Friday, March 28, 2008


Loretta stood out amongst the crowd when I saw her in the waiting room of the Public Defender’s Office. She was a tall, slender, African-American woman with perfectly straight, long, blond hair that stretched down below her shoulders. She was well-dressed and sat with her legs crossed on the bench in our waiting room, looking more like an applicant to the Public Defenders office than a client. The way her blond bangs hung perfectly on her forehead, the way she glanced out of the corners of her eyes, and the way she sat on the edge of her seat, made her look like a beautiful woman who had just changed her appearance, as if she was running from the law or an ex-boyfriend. She stood up hesitantly when I called out her name and when I extended my hand to her, she winced, as if she didn’t want to reach out and touch it. When she did, she let go quickly, as if I’d held out a used Kleenex.
While I wasn’t used to having people look at me as if I was dirty, I empathized with this feeling. It always seemed like the dirtier my clients appeared, or the more often they wiped their noses on their hands when they talked to me, the more likely it was that they would extend their hands to me when our interviews were over. I went through a lot of hand sanitizer, but I couldn’t bring myself to not take someone’s hand when they offered it, no matter how dirty it looked. Leaving them “hanging” seemed like the ultimate in disrespect.
Loretta followed me back to my office and sat, perfectly straight, on the chair with her hands folded neatly across her lap. She was about thirty years old, was very pretty, and was facing a second offense drunk driving charge. Her eyes darted cautiously several times, as if she were scanning the room for danger, the way a frightened animal would. I asked her some background questions, noticed that she was currently on probation for her first offense drunk driving charge and remarked that she had been arrested, both times, by the same, notoriously dishonest police officer. I said something like “I see you met up with Officer Balder a couple times. That’s some bad luck.”
“He remembered me from the first time, when he pulled up in front of my house, and he knew I was afraid of germs, that I didn’t like to be touched,” she said. I asked her what she meant by this, scanning the police report while she talked. Officer Balder had written “phobia of germs” under the comment section of the drunk driving form, and Loretta told me she had “something called Trichotillomania.” I asked her to repeat it and I mouthed the word quietly to myself, trying to think of where I had heard that word before. She said, “It’s where you pull your hair out,” as she squirmed in her chair slightly, embarrassed. When she said this, I remembered reading about this condition in a book I had been reading at home called “The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing” which described the lives of people who suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. I found the book and the subject fascinating and remembered that people with Trichotillomania obsessively pulled their own hair, eyebrows, or even eyelashes out.
As soon as I remembered what “Trich” was, I looked at Loretta’s face and studied her eyebrows. They looked perfectly normal, but I wondered if what I now knew was a blond wig was perhaps covering a bald head. This wasn’t any of my business of course, but suddenly Loretta became a curiosity to me. While I wanted to help her as her lawyer, I was also like a bystander at an accident or a patron at a sideshow. As a professional, I should have been concerned, but as a human being, my curiosity was piqued and I didn’t turn away. I was now intrigued about Loretta’s affliction, just as I had been fascinated with the latest book I picked up at the library. She was now “interesting” to me as a living example of a strange, mental disease that I had been reading about only in books.
As she told me about her case and her condition, I told her I knew about OCD, that I had been reading about it, and that I thought it was something she couldn’t control on her own, no matter how she tried. I told her I thought it was controllable with medication, but that she was “playing with fire” if she was not taking medication for it. I told her I saw a lot of people who had mental health problems and who then developed drug and alcohol problems, as they tried “self-medicate” their mental problems away. I didn’t tell her this, but experience told me that eventually these people’s psychological and substance abuse problems led to behavior that created legal problems. The legal problems, and the possibility of jail time, brought them to see me, but it was the mental health issues that were the real problem. The problem for clients like Loretta was that truly helping them meant a three-step process. First, I had to minimize the punishment they faced for their legal problems. Second, I had to make substance abuse treatment available to them so they didn’t get into more legal trouble. Third, I had to point them in the direction of mental health treatment so that they truly worked on the “root’ of the problem that brought them to see me. As if this wasn’t enough, the biggest problem these poor people faced was the possibility of drawing an uninformed judge who misunderstood mental illness and punished mentally ill people the same way they punished thugs or thieves.
