Friday, March 28, 2008


I was assigned to Julia’s case in February, when I was sick of the long, dead winter and ready for the renewal of Spring. I was sick of people with problems, people without jobs, people who had responsibilities but no real responsibility. I was sick of trying to help people who didn’t seem to want to help themselves. My attitude was sinking and I was starting to see my clients not as individual human beings but as almost a different species than me, the way the worst judges see them. I was sick of people not showing up for court, of seeing babies gathered in the courtroom to catch a glimpse of their mommies in orange jail jumpsuits, of judges who yelled at me for doing the job they appointed me to do. I was reminded of a Nietzsche quote from college: “when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” The optimism that brought me to the public defender’s office was slowly wearing away as I dealt with too many cases, too many problems to solve and not enough hours in the day.
When I read the police report detailing the government’s case against Julia, my heart sank even lower. Julia was charged with stealing a rather odd combination of beer and toys from a convenience stores. Her two small children were with her and she had reportedly allowed each of them to pick out an item before attempting to steal it for them, along with a quart of beer for herself. Since her children were along, Julia was charged, quite understandably, with both theft and two counts of child neglect. To make matters worse, she missed her initial court date almost a year ago, resulting in a charge of failing to appear in court being added. I was surprised that a judge had not set a high bond on her when she turned herself in after being absent for almost a year. Instead, the judge ordered Julia to appear for trial and appointed the public defender.
After reading the police report, I pictured Julia as a terrible mother who spends her food stamp money on twinkies, sucks down a twelve pack and then drags her kids along to the store so she can maintain her buzz and not have to waste beer money on a sitter. I also pictured Julia as being dumber than dirt. The report stated that she “tried to conceal the beer on her person” and I thought of a grown woman with two kids in tow trying to hide a large, heavy twelve pack up her shirt. She would have been better off wearing a sign that said “shoplifter.” How could a person be senseless enough to shoplift a twelve pack of beer and who would be heartless enough to do it with children?
But then I met the Julia. I was stunned when I called out her name and the woman with the tattoos and the greasy hair sat silently while the nicely-dressed woman stood up and smiled sheepishly. She was about forty and had obviously made quite a few changes in the year that had passed since she received these shoplifting / child neglect charges. Julia looked like a typical mom. Her clothes were nice but conservative, as if she might work as a secretary or a dental hygienist. Behind her, as she walked in, trailed an adorable dark-haired girl of about four. I asked Julia her name and she told me Bianca was five and would start kindergarten next Fall. Bianca looked like a typical, well-adjusted kid and not like a child whose mom modeled shoplifting. I noticed the way Julia stopped patiently to wait for Bianca as we wound through the corridors to my office and noted that Julia seemed patient and caring, unlike the lady I’d read about in the police reports.
I saw my clients cry almost on a daily basis, even the “tough guys,” so I was used to seeing tears and hearing cries of regret, frustration or perceived injustice. Usually I pushed a box of Kleenex toward them and kept on talking. I didn’t mean to be insensitive, but we both had work to do and tears were not going to wash criminal charges or potential jail sentences away. In fact, like me, most judges were used to tears and would be more impressed with emotional control and action, than with raw emotion and words.
But, once again, Julia was different than most of my clients, just as she seemed different than the woman I read about in the police reports. When I read the report aloud, Julia cried steadily. Her tears seemed more genuine than most, however, as if she was hearing about this for the first time, as if she were a good mother being told about her normally good daughter’s bad behavior, for the first time. Unlike a lot of my clients, who didn’t seem bothered about having their children sit beside them as I told them about possible jail time and they told me about getting caught stealing, Julia did not want Bianca in the room while we discussed her case. She sent Bianca into the hallway outside my office, with a pen and paper to draw on, seemingly so Bianca didn’t have to be reminded of the bad things mommy did last last year.
Julia was not much help to me as I prepared her cases, though, because her memories of those two days were clouded by the amount vodka she had consumed. She vaguely remembered sticking a quart of Coors light down the front of her pants, but, as I read the report, she looked as if she were hearing that what seemed like only a bad dream was real.
As she told me about that day, Julia cried, but composed herself quickly. She seemed embarrassed to have to tell me about this but seemed to have learned how to talk about tough things, deal with them and move forward. As I suspected from some of the clichés she uttered, (such as “one day at a time” or “that old stinkin’ thinkin’”) Julia spent the last year going through an outpatient alcohol treatment program and was now living in a “half-way house” where she was learning to deal with life without alcohol. She maintained sobriety for eight months, found a “sponsor” through Alcoholics Anonymous that she talked to every day, and her kids had recently returned to live with her.
