When I look back on my years as a misdemeanor public defender, Teresa’s case seems to sum in all up. She taught me how much people can accomplish and how far they can fall. She taught me to have faith and reminded me to remain skeptical. She was one of the most inspiring clients I ever represented and also one of the most depressing. She gave me hope to never giving up on people and taught me to expect the worst. Above all, she taught me that people can change with help and that even with help this change doesn’t always last.
Before I met Teresa at the jail, I read the reports describing the State’s case against her. I saw that she was charged with driving under the influence of drugs, which allegedly occurred the day she was picked up. I also read that she was facing charges for approximately twenty purse-snatching incidents over a two-month period. Each count carried up to six months in jail and each purse carried someone else’s identity, meaning that there would be twenty victims in the courtroom, crying out for justice and jail. Before I met her, I knew Teresa wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and that I had my work cut out for me to perform damage control.
When I first saw Teresa, she was laying on the floor of the jail interview room surrounded by several guards, screaming like a frightened child. I could see that she was disoriented but also could see that the guards were not beating or hurting her. One was laughing, as if he thought she was putting on an act, but the other two were helping, asking her if she was alright and telling her that she had been brought here to see her attorney.
When I walked into the room, she saw me and calmed down slightly, as if she now believed what the guards were telling her. She caught her breath and they helped her into a chair, leaving us alone to talk. When I told her my name, she repeated it several times, as if she were trying to burn it into her memory. I continued talking to her in a soft voice, the way I talked to my daughter when she woke up from a nightmare. Teresa looked at me in her addicted, drug-deprived state as if I might be her savior but I felt a little like a false prophet. To calm her down I told her it would be alright and that I was here to help, but I knew she was facing twenty separate theft charges, armed with an over-worked lawyer, three months past the bar exam.
A big part of my job was delivering bad news, but today was not the day to do it. Today, when she was coming down from the drugs, I told her everything was fine. Later, after she made it through this first ordeal and came to her senses, I would tell her the truth about what she was likely facing. Telling her the truth today felt like watching a person starve while holding bread in your hand. All Teresa needed today was something to get her through the week, a promise to hang onto until I saw her next week, when I promised to visit her again and when the drug cravings started to wear off. I cut our interview short with this promise since I knew she was in no shape to talk about anything complex. As I walked out of the room, past the guard who was walking in, Teresa repeated “next Tuesday” as if repeating it gave her hope, as if an appointment next week meant she would survive this one.
The next week, I saw a different Teresa. She was still in the oversized, drab orange jumpsuit that would make a supermodel look bad. The terrified expression on her face was gone though. She looked calm and alert, but still scrawny and weak. She moved slowly, as if in pain, but patiently answered my questions like she had nothing to hide. I asked about her background, telling her that I needed to know a little about who she was before I heard about what she did to bring her here.
As Teresa told me about her life, she seemed like a skilled, experienced liar. She told me she had a college degree, a nurse‘s license, and a heroin habit. She was about forty and her dry, blond, dark-rooted hair was matted on one side, telling me she had just pulled her head off of the cot and hadn’t made it to the beauty shop in a month or so. Her skin was sickly white and her blue eyes were sunken and vacant, as if she was missing a substance that made her feel good and look terrible.
When I told her she was charged with driving under the influence of methamphetamine, she seemed puzzled. She told me she didn’t use meth, only heroine. She told me she and “Mickey” only did “H.” She looked at my tie and explained that by “H” she meant heroin, in case I didn’t know. She said went on to tell me that she used heroin the day she was picked up, but never “crank” or methamphetamine. I told her that her urine tested positive for it, but she still insisted that she only used heroin. She showed me the track Mikes on her arm, as if this proved her point, but I knew meth users shot it in their veins as well. This didn’t make her story sound convincing, in other words. I wasn’t too worried about this anyway. We had many other, more important things to worry about besides which drug made her drive erratically and fail the field sobriety tests. I couldn’t exactly “win” her driving under the influence of drugs case by claiming that the prosecution picked the wrong drug.
When I asked her about the more worrisome problem, the twenty purse snatchings, she told me all about Mickey and that her name had changed since she married Mickey about a week before she was arrested. My file had the name “Teresa Murphy West” typed across the top, but she told me her new last name was “Maldonado,” as if this were very important. She went on to tell me about moving to Omaha with Mickey, about using drugs with him and about stealing the purses to buy more drugs. She told me Mickey would go into the grocery store first and would pretend to be shopping by himself. When he found a woman shopping alone, with a purse in her grocery cart, he would play the dumb bachelor trying to make a meal and ask her a basic question about how to cook a certain item. When the now distracted woman spoke to Mickey, Teresa would come up from behind and grab the purse.