We talked about Loretta’s life, how her struggles with Trichotillomania and O.C.D. led to her leaving her job, how her husband had been unfaithful to her and filed for divorce, and how she now stayed at home most of the time with her three children. When I asked her if she’d ever seen a psychiatrist or a doctor about getting on medication for her condition, she told me she had been on Paxil for awhile but didn’t like the side effects and eventually quit taking it. Part of me wanted to say that the side affect of not being on medication was being forced to come see me and talk about the possibility of going to jail. I held my tongue, though, and Loretta told me that she began pulling her hair when she was a child but that she had not seen a doctor until the last few years. She said she asked her mom about this and wanted to know why her parents hadn’t found someone to help her. Her mom said, “black people don’t go to the doctors” and “we just thought you were a little different.”
She went on to tell me that recently she had driven with her husband to a nearby city to attend a support group for people with O.C.D. While the topic was right for Loretta, the age group was not. The only group she could find was specifically for children with O.C.D. and Loretta soon became the unofficial guest speaker. Many parents questioned her, wanting to know what to expect from their children in the future. Many children wanted to talk to a grown up who had the same mental glitch that they fought with. She said her husband kept saying, “Let’s go!” until she finally walked away in the middle of the meeting. She went there for help but left feeling even more helpless, as no one told her anything new but only questioned her. Worst of all, her husband seemed to lose all hope and what had felt at first like a new beginning became another dead end.
Loretta told me about her case, how her aunt came to visit and parked in front of her house facing the wrong way. Loretta said she got in the car to move it and would have driven it around the block so it would be facing the right way. Before she drove even thirty feet, though, Officer Balder pulled in behind her, turned on his lights and eventually arrested her for her a second offense D.U.I. As Loretta told me this story, I noticed that the intoxilizer test that was performed on her breath registered a .276, which is more than three times the legal limit of .08 in Nebraska. The high test made me take her explanation with a gallon of salt since I knew it was unlikely that a person who was that drunk would remember things clearly or remember anything at all. Maybe she was telling the truth or maybe she was too drunk to remember what it was.
Loretta needed some serious help. She was charged with violating her “drunk driving” probation that a judge sentenced her to begin six months ago. She was also charged with getting a new drunk driving charge, one that carried mandatory jail time, in the middle of her probation term. This level of “trouble” was routine and not shocking to me. I saw it every day and was used to it. What worried me about Loretta, and what made her case different, was that putting her in jail would not only be devastating to her and her children, it would be counterproductive. While a lot of my clients learned a valuable lesson when their stupid decisions sent them to jail, Loretta was truly sick and afflicted. While many clients claimed this status, few really deserved to be described this way. She was one of the few.
A few years ago she was married, was working a good job and had three beautiful children living at home. Now she was unemployed, separated from her husband, looking at going to jail and suffering from a mental illness few people had ever even heard of. She was stuck in a court system that labeled all law violators as needing punishment when what she really needed was medication and mental health treatment. She was talking to a public defender who was curious about O.C.D. and trichotillomania but who was no expert. She had been dealt some bad cards in life, and she needed a lawyer who could play her remaining cards carefully, to minimize her punishment and maximize her access to mental health treatment. The odds didn’t look good.
I had the option of filing a “motion to determine competency” with the court which officially tells the judge that I believe serious mental health issues are involved in a case. In theory, I probably should have done this, but there is an immense difference between good theory and good practice. I didn’t file this motion because I knew it would hurt Loretta immensely. She would be brought before the Board of Mental Health, would be found to have been a danger to herself and would likely have been institutionalized and forcibly medicated. I knew from talking to co-workers that such a step was not to be taken lightly and that it was not pleasant to witness. There might come a day when I saw that Loretta reached the point where this had to be done, but I wanted to try less drastic methods first. It went against my instincts to “rat’ on my clients to a judge who would be quick to “get rid of them” by sending them to the Regional Center to be evaluated for their mental competency. My role was to minimize what the judge did to my client, not to aid and abet a harsh outcome.
Loretta talked for almost an hour. She “opened up” about her case and her life, relieved to have found someone who knew a little bit about what she was going through. I searched the internet, and found a support group for O.C.D. in West Omaha that met once a month and that was meant for people of all ages. She said she might go, but I wondered how she would get there since her driver’s license was revoked and her husband long gone. It was a ray of hope for her, though, and she seemed genuinely thankful. I told her about an organization that I worked with frequently whose mission was to help poor people who suffered from mental illnesses. I told her that getting an evaluation from this facility might not only help her, it might also keep her out of jail. While Loretta waited, I called a psychiatrist and was given the names of three other psychiatrists whom he recommended as being knowledgeable about O.C.D. and also accepting patients who paid with Medicaid.
