expected to hear silence when I called out Angela’s name.
I stood up, turned away from the counsel table towards the back of the courtroom and half-shouted “Angela Spellman. Is Angela Spellman here?” The room was quiet though and I sensed a strange, uncomfortable silence come over the crowd of vice and uniformed cops at the back of the room. No hands went up though, and I started to hurry off to another courtroom to see which of my clients made it to court that day. I thought, “Here we go again. Another prostitute who will show up in a few months after she gets caught again” and I turned to leave.
Then a voice came from behind me, “Angela Spellman? Are you here on that case?” It came from the prosecutor and he had a strange look on his face. “Didn’t anybody tell you?,” he said. “She was found dead about two weeks ago.” My mouth dropped, and I wondered if he was kidding. I routinely read about former and current clients in the paper, as they graduated into greater and more headline-worthy crimes, but I had never called out the name of a person and then found out they were dead.
As I talked to the prosecutor, another prosecutor, who was sitting at the table, chimed in. “Is she the lady that was arraigned by Judge Lowe?” I looked in the court file and told him that she was. He said, “Yeah, I remember her. It was her birthday and he told her his present was that he was letting her go home. Everybody clapped for her.” I looked in the file and saw Angela’s date of birth was the same as the date the judge had written on the bottom of the page.
I knew Judge Lowe fairly well from being before him on hundreds of cases and I knew he was not afraid to put people in jail. I also knew he had a lot of common sense and had grown up in a part of the city where you had to learn street smarts, especially if you survived to become a judge. While some suburban-raised judges would have never bent the rules for Angela, Judge Lowe knew the odds of this prostitute being rehabilitated were slim to none. He knew she would eventually do six months in jail on the charges and he probably thought there would be no real harm in sending her home on her birthday. After all, to a person in her condition, acknowledging her birthday and getting a courtroom of people to clap for her as she stood before them dressed in an unflattering jumpsuit, accused of having sex for money, probably restored a little dignity to a hard life lived on harsh streets. Hookers don’t get many birthday presents and Judge Lowe was probably the only person who even acknowledged her special day who didn’t want something illegal in return.
But she was dead less than a month later and that birthday was her last. Her case still haunts me, even though I will never even know what she looked like. Every time I call out a client’s name and hear no response, I wonder if perhaps they have an excuse as good as Angela’s. Calling out Angela’s name and hearing her story was unsettling because I saw how quickly a life can be lost and how quickly the machine of the system will grind on afterwards. I was a part of the system too, but part of me wanted it to stop and acknowledge that one of its lives had been needlessly taken. On the other hand, I had other work to do and other judges in other courtrooms who didn’t have time to care about a faceless prostitute turning up dead. I went back to my work quickly, partly because I had to and partly because it was painful to have to acknowledge the fine line between life and death as I tried to make a living in the world. Seeing an example of how quickly a person’s life can be taken away also reminded me that we are all here temporarily. It is scary to think that we never know when our own names will be called and pretend that they never will be.