As Teresa told me this, I remembered hearing about the wave of similar purse snatchings on the news. I hadn’t paid much attention to the story, but I remembered a report about a blonde white woman and an Hispanic male who worked together and always played the same trick. The only problem for Teresa was that every grocery store had security cameras and every local news station ran her video as its lead story in the weeks before her arrest. As if that weren’t enough, there was also the problem of the police finding roughly half of the missing purses in the van Teresa was picked up in.
Looking at skinny, blond, desperate-looking addict in front of me, I knew I couldn’t convince anyone that she was framed or that the police had the wrong woman. I knew that I couldn’t win Teresa’s case through a trial, especially since she was charged with offenses that did not entitle her to a jury of her peers. I knew that since we were stuck with a judge or bench trial only that the real work- and the only way to “win” for Teresa- was to minimize how much time she would spend in jail or on probation after she jail. I knew I couldn’t stop the prosecution from proving what Teresa had done. I knew the best thing to focus on, in a case like this, was on what Teresa could do to show the judge that she had a desire to reform herself and get back to the relatively normal life she had before the drugs pulled her down into a darker world. It was too late to change the past, but perhaps if I helped Teresa act in the present, we could both try to minimize the potential damage to her future.
Since Teresa was also facing a felony drug charge and was unable to afford her bond in either case, there were two ways to proceed. On the one hand, she could schedule a plea of no contest in the near future and I could tell the County Court judge that she had “bigger fish to fry” in District Court on the felony. This might convince the judge that he or she did not need to impose a harsh sentence because, after all, Teresa was facing more serious charges and was unlikely to be going home soon anyway. Of course, this strategy also risked the judge imposing a harsh sentence, thinking that if she wasn’t going home for awhile anyway, a long sentence would it wouldn’t matter and would look a lot better in the paper to suburban “tough on crime” voters.
On the other hand, Teresa could stay in jail on this charge and let the “heat” caused by the press coverage die down a little bit. I told her to do this since I was afraid of what a judge would do to her if we came into court now, when the case was fresh in the minds of the prosecutors, the victims and the judge. The waiting would not hurt Teresa in any way since she was also being held on other, more serious charges felony narcotics possession charges. She was not going anywhere, in other words, and I knew that Teresa’s face- which would tell a judge a lot about her future prospects and her possible success on probation- would look a lot better in about sixty days. She could begin taking attending Alcoholics pr Narcotics Anonymous classes in jail right now (and promise to continue them on the outside) to prove her seriousness and commitment to the judge.
Teresa took my advice and waited it out. About two months later I visited her in jail and she looked even better, the way she must have looked before the drugs took hold. The color was returning to her face and the grim, desperate expression was fading away. Smiles and laughter came more easily to her face, but the repeated questions about Mickey were still there. Had I heard anything about his case? Could I call his lawyer and give him a message? Could he call me and ask me questions? I told her there was a “conflict” between Mickey’s case and hers and that the reason Mickey now had a private attorney appointed was that it wasn’t proper for me tp be talking directly to Mickey, since he already had a lawyer and I couldn’t look out for both his and her interests. She looked at me puzzled, as if it were an insult to hear that there was a difference between what might be good for her and what might be good for her newly-acquired husband. I knew a little about Mickey since I reviewed his record. By looking at the dates, I saw that while Teresa was attending college, working and starting a family, Mickey was repeatedly going in and out of jail. He wasn’t a killer, but he appeared to have always been in trouble. Jail, and probably needles, were a constant in his life while these two things seemed relatively new in Teresa’s.