Loretta was excited about getting this new information and left with a smile on her face. I felt hopeful for her too, but I didn’t want to get too emotionally involved or get my hopes up too high. It wasn’t that I didn’t want the best for truly needy, obviously mentally ill clients like Loretta. I had simply watched too many fall down hard to be hopeful about any making it out of the court system safely. I hoped for a happy ending, but her problems were so multi-layered and severe that chaos was the more likely outcome. I already cared about her deeply, but also didn’t want to get too attached knowing that success in my job was like success in hitting a baseball. On a good day, if one out of three things went your way, it was a pretty good day.
Since Loretta had been on probation when she was picked up on the new drunk driving case, she was in “double trouble” and facing both the new charges as well as a violation of her probation. The “V.O.P.” came first and I met Loretta for the second time in a dingy courtroom on a Thursday morning. They had her “dead to rights” for violating her probation, no matter what kind of deal I got her on the new charges. The standard of proof for a probation violation was set at “clear and convincing” rather than the “beyond a reasonable doubt standard” in a criminal case. Because Loretta had been ordered not to consume alcohol while she was on probation, the prosecutors didn’t even need to show that she was guilty of the new charges, only that she was in possession of alcohol. The arresting officer would simply have had to testify that he found Loretta with a beer in her hand (which was true) and the State would have proven their case. Needless to say, Loretta pleaded guilty to the V.O.P. in exhange for a recommendation from the state that she be sentenced to serve the minimum jail time, seven days in jail.
I knew that this would involve Loretta leaving the courtroom in handcuffs and being driven in a van to the correctional center. This would be tough for he, but there was not much I could do about it. All I could really do was provide “damage control” at this point. I also knew that Loretta would likely be released from the jail almost as soon as she arrived there since her particular crime, being non-violent, qualified her for “house arrest.” I knew the judges well and knew that this judge typically allowed pre-approved house arrest by writing “house arrest approved” on the mittimus, which was sent to the correctional center with Loretta. This pre-approval accelerated the process and made it likely that Loretta would be uncuffed- and sent home- within an hour or so after arriving at the jail.
I called the supervisor of the house arrest program when I got back to my office, told him about Loretta’s condition, and asked him to help get her home as soon as possible. He told me he appreciated the information and promised to do what he could. The next hour would be pure hell for Loretta but hopefully she could spend the next seven days recuperating from the experience in the safety of her thoroughly sanitized home. Later that day, worried about her, I pulled up the jail census on my computer and saw that Loretta had been released a little before lunchtime. I was relieved, as if one case was down with one to go. I imagined Loretta thinking the same thing, back at home.
Before Loretta’s trial date, I checked to see which judge she had drawn. Obviously I wanted an understanding judge who would not try to “cure” her mental illness with a swift kick in the ass or a few weeks in jail. When I saw that Loretta’s case would be heard before one of the most understanding judges in the county, I felt like she was receiving some well-deserved justice. She had been unlucky in life and and imprisoned long enough by a severe, misunderstood mental illness. She deserved some luck in court and her luck was holding out. I couldn’t wait to see her and to see how well she was doing as a result of the leads I had given her at our last meeting. I was intrigued by Loretta’s story and wanted to see it come to a happy ending. Despite the many tragic endings I witnessed every day, I expected Loretta’s case to be different. After all, she was obviously mentally ill, had not known where to go for treatment, and now had been given the essential information she needed about where to get mental health treatment. Surely she would show up for court, exemplifying how well good people do when they are given access to the services they truly need. As I walked to court that morning, I was excited to see Loretta and to see how well she was doing.
As expected, Loretta was doing great. I had many cases that morning so I didn’t have much of a chance to hear details about Loretta’s progress. She told me she had an appointment with a psychiatrist, but hadn’t seen him yet. Her general progress showed on her face, though, and she looked more confident and less controlled by fear. The prosecutor offered to dismiss the other charges and to recommend probation if Loretta pleaded guilty to the drunk driving charge. I was concerned that a second offense drunk driving conviction carried a mandatory five days in jail upfront, but I knew that Loretta had learned from our last court appearance that house arrest was likely for her. Besides, the prosecutor agreed not to object to my request to postpone the sentencing so that Loretta would have time to meet with the psychiatrist. I was fairly confident that more time would mean more progress and that an expert’s diagnosis would help minimize the sentence she would have to endure. Judging by her appearance, time seemed to be on Loretta’s side.