Julia told me she went through a tough divorce two years ago and had taken her first drink just four years ago. I silently wondered if the alcoholism had been the cause of this break up or if the booze became a refuge that Julia retreated into as things in her life fell apart. She told me her ex-husband was still a good friend and that he watched the children during the months she spent in treatment. Recently, Julia moved into an apartment with a big backyard for the kids and she was now ready to start looking for a job.
But true recovery means making amends for mistakes in your past and as Julia became stable enough to start applying for jobs, she knew it was time to take care of the theft case from last year that turned now into an active arrest warrant when she missed court. She realized that some jobs would conduct background checks before they hired her, so she turned herself in at the police station, spent several hours in jail and had been lucky enough to draw a judge who released her without requiring a bond to be posted.
Luck, as well as her clean and sober appearance, kept Julia out of jail thus far, but I knew I would need more luck to keep her out of jail in the future. She told me she wanted the child neglect charges dropped so that she could find a good job in the health care field, but I knew that avoiding both jail and child neglect convictions might be too much to ask. I told her I would try but that I couldn’t promise her anything more than that. I had long ago learned to avoid promises about certain punishments since it was the judge who ultimately decided what the punishment would be upon conviction. I tried to have influence over judges and jurors, but I had little real power. No matter how persuasive I was, the judge or the jury could always convict my clients and no matter how sad a story I told about what the appropriate sentence should be, the judge could always roll her eyes and give my client the maximum. I didn’t tell Julia this, though. I just told her I didn’t’ want to “jinx” her by telling her what I thought would happen. I told her I could give her a much better idea once I spoke with the prosecutor, but I reminded her, like I reminded all my clients, that it was always the judge who decided what the punishment would be. I felt good about Julia’s chances, however. I knew the judges would, like me, be shocked at what they read about in the police report, but pleasantly surprised at the contrast between Julia then and Julia now. I knew when I told the judge that Julia was an alcoholic, not an abuser, most judges would believe me as they looked past my words to the example of sobriety that Julia now set.
As I walked her to the door, Julia looked worried. I was worried too because I knew most prosecutors, and most judges, would understandably be upset about a mother who stole beer with her children in tow. Still, the look of genuine regret and outright addiction in her eyes, and the way she patiently mothered her child, made me want to work hard for her and ensure that the system didn’t inadvertently ruin her run at long-term sobriety and recovery as it punished her for something she did while in the lowest depths of addiction. I knew Julia, at least the Julia I saw today, didn’t belong in jail. I also knew that if I could get the prosecutor and judge to see what I saw, Julia would at least get a chance at probation.
A week later I spoke with a prosecutor about Julia’s case. Most of the time, the number of cases that were assigned to me made it impossible to discuss plea bargains before court. For Julia, though, and for Bianca, I made the time to find a prosecutor whom I thought would sympathize with Julia’s divorce and subsequent descent into small time shoplifting. I told him I knew I was asking for a lot, but that I had a good feeling about Julia and I wanted him to dismiss the child neglect charges in exchange for Julia’s plea of guilty to the theft and failure to appear charges. This prosecutor’s office, like most, was heavily influenced by “headline” issues such as drunk driving and domestic violence, so I knew I was asking this fair-minded prosecutor to risk getting yelled at for risking his boss’ political career by being “too soft.” I told him Julia struck me as both a good mom and a bad alcoholic, that she had not done anything like this before and had cleaned up her act. To my surprise, he agreed with me and offered to dismiss the child neglect charges. I guess he reasoned that having this mom plead guilty to shoplifting, while having the details of the case read aloud in a crowded courtroom, was punishment enough.
I scheduled an early plea hearing and hoped for the best. Julia was lucky once again as the judge, after hearing about her sobriety and treatment, ordered her to pay a fine of $200, plus the court costs. While a fine was always preferable to probation for my clients, since they could get into more legal trouble if they violated the probation terms, I secretly hoped for the judge to place Julia on probation. I knew that while six months sounded like a long time to go without a drink, to an average A.A. member Julia was still in the infancy stage of her sobriety, vulnerable and susceptible to the cunning and baffling disease of alcoholism in the form of a relapse. Julia looked strong, though, as she walked away. I hoped for the best but also hoped to never see her again, unless it was in the mall or someplace where further contact would not indicate further legal trouble and more drinking.