Part of me wanted to grab her with both hands by the jumpsuit and tell her she was crazy to stay with a scumbag like that, that she looked better now that she was away from him and the needles he offered her, that she had a good life before she was dragged down to his level by needles and videocameras. But I didn’t. I knew she was in love and that love was often blind. My job was hard enough without becoming a personal coach. As frustrating as it was to hear a once successful college graduate pine for a known, convicted drug dealer, I knew telling a person to not be in love was like telling an addict to not want a drug. It would be more productive to pound your head against a hard object. Maybe absence, in Teresa’s case, would make the heart grow less fond and maybe as Teresa’s mind cleared she would begin to see what was obvious from the outside. She married a three-time felon at a period in her life when she thought snatching purses was a way to make her life better. Maybe she would wake up to the stupidity of both decisions, and maybe she wouldn’t. I hoped she would clean up and wise up, but I had plenty of other people and cases to worry about. Teresa stood out among my clients because of the fact that she had at one time possessed a lot of the things my middle class, white world held so dear: a job, a college degree, kids and a house in the suburbs. I fought for Teresa, hoping that perhaps she could get back there someday, but I also knew that while she had once been blessed, Teresa had also injected away the gifts and privileges that my poorer clients dreamed of. I would fight to give her a fair chance to get these things back, but I couldn’t waste my time trying to change her mind. Like all my clients, I would fight to give them an opportunity, tell them to act on it, and leave the rest up to them. Three thousand cases taught me that it was essential to lead my horses to water and also impossible to make them drink it. I fought to give people opportunities to improve. They usually pissed them away. Sometimes they didn’t, though, and that kept me going. Maybe Teresa would be one of the few clients to pull herself up an away or one of the many who kept coming back to see me at the Public Defenders Office throughout their lives. Time would tell.
I spoke with Kelly, the attorney in our office who represented Teresa on her felony, one day in the hallway. She motioned me into her office and asked me what was going on with Teresa’s many misdemeanor cases. I told her the trial was coming up and that while Teresa looked better, the sheer number of charges she faced made her prognosis probably bad and difficult to estimate. Kelly told me she thought the judge who was assigned Teresa’s felony was considering reducing Teresa’s bond to around a thousand dollars given Teresa’s relatively clean past record and recent “cleaned up” look. If Teresa sought treatment, Kelly told me, she might be able to get probation on her felony. The misdemeanors, with the many victims and multiple videotapes, were her biggest obstacle at this point. If I could get a judge to give Teresa a chance on probation on the misdemeanor charges, she might be out of jail and on with her life in just a few weeks.
“What I can’t figure out,” I told Kelly, “is why a lady like that gets involved with a guy like Mickey.”
“I know,” she said, “but have you heard about the diamonds?” Kelly went on to tell me that while Teresa and Mickey were in a lot of trouble in Nebraska, they were also facing felony theft charges across the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Those cases probably wouldn’t go far though, she said, because the amount of the thefts wasn’t very high and the Iowa prosecutors were under the impression that Mickey and Teresa both had “bigger fish to fry” in Nebraska. This was true, of course, but it was also typical. When a person faced charges in three separate places, it was possible to minimize the damage and jail time the client faced because each separate bureaucracy would likely assume that a different one would do the real work.
Most judges and prosecutors, however honorable they were individually, enjoyed going home at five, or even three. If you gave them a reason to avoid work, they would jump on it. I knew that when I told the County Judge that Teresa faced felony charges in two states, the Judge would likely want to be done with her. What I wouldn’t tell them, of course, was that these felony charges were nearly over and that the biggest fish Teresa had to “fry” was the misdemeanor charges she faced with me. I wasn’t serving justice, I was doing what the Ethical Code told me to do, looking out for the best interests of my clients. Government is inherently lazy, in most instances, and I was taking advantage of this to help my client. While news of a new felony in another state seemed like bad news for my client, I knew we could both take advantage of a “quick fix” bureaucracy and use this to Teresa’s advantage.
I wasn’t ashamed of this type of behavior either. I justified it because I truly believed that it leveled the playing field my client was placed on. Prosecutors, who thought of themselves as the “good guys” in the white hats, were constantly willing and able to do bad things in that capacity. Whether it involved going along for the ride with certain cops who routinely “testi-lied” or tacking on unsupported charges to encourage plea bargaining, prosecutors did a lot of bad things in the name of doing good. I was aware that the public looked at my shackled, orange jumpsuit clad client as the devil they saw on the six o’clock news- with its “if it bleeds it leads,” ratings-driven format. I was also aware that the public looked at the public defender who stood by this scumbag (and in so doing, defended the individual rights that defined us as a nation) as on the same low level.
However, I was also keenly award of something the public did not know. I was reminded of this truth every day, and the truth is that the devil, while very real, also most often appears, not in an orange jumpsuit, but dressed in drag. The real, dangerous devil is not the melodramatic looking villain in the black hat or the orange jumpsuit, but the double-breasted (or black robed) charmer who is willing to do the most terrible things in the name of doing good. Just as the crusaders raped and killed in the name of God, thinking their “noble” cause gave them license to sin, some prosecutors, and some judges, were willing to trample on the Constitution they swore to uphold, if it meant going home early. “Well, he’s guilty of something” I heard one rationalize as he offered my client a plea deal, after having threatened a long jail recommendation if I dared to push my client to exercise his sacred right to a trial. These prosecutors believed not in the presumption of innocence or in the inherent infallibility of a bureaucratic justice system, but instead echoed what former Attorney General Edwin Meese once said: “rarely are suspects innocent.”