At her next court date, Loretta didn’t show up. I was used to clients refusing to come to court when they were supposed to, but Loretta’s absence troubled me more than most. How could she forget about court when I was providing such extra special care for her? How could she sleep in when I had worried about her case last night? Why was I more concerned with her life than she seemed to be? Why wasn’t she building on the progress that she had already made? I checked my messages before court, but heard nothing from her. Luckily, I convinced the judge to not issue a “bench warrant” that would have resulted in Loretta’s arrest, by telling the judge about Loretta’s “condition.” I was disappointed, but still hopeful.
When I called Loretta, she answered on the first ring. I wondered how many times she had scrubbed down the phone to be that confident in picking it up. I asked her where she had been but she offered no real explanation. Like a lot of clients, she sort of changed the subject. Rather than pressing her about her reasons for forgetting such an important date, I simply told her about the new court date, stressing that I was pretty sure this continuance would be the last time. “Next time,” I told her, “she’ll probably issue a warrant if you’re not there.” She paused, then told me thank you for the call. Everything still seemed to be on track and I still hoped for a happy ending for Loretta.
But I didn’t even make it into the courtroom on her next court date before I realized that the happy ending I imagined for Loretta was not coming true. She was sitting on the bench outside court staring intently ahead, curled into herself like a child refusing to climb into a rollercoaster. Her aunt was standing beside her, pleading with her, “Come on, honey, it’s gunna be o.k.” But Loretta looked oblivious to almost everything but her fear. I thought of what happened to her the last time she was in court and felt guilty for assuming that she had simply blown off her last court date. She wasn’t disrespectful, she was desperate. She wasn’t getting better because a few leads I had thrown her way. Her mental illness was now asserting its dominance. She looked as if she was possessed and was fighting with a demon firmly nestled in her brain.
I still thought I could help. I sat beside her and spoke in a quiet, calm voice. I thought I could make a difference, maybe pull her out of her fear a little bit. After all, I had been complimented just last month by a judge who saw me talking to a severely disturbed client. I thought I comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable in my job. I wore used clothing store suits, but I prided myself on being able to handle pressure and difficult people. I wasn’t some silk stocking-clad private practice attorney chasing after dollars. I was a public defender. I didn’t shy away from pressure-packed situations. I kept my cool and defended my clients no matter how badly they smelled or looked. I knew how to handle this, didn’t I?
But she didn’t even hear me. I tried my calmest, coolest voice but Loretta just stared straight ahead. She answered my questions but wouldn’t even look in my eyes. I heard her aunt behind me, telling me that she drug Loretta out of her house “so she wouldn’t get a warrant.” Her aunt didn’t know much about obsessive compulsive disorder, but at least she knew how to avoid trouble with the law.
I told the prosecutor that Loretta was having trouble and waited outside with her until all the other cases had been dealt with. I did this for Loretta and also for myself. I didn’t want Loretta to have to face a packed courtroom and also didn’t want a packed courtroom to be looking at me when I spoke on her behalf. I wasn’t sure I could maintain my composure when it wsa my turn to talk for her. My hopes were up so high for her that it was difficult to see her this way. I planned on showing the judge how well Loretta was doing, but it was obvious that I couldn’t fool anyone into believing that the woman beside me was doing well.
When the prosecutor came into the hallway and told me it was time, I entered the courtroom alone, as if to scout out the territory for my desperately frightened client. The judge asked me if I was ready and looked puzzled about the fact that my client was nowhere to be seen. “She’s out in the hallway, your honor,” I said, looking at the judge over my glasses as if to add on “and you’re not going to believe what you’re about to see.”
I went back in the hallway and put my arm on Loretta’s shoulder, then pulled it away remembering that, while this might help most people, it would only make things worse for a person with severe OCD. “You ready?” I asked, pushing open the door so she wouldn’t have to touch it. To my surprise, Loretta seemed to take charge of her fear for a minute, standing up and moving forward. “Yeah, let’s go,” she said.
