Friday, March 28, 2008


In the years that I have worked as a Pubic Defender I have slowly lost touch with a lot of my friends, whether they live across town or across the country. I always feel busy, am quite frequently mentally exhausted at the end of the day, and have a new perspective in conversations that is often unsettling to people who live in safe, suburban neighborhoods and picture themselves miles away from “those people” that I see every day.
I don’t know if this withering of friendships happened because I started this job right out of law school, when I was so busy studying and taking care of my kids that my friendships began to slip away anyway. Perhaps this is something that happens to everyone as they hit middle age and focus on careers and family, naturally letting go of outside attachments. I try to stay in touch with childhood and college friends, and e-mail has helped with this, but the conversations don’t come as quickly as they once did. The miles between us and the newly forming lines on our faces seem to highlight to different paths we chose and the resulting differences in our lives. I miss my old friends, though, and know that we could rekindle that which brought us together with a few hours and a few beers to help us reconnect.
But while my past friendships have faded, my job has allowed me to connect with complete strangers, sometimes in just a few minutes, in an entirely new way. Of course, there are those people who absolutely hate me when they realize the role I play or see who I stand beside. Even my own clients hate me occasionally, blaming the closest person for their problems and reaching out, pulling me down, the way a drowning person panics and can kill a person who tries to pull them to safety.
Once in awhile, though, I get the chance to help someone in a such a way that we each walk away smiling, as if we know each other very well despite the fact that we barely know each other’s names. Sometimes the real drama of the courtroom, the possibility of a life-changing sentence, or a liberating acquittal, mean that my clients and I get quickly down to the essences of who we are as people. When this happens, it highlights the fact that, at some level, we are all very similar, and that our fates are all tied together, the way all religions try, and usually fail, to teach us.
Enrique and I were probably the same age. He spoke very little English and I very little Spanish, his native language. Consequently, when I met him for the first of two times, we were in my office with an interpreter. I told Enrique, on this Monday morning, that he missed his court date the previous Friday and that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. I assured him that while this was a problem, the fact that he was here meant it was a problem we could fix relatively easily, since the letter telling him of his court date had come back undelivered. I knew I could explain to the judge that Enrique’s presence, the undelivered letter, and the obvious language barrier, meant that he was not avoiding court but simply unaware.
Still, as I told Enrique about the warrant, his shoulders slumped and he looked frightenly at the floor. To make matters worse, I had to tell Enrique that the charge he faced, falsely reporting information to a police officer, carried up to one year in “la carce” (the jail) and that it could lead to him being removed from the country by the immigration authorities. I tried to sugar coat this even worse news, telling him that perhaps we could convince the prosecutor to dismiss that more serious charge and allow him to plead guilty to the lesser charge of possessing a false piece of identification. I knew that charge carried a maximum of 90 days in jail and that, because of this, it would be much less likely to lead to deportation.
I told Enrique about the possibility of deportation because a new law required me to warn him, and all my clients, that if they were non-citizens, a conviction could result in deportation. The intent of this law was clear: to ensure that non-citizens did not plead guilty to crimes in state court that could send them home via federal court without first knowing about this possibility. Though the intent of this law was good, its effect on Enrique was typical. His eyes grew even more round as I told him, as I was required to, that he not only faced up to fifteen months in jail, he could also be shipped back to El Salvador where there were children who needed the dollars he religiously sent them few jobs but few jobs to provide this.
I tried to calm Enrique down, telling him that while these penalties were scary, he was presumed innocent and had the right to a lawyer. My words had the effect of telling a condemned man that at least he had a good meal to look forward to. I assured him that while he could go to jail that there was also a possibility that we could win his case together and that he could go back to work without any expense or penalty. Hearing about this possibility, and seeing me in my cramped office, in my nice used clothing store suit, didn’t seem very reassuring to Enrique. I knew that while acquittal was possible, the judge who was assigned his case would punish us for taking up his time with a trial if he lost.
While I always worried about losing the trial and having to watch my client go to jail, thinking about them having to leave jail and catch an I.N.S. bus back to the border was a new fear for me. I worried, but tried not to let it show as I kept talking. Enrique needed confidence, so that he could sleep at night and so that he would look to the judge or jury like the worker he was and not like a border-hopping criminal, as the I.N.S. might label him if were convicted of the more serious charge.