I was wrong. About a month after I said goodbye to Julia, I pulled out my new files and saw her name typed on a brand new file that meant brand new charges. When I looked at the “offense date” I saw that about a week after we said goodbye the last time, Julia received new charges of driving under the influence and striking a fixed object. I copied the police report and read about how Julia almot struck a police cruiser and that ehe officers drove into a fence as the tried to get out of her way. She drove down the street, the report said, and struck a parked car, making it simple for the police officers to jump out of their crashed cruiser and see Julia sprawled out, unconscious, from either the impact or the vodka, across the front seat of her car.
Fortunately for Julia, she was alone in the car and I knew something must have happened to separate the mother and her children again. She looked like such a devoted mom, but she also looked like a problem drunk who had not made anything out of the chance I tried to give her.
Her blood test was .32 milliliters of alcohol per 100 liters of blood, which was exactly four times the legal limit of .08 in Nebraska and most states. I didn’t know whether to yell at Julia or tell her how sorry I was that she seemed to be getting worse. I had long since learn that yelling at an alcoholic who was this far down was about as productive as beating your head against a hard object.
I expected to see Julia at her appointment, but when another public defender asked me if I remembered Julia, I knew things were going badly for her. This public defender worked on behalf of people who were brought before the County Board of Mental Health to determine if they should be involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions because presented a significant danger to themselves or others. In short, because Julia nearly killed herself and others, the state was have her committed to an institution where a psychiatrist would create a treatment plan for her.
When Julia missed her appointment, I wrote her a letter but received no response. Then, about a week before her trial date, Julia left a message asking me to postpone this date so she could successfully complete her stay in a second “half-way house” for recovering addicts and alcoholics. I called her back and she impressed me by first asking about and making sure no one was hurt in the accident she caused. When I told her the details of this arrest, she acted (once again) like she was hearing about these events for the first time, with only a fuzzy memory of what actually happened.
As she wished, I continued or postponed her case and sent her a letter with the new trial date. She made a new appointment with me and kept it this time. After we talked about it, Julia decided to plead no contest before her trial date so that we could guarantee which judge would sentence her. There was not much to contest when a client almost hits a police car, spills vodka all over their vehicle and then tests four times the legal limit, so I knew Julia should cut her losses, find a favorable judge and get back on the road to recovery, where she recently been driving. Luckily Julia maintained insurance on her vehicle, which made the issue of restitution much easier to deal with.
At the early plea hearing, Julia waited in the courtroom beside a man I assumed was her father. I knew her driver’s license was revoked for the drunk driving charge, so I assumed that she asked her dad or another older relative for a ride and for moral support. When I spoke to Julia alone in the hallway, she described this older man as “her ride” but didn’t go into specifics. As we waited for the judge to call Julia’s case, I looked back at Julia several times and noticed the older “ride” placing his arm around her shoulder and holding her to him, forcefully but awkwardly. Julia didn’t resist this, but she looked uncomfortable with it, as if she were being squeezed by an old, perverted uncle. Later, I saw the man proudly reaching around her opposite shoulder and smiling, grasping her the way a hunter holds an animal just before the camera clicks.
I didn’t see anything inappropriate, but any intimacy seemed forced as if someone were taking advantage of someone else and using that person for something more than a just a ride. Julia’s personal life was not my business, but I couldn’t help worrying about whether she was being taken advantage of, or if she had been forced to find someone she could live off of or cling to, as she struggled to stay sober and alive. I wondered how desperate she must have been to enter into such an arrangement. I also wondered if this arrangement would keep her away from the bottle of vodka or if it meant she was still stuck in the cycle of dependency, where a bottle or a perceived lover promise you a beautiful feeling and end up leaving you with nothing but aches, pains, and regrets.
Julia still carried herself like a devoted mother, but she didn’t mention or bring any of her children to court with her. When you looked close, though, she seemed much less stable than the first time we met, as if she were slipping back toward becoming that stranger in the convenience store, with a child on each hand and a quart stuffed down her pants. I remembered Julia telling me that she never finished high school and I wondered what it must be like to be in your late thirties, without even a GED, with three children, no job and a serious drinking problem. It ws easy to judge Julia, but few of us will ever have to deal with these hardships. Whether I chose to believe her hardships were self-inflicted or not, I knew Julia’s lot was harder than anything I had overcome. I hoped there was a way out for her, but the new look of uneasiness in those eyes didn’t leave me much real hope.