Once we were inside, however, the look of terror returned to her face and she recoiled into herself, reluctantly walking to the bench. When the judge asked me if I had anything to say on Loretta’s behalf for sentencing, I couldn’t think of anything for a moment. Finally, without a clue about what to say, I fell back on what I truly felt. “My biggest fear, judge, is that I won’t be able to make it through this without losing it.” My voice cracked badly and everybody courteously looked at their feet at the sound of a “professional” about to bawl.
I don’t remember exactly what I said after this. I know I described how well she looked the last time I saw her and how different, and worse, she looked today. I described what little I knew about OCD and about Trichotillomania, telling the judge that I could not remember a client who deserved more sympathy or less vengeance. I pointed at Loretta and pointed out that she was not even hearing me. It was true. I paused to let the judge see this for herself and, sure enough, the expression on Loretta’s face didn’t change. It was obvious that she was consumed by what was going on inside her head and oblivious to the voices running on in the courtroom around her.
I knew, by the look on the judge’s face, that I had said enough. The picture Loretta presented was worth a thousand of my words.
When the judge looked into my eyes, she looked to be on the verge of tears as well, or at least fully aware that this was not a typical drunk driving case. When the judge asked him if he had anything to add, the prosecutor was speechless. He didn’t even say “nothing, your honor” for a good five seconds, as if he had forgotten, for a moment, the role he played in this courtroom. Just as suddenly, though, he remembered part of his job. “There is the matter of enhancement, judge. This was charged as a second offense.”
I was afraid of this, but I knew it was coming. Because Loretta had been convicted of second offense drunk driving, the law required her to serve five days in jail, even if she was given a sentence of probation. The law was also clear that a person could not be given credit for days that had been spent in jail as a result of other charges. Since Loretta had not served any time in jail on these charges, but had only been sent to jail for violating her probation, she still “owed” the judge more five days in jail. While I knew this, I also knew that, more than any other client, Loretta did not deserve to go to jail. Five days to her would be like five years for most people. She needed to go home, see a good psychiatrist, and get medicated.
The judge was a rare example of an understanding, compassionate human being who could separate the real criminals from the afflicted. She was even willing to bend the rules of the justice system if doing so brought about justice. Like me, deep down, she believed that rules were meant to be broken.
“Your honor, we are asking you to consider giving Ms. Griffin credit for the jail time she served when she was sentenced to seven days for violating her probation. She obviously isn’t going to be taught any lessons today by having to go to jail. Why don’t we just put her on probation today, give her credit for the time she spent on her last case, and let her go home where she won’t be so afraid? You can order her to be evaluated by one of the psychiatrists she’s previously contacted and to follow any recommendations that they lay out for her. Today, though, she just needs to go home.”
The prosecutor spoke next and he, very lawyerly, reminded the judge that she had no choice but to send Loretta to jail. I silently agreed with his legal conclusion, but hoped for something higher.
It was rare to find a County Judge who knew the law well and Judge Hendrix was that rare judge. She was smart enough to know when to play dumb. “I think I do have the power to give her credit, Mr. Getty,” the judge said, maintaining a poker face. She knew better than this but also knew that the chances of this prosecutor appealing an exceptional case like this one were slim. Playing dumb allowed the judge to appear as if she truly believed in the lawfulness of the sentence she was imposing. She could have her ruling overturned on appeal, but she wouldn’t be in trouble professionally for refusing to follow the law.
The prosecutor let it go. He was compassionate as well and evidently couldn’t press for jail while Loretta still stood, two feet to his left, still oblivious to our words and now staring at the door like a trapped animal looking out a cage door. When the judge heard no further argument from the prosecutor, she announced that Loretta was sentenced to one year of probation. She was ordered to serve five days in jail, but given credit for the time she spent in jail for violating her probation. Loretta also had to pay the minimum fine of $400, and to obtain and follow the recommendations of a psychological evaluation that she was to complete within 30 days.
When the judge told Loretta that she was “free to go,” she headed straight for the door without saying a word. She wouldn’t feel free until she got back home and scr=ubbed the filth of the outside world off her hands.
I knew the battle was over but that a new one had begun. Now I had to find a psychiatrist who accepted Medicaid, understood trichotillomania, and made house calls to the roughest part of the city.

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