I had to model confidence too, so Enrique would trust me and so that look like a judge or jury would listen to us, if it got to that point. If I let my fear of Enrique’s deportation show on my face, a judge or jury could sense this and perhaps wrongly conclude that because this man’s lawyer looked afraid and unbelieving, he must guilty. Poker faces were essential in my job.
I had to laugh at myself a little for being so concerned, not because Enrique’s case was minor, but because my fears- and Enrique’s possible fate- were relatively minor compared to the fears other lawyers I passed in the hallway faced every day. After all, I was a “misdemeanor” public defender. I defended clients whose individual charges carried at most one year in jail. While judges had the power to sentence my clients to more than one year in jail, if they plead or were found guilty of multiple charges, I never saw this happen. Judges reminded us often that they had this power, to make sure we kept up the plea bargaining that typically sent them home around three o’clock, but they rarely used it.
When I saw my boss in the hallway, in a suit and without his usual fun-loving Irish musician expression, I knew he must be doing another murder trial, with his client’s life in his hands. When I read the newspaper’s account of the trial he was involved in that evening, I had to laugh at myself for losing sleep over a misdemeanor case. How would I react when instead of one year of my client’s life being at stake, the client’s life itself were? Perhaps I didn’t really want to “move up” to felonies as much as I imagined. Such a move would help my career, but could I sleep at night facing that kind of pressure?
I was afraid for Enrique, not because I thought he would go to jail but because I knew how ineffectively the “justice system” bureaucracy often worked. I long ago learned that bureaucracy and justice were like oil and vinegar. If they were not constantly agitiated, shaken up by strong advocacy, they would soon naturally separate. Enrique was charged with the worst type of misdemeanor, the kind that carried up to one year in jail. I didn’t know much about the case yet- since the prosecutors had not yet given me the police reports I asked for- but I suspected that son Enrique had been charged this way not because what he was alleged to have done was particularly bad, but because he happened to have been ticketed in Ralston, a suburb of Omaha where Omaha’s law didn’t apply. The “RAL” next to the officer category on the computer screen told me he was ticketed in Ralston. I had seen countless cases like this, and I suspected Enrique was charged with the more serious false reporting because the prosecutors were unable to charge him with false information, which carried a maximum of only six months in jail.
For Enrique, the difference was immense. If he was found guilty of the charge carrying up to a year, he could be bussed back to El Salvador. Maybe someone in the federal bureaucracy would read up on Enrique’s case before they started “removal” proceedings against him and see that Enrique was not a criminal but simply a man who wanted to work. But I had seen enough of bureaucracies to know that that the system would flow, like water, down the easiest course, even if it drowned real people along the way.
I worked in the center of a massive bureaucracy and I saw it struggle to be efficient and also saw it sacrifice effectiveness along the way. My role was to slow this process down, to get judges and prosecutors to focus on making the system effective as caseloads grew steadily and the need to work quickly became necessary. It wasn’t easy. Judges saw me constantly and grew sick of my face as I slowed down the proceedings to tell them my client’s stories, either after a during a trial or before sentencing. I couldn’t blame them, but this was also a job they appointed me to do. I didn’t want them to like me, only respect me. I tried to “pick my battles,” to stay efficient, and to get to the point quickly. But the ever-increasing number of cases and my place at the end of the “pecking order,” beside my indigent client made me and my clients a convenient scapegoat in a system bursting at the seams.
What lies behind such an overburdened system? Politicians from both sides of the aisle promised to “put more cops on the street” and voters lined up behind them. But more cops meant more cases and more demand “downstream” in the justice system. Voters weren’t told this and were also promised “no new taxes.” They wanted to have their “cake and eat it too” and no one told them this wasn’t possible, without serious side effects. They wanted the “security” of more police presence but didn’t want to pay the higher taxes that more judges, court personnel, prosecutors, and public defenders required. More police meant more tickets, more cases and more overtime for police officers. It also meant overflowing courtrooms, overworked public attorneys and overwhelmed justice systems. Judges could either work longer hours or more cases through more quickly. Which path do you think they chose, with a slim chance of being voted out of office and politically-powerless defendants paraded before them?