Julia was sentenced to probation this time. She was required to stay sober and be tested for this, to keep attending A.A. meetings and to pay a $500 fine. In the hallway, as I directed Julia where to go to get started on probation, her “ride” walked up beside her and put his arm aroundher again, as if to tell me “she’s mine” and to remind her who was in charge. As we said goodbye, I silently predicted that I’d be seeing her again soon. The uneasy look in her eyes and the unhealthy bargain she had apparently struck with an old man mad me suspect the Julia might not be able to comply with the “no alcohol” clause of her probation. It was obvious Julia was not ready to live independently, but perhaps this dependence on a man would help her overcome dependence on a liquid. I certainly hoped it did because I remembered someone telling me that there are three types of institutions for people with drug and alcohol problems: treatment centers, jails, and morgues. Julia had been through one and had come close to going to either of the other two. She seemed like type of alcoholic who would never intentionally hurt anyone but who could easily, but unintentionally, kill or hurt herself or someone else if her alcohol problem was not solved soon.
The grip the old man had on her seemed unnatural. But seeing such a healthy looking mother with such a severe alcohol problem seemed unnatural too. I hoped this strange arrangement allowed Julia to avoid being alone and vulnerable but that it didn’t create even worse problems for her, the way such bargains often do. I hoped I would never see Julia’s name on a file again.
About a year later, I noticed that Julia had been terminated from probation successfully, meaning that she complied with all of its demands. I met about a thousand new clients in the meantime, but I never forgot about Julia or Bianca as I hoped they were doing as well as when we first met. I met so many new clients, though, that I began to forget names and faces, especially those I hadn’t known well or had only met in passing.
One day I was interviewing a new client who was charged with making harassing phone calls to his ex-girlfriend and with violating the protection order she took out against him to get him to leave her alone. The man, who looked like he was in his sixties, told me about meeting a woman through Alcoholics Anonymous and that they struggled to stay sober together and eventually split up. He told me he loved the woman, but that he would leave her alone to avoid further charges and problems. He mentioned that he had also “fallen in love” with the woman’s beautiful six-year old daughter during the course of this relationship. I took notes as he talked to me and wished I had the police report to refer to as we talked, but it hadn’t been delivered yet. He remarked, “Oh yeah, that Bianca, she was a little sweetheart…” I stopped him in mid sentence and his face, that had at first seemed vaguely familiar, suddenly became crystal clear in my memory.
“Is the woman’s name Julia?,” I asked. He nodded and seemed surprised that I would know this. After I told him that I was Julia’s attorney, and had met him the day he brought her to court, he remembered me as well.
Trips down memory lane are always nice, but hearing this man tell me who he was charged with harassing created an ethical dilemma for me. Ethically, I couldn’t legally represent both of them at the same time because this would be a clear conflict of interest that would require the appointment of a lawyer outside of my office for one of them. Morally, I shouldn’t represent him if my past representation of Julia would interfere with my ability to represent his legal interests in the face of domestic violence charges brought by her.
I checked on the computer, saw that Julia had no open cases and concluded that there was no obvious conflict of interest present since Julia’s probation was finished. I knew most judges would laugh at me if I told them they should ask the county to pay hundreds of dollars to a private attorney because I knew the victim well from a case that came to court over a year ago. I knew that they would expect me, as a professional, to put my personal feelings aside and do my job, even if it meant cross-examining a former client who had built up a level of trust with me in the past. I didn’t know what to do, in other words. I didn’t want to be put in a position where I would have to call Julia a liar on cross examination, but I also didn’t want to look unprofessional to the judge either.
The man told me that, like Julia, he had missed court several months ago and had later turned himself in on the warrant “to try to put this matter behind him.” He spent several days in jail before he bonded out, though, and had posted $500 in bail money. As I pondered what to do about this ethical dilemma several days later, I picked up the phone and heard a familiar voice. It was Julia and she asked me to help her ask the judge to expunge the theft charges from her record since she successfully completed probation. I told her it was not that simple, that she should wait a little longer before asking the judge to consider this, and then I told her that I was Terrance’s attorney and that I would be representing him next week at his trial.