Enrique faced up to a year in jail for conduct in the suburbs that- five blocks away in the city- would have carried only six months in jail, and not led to a potential trip back to El Salvador. Hearing this information, Omaha probably sounds like a nice place to live, since the punishment for Enrique’s alleged crime is half as severe in the city compared to the suburbs. While this was true in Enrique’s case, the reason behind this had nothing to do with leniency or effectiveness. Once again, the bureaucracy ran only on efficiency. All misdemeanors committed in Omaha carried only six months in jail because any crime carrying more jail time required a trial by jury. Our founders mistrusted governmental bureaucracies and believed that we were all endowed by our creator with inalienable rights, such as the right to a jury of our peers in criminal cases. However, the Supreme Court determined that this right only applies to “non-petit” offenses, which carry (you guessed it) more than six months in jail. The City of Omaha thus set the maximum penalty for all misdemeanors at that same level, so that our judges could order jail for half to year and yet our City would not have to pay for expensive, potentially-time consuming jury trials.
The efficiency of such a system was undeniable, but the ineffectiveness was inescapable. Judges conducted misdemeanor trials without even allowing the attorneys to take the time to sit down at counsel tables. That took too much time. All but a few of the twelve County Court judges I practiced in front of made the attorneys stand directly before the bench, so that the witness giving testimony stood between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The Defendant was asked to move to the other side of his or her attorney, so that there were four people standing before the judge. Things moved very quickly this way, but the process looked more like an assembly line than a judicial proceeding. Like a Wal-mart clerk working in the return department, judges routinely called out “next” when a trial was finished or a sentencing concluded.
Most people in Omaha, and in society in general, kept a distance from the criminal justice system, the way people never want to inside of a jail. After all, that is where we dal with the “bad people,” the people who lead the six o’clock news. From this safe distance, the system appeared to run smoothly. After all, your taxes stayed low and the judges treated you nicely, if by some twist of fate you appeared before them for a seat belt violation or a speeding ticket. Of course, they saw you in your suit and tie, and knew that- unlike my clients- you held political power. If you made a complaint, people would listen. Judges understood this instinctively. After all, they were appointed by the Governor. They were charged with interpreting the law of the land, but they got there by knowing the unwritten golden rule: know the right people, treat them well and don’t take chances.
Only those of us who stood beside the politically powerless, clients whose cases made up the bulk of the misdemeanor cases knew that while the wheels of the system turned efficiently for people with political power, the system itself was ineffective much of the time. After all, people without political power represented a huge majority of the cases it ran on. Public Defenders saw our clients ground beneath the wheels of the system while we tried to save and defend them as best we could. After a few years of this, we usually listened to our mothers who told us not to be public defenders because “you’ll get tired of dealing with those people.” My mother was indeed correct. I did get sick of “those people.”
However, it was judges, for the most part that, I grew sick and tired of. They had a chance to pursue justice, to keep police power in check and to treat people fairly. They had six figure salaries and no real fear of losing their jobs. They had contests to see who could get done with court the quickest, like boys racing on their bikes. They didn’t care that the “Minority and Justice Task Force” found that our county’s court system treated Blacks and Hispanics worse than white ones or that our city seemed only one incident away from a race riot. Judges had money, power and personal friendship with the “tough on crime,” Republican governor who gave them their jobs. Why would they care about politically powerless, poor clients paraded before them? Taking your frustrations out on criminal defendants was both politically savvy and convenient. The papers and the voters would leave you alone if you appeared “tough on crime” and while you saw the problems with the system itself, there was always a pock-Mikeed, poor defendant before you who had broken some law, even if it was only driving to work on a suspended driver’s license. Better to focus on and punish this person’s problem- which seemed simple from your suburban, melodramatic, “let them eat cake” perspective- than to focus on the complex issues that plagued the system itself.
Judges had to know that the system was not working and that it was infallible. Most police officers wouldn’t lie, but the ones who did lie were often not even creative about it. They knew the judge would believe them over my clients, even if I caught them in a blatant lie. The judge would slide me a sly smile, find my client guilty and hand out sentence that typically carried a “trial tax,” which was a commonly-understood penalty for having a time-consuming trial instead of an efficient plea of guilty. The message to my clients- and to the police officers- was obvious. My clients learned that trials before judges were “slow guilty pleas” with harsher punishments than fast ones. Police officers, who often referred to giving sworn testimony as “testi-lying,” learned what they had to say to get a conviction and that the judge would believe anything they said, no matter how bad any cross examination made them look. “Next,” the judge would say, and they would have the last laugh as the defendant was led away in cuffs, by another uniformed, unionized officer.
Judges had to know that some officers were willing to lie to get a conviction. Judges also knew that police officers were paid four hours of overtime pay for each court appearance they made. This gave officers an incentive to arrest people for minor charges. They could then come to court, watch the judge take quick, efficient, guilty plea, and then go home, laughing all the way as they drove past the bank. Police officers made a lot of boat payments by working “court overtime,” which meant coming to court for minutes and then taking advantage of the union contract which guaranteed four hours of overtime pay. What a deal. Who could blame them for taking advantage of it?
However, when judges saw the same small group of police officers that I saw every day in court- who typically added 50% to their salaries through court overtime- they had to know how suspect the credibility of these offices was. Judges knew the game that was being played, knew that the officers were more interested in making boat payments than in protecting society, but they usually went “along for the ride.” Better to not stick your neck out for justice. Somebody- like the powerful police union or the “if it bleeds, it leads” press of this Republican dominated city might cut it off. Focus on efficiency, not effectiveness. Let the Public Defenders and the other defense attorneys rant about that. If they say too much, take it out on their clients. They’ll get the message soon and “go along for the ride,” just like you learned.
- - -
When I looked into Enrique’s eyes, I saw fear of going to jail and of being sent home to his family without the money he went away to bring back. I was frustrated by the system, but I had to try to make it work for him. I couldn’t use him to fight my own political battles or to make my points. As frustrated as I was with the system, Enrique was stuck in it, at least momentarily. I was too. Like the song says, “despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.” I didn’t have boat payments to make and I didn’t get paid overtime. My suit was nice, a designer label. I bought it at the Salvation Army, but it was nice enough that nobody knew but me. I had essentially nothing, but I also had nothing to lose. As much as a I wanted to tear the system down, I also knew how it worked, and how to minimize the damage it did to my clients. Enrique was unique, a client who broke the law but did it only in the name of feeding his kids. His crime wasn’t taking something from someone else or hurting someone else, but in having documents with a fake name on them, so that he could go to work. He was technically a criminal, but he was only trying to feed his family. I couldn’t let the bureaucracy crush him beneath its wheels and then throw him back to where he came from. I was frustrated with the system I was stuck in, but he gave me something to fight for.
I told Enrique what I though would happen. I would set up a “cancel capias” hearing to get rid of the warrant that was now telling the police to arrest him. At that hearing, I assumed that the prosecutor would be too afraid to cut Enrique a decent “deal” since I knew that prosecutors were often disciplined by their boss for giving out good “deals” without good reasons. I assumed that I would have to push Enrique’s case to the brink of a jury trial, to get the prosecutor to give us the deal that would save Enrique from any possibility of deportation: dismiss the charge that carried a year in jail and have him plead to the lesser one- the one that could not get him deported- for a small fine.
I probably sound like a bad lawyer for considering a deal like this without first looking at the police report. I was religious about never pleading my clients guilty without thoroughly reviewing the police report. Doing so was not only malpractice, it was also sloppy and hackish, the kind of thing sleazy ambulance chasers did. While I would later review the report before I did anything with Enrique’s case, I also wouldn’t “play with fire.” If I had a chance to secure a plea bargain which dismissed Enrique’s deportable charge for a plea to the other one and an almost guaranteed fine, I would pounce on it. I knew the system was infallible and the stakes were too high for Enrique to demand a trial on the serious charge, when the wrong verdict would send him home, penniless, to those two babies. I clung to principles, but I was more worried about practicalities, especially when deportation was a possibility.
I said goodbye to Enrique at 12:30 p.m. and told him I would meet him in courtroom 28 in one hour to cancel his warrant. I knew this wouldn’t be a problem because while the judge in that courtroom was harsh for sentencing, and rarely followed plea agreements, I knew he would see the letter in the court file, stamped “return to sender” and know that Enrique had not been given proper notice of his hearing. This judge’s strict adherence to rules, his 1950’s belief system in radically-different reality- would work to Enrique’s advantage. We would never see this judge again, for trial or a plea (the sentence he might give Enrique was not worth the risk) but he wold give us what he wanted today: a chance to go home without a warrant and the ability to fight these charges another day.