Julia was quiet upon hearing this and she told me that “it would be alright.” Her tones didn’t’ mirror her words, though, and I sensed some hesitation, as if she was not excited about seeing someone who had fought for her suddenly have to fight with her in court. I wanted to tell her that it would be alright too but I didn’t. As much as I wanted to speak the truth to her, I had other things to think about. I knew that old lovers, such as these two, often speak notwithstanding protection orders, and I also know that my words to Julia could be used by her as a weapon. I could see her saying, “Oh yeah, well your lawyer likes me and he told me that he wouldn’t yell at me in court.” I knew that if Terrance were convicted, and it looked like he might be, he could easily complain to the Bar Association about me and blame his conviction on my past history with Julia.
I decided to wait until the trial date and then raise any questions to the judge, so that the record would be clear and the judge could make the call, if necessary, about whether I could represent Terrance adequately.
Julia looked at me as I walked into the courtroom, but I couldn’t greet her as I had before. I knew my client was trusting me to represent him and that seeing me hug “the victim” wouldn’t look real good to him and wouldn’t look real good to the counsel for discipline if Terrance were ever to call them about me.
Julia had always been a little lucky in court and luckily this man’s case worked out so that everyone walked away relatively happy. Terrance pleaded guilty to violation of a protection order, and the judge followed the prosecutor’s recommended sentence of two days in jail with credit for the two days he already served. Because of the conviction, a second violation of the protection order would carry much stiffer penalties, so Terrance also had a strong incentive to leave Julia alone.
Julia seemed happy and healthy when I spoke with her in the hallway. After the case was over, I felt more comfortable talking with her and asking her about how her life was going. She seemed as healthy as the day we first met and I remembered having secretly wished that she would get away from this man as she got further into her recovery. My wish came true for Julia, but I ended up playing a strange role in this drama, that of defender of the man I wanted to see her leave.
Yet, when I spoke with Julia in the hallway, she looked at me a little cautiously, as I were not on her side anymore and couldn’t be trusted as much. I felt a little like a “hired gun” who works for whichever side is paying more, except I wasn’t getting paid enough to even afford to make my student loan payments.
As Julia walked away from me, I decided to be happy about the way she looked cautiously at me instead of trustingly, as she had before. Even though it hurt to have a client you truly care about watch you defend someone they had grown to hate, I decided that this look of caution meant that Julia was doing much better. After all, if she learned to be cautious and more self-reliant, maybe it meant she was becoming a survivor who could live independently of both public defenders and booze.
She was one of my favorite clients, one of the success stories I remembered when I read sad stories in the newspaper about clients being found dead or being caught on videotape, robbing banks. She didn’t trust me as much anymore and didn’t look at me the same way, but at least there were no more files with her name on them showing up in my “in” box. As a public defender you learn quickly to “take the bitter with the better.” Even though I lost her trust, I got my wish and so did she.

I felt good about getting to know Julie and about helping play a small part in helping her get back to being a sober person and a successful mother. Julia’s was a case that I held up, in my mind, as something to shoot for in all cases. When I saw too much failure, too much of the effects of poverty, of addiction, or stupidity, I picked up my own spirits by thinking of Julia and the difference between the way she looked when I first met her and when I last said goodbye to her.

Then one day, in the hallway outside my office, another lawyer in our office said something that made me cringe and not really want to hear what followed. “Guess where I saw Julia last night?,” Jenny said. Jenny represented Julia in her child neglect case in juvenile court and had gotten to know her as well if not better than I had.
It was College World Series time in Omaha when Jenny said this, and I knew a lot of people were out in the bars, watching the games and soaking up the playful atmosphere. “Do I really want to know?,” I asked, seeing the look of disappointment on Jenny’s face.
“Probably not,” Jenny said, “but I saw her at Pauli’s, with a beer in her hand. She wouldn’t look at me.”

A couple weeks later I saw Julia in the elevator. She looked almost as good as she had the last time I saw her, when her life was seemingly together. I had heard that hardcore alcoholics like Julia “cycled” back quickly into the worst conditions of their disease when they went back to drinking, but didn’t see this on Julia’s face. Still, there was something in her smile and the way she said hello that seemed not quite real, unlike the last time we met.

I don’t know what happened to Julia. I half expected to keep seeing her in court or to hear from her on the phone, thinking that she’d probably become more and more desperate. But I didn’t hear a thing.

It wouldn’t surprise me if she fell hard, back into the darkest days of her drinking. But the fact that I never heard from her again made me think that, maybe, she overcame her problems and turned what addicts call a “reuse” into a mere “relapse,” or a bump in the road to recovery. She surprised me before. Hopefully she could do it again.

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