But the courtroom was full, and the judge closed it to all new requests, like the one I turned in for Enrique. I had to go with “plan B.” My favorite judge was in another courtroom. I knew he was busy, that a trial had run into his lunch hour, but Enrique’s fate was worth going out on a limb for. I approached the judge, asked him if he would sign a form allowing Enrique to come before him, and saw the look that said, “you ought to know better than to ask for this today” as the judge reluctantly signed it. I found Enrique in courtroom 28, counted Spanish on my fingers to tell him “viente siete”, or 27, as he followed me into the new courtroom.
Enrique’s fate had now changed. I now had him before an extremely busy judge (who might be in a bad mood) but he was before a judge who would listen to me, whom I trusted with his fate. I now had the chance to send Enrique to his home in Omaha with a small fine and no chance that he would be forcibly returned to his real home in El Salvador. The chances were still slim that I could convince a prosecutor to give me what I wanted and what Enrique needed, since the timing wasn’t right for Enrique to be making any demands. I assumed we would have to use Enrique’s right to a jury trial, and the “inefficient use of time” that such a trial represented to the prosecutor’s office, to get what we wanted.
But I was wrong. The prosecutor who picked up the paperwork representing their case against Enrique was a good friend. She had dreams of escaping the office and was working on her Ph.D in English literature in her spare time. She was reasonable, fair, hard-working and smart. She knew how to separate the real criminals from the ones who were simply brought into court because they drove to work on a suspended driver’s license in the wrong part of the city. She was constantly in trouble with her boss for these things. He was a politician who tested the political winds every time he got up out of his chair. She was a prosecutor who judged case not by the political power of the victims but by the relative blameworthiness of the defendant, and whether a case was worth her time to pursue.
I asked her for the paperwork and reviewed the police report. It told me Enrique had been seen “prowling” in the day time near a high school under construction, very near my home, and that he was stopped for running a stop sign. Enrique told me earlier that he had been sent to a job site in an area of town he’d never been to before. He said he saw the construction and drove by it, looking for the man who, earlier that day, had given Enrique an address and had promised to pay him cash for his labor. The officer, after stopping Enrique, looked at his driver’s license. Everything was in order. The officer had then asked both men to exit the vehicle and searched it. Underneath the seat, he found a fake driver’s license, with Enrique’s picture on it, as well as a fake birth certificate. Enrique told me earlier that, desperate for work and for food, he bought these documents from a man. “The thing was,” Enrique told me through the translator, “I didn’t ever use them because I found work in my real name shortly after that.”
I had known there was a lot worth fighting for in Enrique’s case. Now I knew there were a lot of things I could fight against. The stop of Enrique’s car seemed suspicious. After all, the officer had gotten a call that Enrique was “acting suspicious.” How convenient that, upon contact, the suspect vehicle ran a stop sign. Enrique told me earlier that he met the officer at a four-way stop, and that the officer waved him through, before turning and stopping his car just up the street. Enrique would be a convincing witness, who would come off, as I had seen him, as an honest working man. I could file a motion to suppress the stop of Enrique’s car. Winning it would be difficult, since it would be the officer’s word against Enrique’s, but it might be worth a shot.
While winning a motion to suppress the stop of Enrique’s car would be difficult, winning one to suppress the search of the car seemed probable. Enrique’s car had been searched because he ran a stop sign, a charge that didn’t exactly give rise to the reasonable belief that the car contained bad things. I knew the only way the officer could justify this search was by telling the judge he was suspicious of Enrique because of what the radio dispatcher told him, that someone had reported Enrique as “acting suspiciously.” While the officer could act on such a tip, the prosecutors would have to find the original caller and bring him or her to court to justify this stop, assuming that the officer didn’t see enough, on his own, to justify the search. I knew this was the law in Nebraska, but also knew few prosecutors and only half the judges knew this. Like always, I would probably have to file an appeal to get the judge to follow the law.
As I reviewed Enrique’s police report, I considered these tactics for winning his case. But I had long ago, worn down by too many cases and too many bad judges, realized that winning in these courtrooms was not getting the judge to follow the law to your client’s benefit. In Douglas County, winning was getting what you wanted. While the “bad” stop and “bad” search issues I spotted in Enrique’s case were significant, and could be used like clubs if necessary, they were also useful tools to get the prosecutor to give us what we wanted now: to let Enrique go back to work without having to worry about catching the I.N.S. bus home.
I was prepared to explain these issues to the prosecutor, to tell her that I could make this case last a long time and probably even win it unless she worked with me and Enrique. While I got along with this prosecutor and she saw me a friend, she also knew that I could be a pain in the ass, when necessary.
But I didn’t need to be one. She was extremely busy and in a particularly good mood. Her bosses had been “off her back” lately because turnover in their office had forced them to leave their offices, where they normally stayed, and to make rare appearances in the courtrooms. Forced to walk in the her shoes, they were more forgiving of her perceived leniency. The time was right, she undoubtedly knew, for her to get rid of minor cases like Enrique’s, where real culpability was hard to find.
I started rambling on about Enrique, how much I liked him and how I could fight back. She gave me the “shut up” look. “Tell me what you want, Dave,” she said.
“Plead to the “possession of false documents. Dismiss the “false reporting. Small fine?” I asked. I knew this judge would follow the prosecutor’s recommendation and that this plea offer would mean no possible deportation.
“Okay,” she said, as she called out Enrique’s name. I didn’t even have a chance to explain this to Enrique, but I didn’t mind acting fast and accommodating this prosecutor who had given us what we came for.
Enrique looked at me wide-eyed as the judge called the case and the translator quickly tried to put this efficient-looking process into a language he understood. He looked in to my eyes, questioning silently, when the judge asked him how he pleaded. I nodded and he said the same thing almost all my clients said after a similar nod. “Guilty,” the translator told the judge.
Enrique still looked at me, questioning and worried. After all, just over an hour ago, I told him that being found guilty meant possible deportation. He trusted me, but he was understandably worried about what he had just done. I wished I would have had time to talk to Enrique, to explain what was going on. I knew, though, that this would end well and that my client’s were rewarded when I kept the system flowing in an efficient manner. I didn’t look like an effective advocate, standing beside a confused foreigner, nodding him into a guilty plea he didn’t understand. I knew, though, that he would be floored by the news, when I explained it afterwards in the hallway.
After the judge said he found Enrique guilty of the lesser charge, he asked me if I had anything to say for sentencing purposes. I knew I didn’t have to convince the judge to go along with the recommendation of a fine, but I also knew that saying the right thing might mean Enrique paid $25 instead of $250. I knew the difference would be tremendous for Enrique. After all, $225 bought a lot of food and clothes in El Salvador. That’s why he set out for America in the first place.
I kept it short, since the judge would appreciate this and since a few facts would do it. “Judge, he’s a working man. He did something I don’t know if I could do. He kissed two little babies, and one wife goodbye in El Salvador, found his way here and looked for a job, to take care of those two little babies. He got some fake documents in case he couldn’t find work, but he didn’t even need them. They found them under the seat of the car, after he showed them his real, valid driver’s license. He was just trying to work.”
I knew the judge was a grandfather, that, like Enrique, he was willing to work hard for his family. I just pointed out things that this Italian, seventy-year old ex-cop had in common with my El Salvadoran, twenty-five year old client, in an efficient manner.
“I order you to pay a fine of $25,” the judge said, giving me a slight smile.
Enrique and I moved to toward the bailiff, where he would be given a slip of paper reminding him to pay $25 plus the $41.50 in court costs by the date written on the bottom of the paper. He looked stunned. I knew the interpreter had other cases to get to, but I had to make sure he understood what else we accomplished.
“Can you tell him there’s no way he’s going to be deported for this, too?” I asked the interpreter. She was originally from Mexico and it seemed like she became more than just a translator when she told Enrique what I asked her to say. Her job normally required her to translate words verbatim, without putting feeling behind them. But she smiled along with me as she repeated my words to Enrique. Enrique looked even more stunned, as if he didn’t know what to do or where to go. I called him out in the hallway, where I normally “translated’ for my English-speaking clients, what the judge had just done to them and what this meant for them in the future.
I spoke a little Spanish, just enough to get me in trouble, but I was pretty sure I could explain Enrique’s fate to him, at least the fate that faced him today. “Viente cinco,” I said. (“Viente” was fresh in my mind from having to tell Enrique what courtroom to be in, and I counted to five, silently in Spanish, on my fingers before I told him.
“Viente cinco y forty one fifty,” I said, writing it on a file folder. I forgot how to say forty and didn’t want to confuse him in bad Spanish, when numbers worked almost universally.
“Viente cinco dolares y quarenta uno dolares y cienta centados?” Enrique asked, pointing at the numbers I had written. Then his face tightened, as if disbelief. “Es todo?” He asked.
“Es todo!” I told him, remembering this obvious phrase from Spanish class eight years ago. I remembered another easy one I knew he’d understand. “No mas!” I acted this one out, using another universal symbol. I spread my arms to make the “safe” sign an umpire uses.
Enrique then did something that made me sad- not towards him but towards the country I was born in and called home. He reached in his pocket and took out his wallet, speaking to me in English for the first time. I still didn’t think he spoke anymore English than I spoke Spanish. He just thought the universal language in America was money. Perhaps he was right. After all, he’d paid cash for the bus ticket across his country, probably paid the “coyotes’ in cash to smuggle him across the border. The construction bosses who hired him off the same street corner every morning covered their tracks and helped their own companies’ bottom lines, but paying Enrique in cash. Enrique was simply doing what he thought the golden rule in America was: money talks.
I could have used it, but defending Enrique had made me feel rich. I complained about student loans and low public defender salaries, but I kissed my own kids goodnight every day of the week. I held up my hands for stop, like a traffic cop does, and shook my head from side to side, using two more universal symbols that rarely need translation.
I walked away, saying “gracias” and “no problem” as Enrique still stood there in shock, his wallet in his hand. “Send that money home, to those babies!” I said.
I don’t know if he understood me. Something told he did. Fittingly, it’s Father’s Day as I write this story. My own babies are calling me upstairs as I type in the basement. They made homemade cards. After reliving what happened to Enrique this morning and considering what the many governmental bureaucracies might have done to him, I feel very rich and very lucky.
My children understand that I have to leave them every day, to get money for the house an dth food. But kids typically understand this only when you explain it using physical objects. If you don’t show them what rewards work give s them, it seems absurd to them.
What must Enrique’s children think this father’s day? They haven’t seen him in months, maybe even years, but, like me, he goes to work for them every day that the man shows up at the street corner he’s learned to stand on. Do his kids understand that sacrifice, when they open up the envelopes he sends them, twice a month? Is he having a happy father’s day, like I am, or do they think of their dad as only the letters on the page, the way children focus on what’s before them in deciding what is important.
Will they understand that Enrique’s absence- from their bedsides every night and for years of their lives- is for them? Will these babies ever realize that what Enrique did is what all fathers probably aspire to but that few carry out?
Happy father’s day, Enrique. Maybe someday your children will understand what you went through, when they have children of their own.


Michael said...

Great story, I am glad I read this.

Anonymous said...

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Melanie Williams-Smotherman said...

You should have this edited and published more widely (not that the Internet doesn't have a wide scope, but it should be offered to a specialized publication that has a large readership).

Few attorneys or "insiders" would have the courage to write about the underbelly of the system. Far fewer would personally find within themselves the ethics and value in the perspective you bring to your story.

As a committed and blunt family advocate working to bring attention to these layers of dysfunction (as they pertain to the child welfare and juvenile justice systems), I greatly appreciate your personal perspective and your willingness to share your experiences and analysis of what you see every day.

I note that this blog was written a few years ago. I wonder if you have maintained this level of integrity and clarity of conviction in your professional capacity over the years since? I understand how this machine can chew you up, melt you down, reprocess and shape and fabricate in an attempt to make everyone fit into the same round holes.

But I surely hope you have continued to fight back against this. I hope you can still find those times when you know you are doing the right thing, even though it goes against the grain and comes with great sacrifice to your own career.

It's not easy. It's often quite brutal. I know this, because in my own daily work I'm not well-liked (perhaps it's more accurate to say I'm despised) by many of the very people within the system whom you expose in this essay.

But like you, I also feel I have a responsibility to do whatever I can. If there aren't some of us willing to live and work with integrity, what hope is there?