I was being sneaky, yes, by telling the judge that Teresa had “bigger fish to fry” with her felonies when I knew these cases were truly almost over. I wouldn’t lie and, if pressed, I would tell the truth about what I had been told about the probable outcomes of these cases. I twisted things this way because I felt, genuinely, that this sneakiness was “the manipulation that an inherently manipulative system produced,” to paraphrase Malcolm X. If I stood by and spoke the whole truth while the prosecutors twisted it to their advantage routinely, I was not being a good advocate and would be laughed at like a boy scout in a strip club. I knew the judge wouldn’t press me either. As long as I gave this politically-motivated, nine-to-three judge something to hang his or her hat on (so that a lenient sentence could be justified later if it his the papers) Teresa would come out o.k. The real trick was to minimize the potential political damage to the judge, minimize his or her work load, and smile all the while, as if the emperor were fully clothed. I knew how to play the game and loved to play it hard, like a jungle rat helping my client through territory that I was familiar with but that they would easily get lost in.
Back to the diamonds. Kelly told me, without telling me where she heard it, that there was a rumor that Teresa and Mickey had hidden a bunch of diamonds somewhere in Iowa. The idea was, she said, for them to serve out their jail time on the “small” thefts and then live out the rest of their lives “on the rocks,” so to speak. “Kind of like a modern day Bonnie and Clyde” I said, while Kelly and I laughed. I had to admit I was a little envious. One of my worst clients was rumored to have created a nest egg, while I still had $60,000 in student loans, $25,000 in credit card debt, and a car made during the Reagan administration. Maybe crime did pay, I wondered, though I also wondered how well two heroine addicts, who hadn’t considered the existence of video cameras, could plan a diamond heist and stash to live out their lives on. In my experience, drug addiction, in its early days, produced many grandiose plans for living on the beach and, in its later stages, usually resulted in a reality of living in a cell. I envied Teresa’s possible future, as I thought of how hard my own wife worked and how little time she got to see her kids, but I also doubted whether the diamonds were anything more than a drug-induced dream. I had plenty of other cases and no time to be envious of my clients who were in jail. Maybe Teresa would live her life out the way Tim Robbins’ character did in The Shawshank Redemption, but I doubted that this Hollywood ending would occur in real life.
I arranged an early plea hearing for Teresa, in front of one of my favorite (most lenient) judges. I stressed that Teresa had “bigger fish to fry” on her felonies, but also pointed out that she might be released soon. I did this because I knew that if I made Teresa’s future sound too bad, this judge would think that a year-long, concurrent sentence, which would be the most politically safe one, wouldn’t be “no big deal” for such a hardened criminal who was likely going “up th eriver’ for a long time. I knew Teresa’s hand could be overplayed, in other words.
The prosecutors were insistent upon making sure that the victims of the purse snatchings were taken care of. Reasonably, the prosecutor wanted to make sure that all personal and sentimental property was moved from evidence back to the rightful owners. I respected that, knowing how important the picture of my daughters that I held in my wallet was to me. The prosecutors, not surprisingly, were not opposed to Teresa being sentenced to probation. I had done them a tremendous favor by not requiring them to bring thirty witnesses into court for a trial, and probation would be a good way for Teresa to raise the money to reimburse the victims for any money that was lost. None of us really believed that Teresa was going to be able to raise thousands of dollars in the next two years, but the judge required it, since it was only fair that if Teresa could afford it, she pay the people back for what she had taken. Requiring these payments was also the politically safe thing to do, since the judge considered, as they always do, how she could spin this sentence if it became the lead story on the six o’clock news. “I put her on probation,” the justification would go, “but I did it to ensure compensation for the victims.” The early plea was good behavior by me as far as the judge was concerned, and Teresa was getting the reward for this, with a condition attached so the judge could justify this in the future if need be. After all, the judge mad six figures for less than fort hours of work a week. As a judge in Nebraska, you were virtually always elected, since the ballots had only a “retain” or “not retain” choice, as long as you stayed out of the headlines for anything else but being “tough on crime.” Since Teresa’s case was no longer the “lead story” it was politically safe and also efficient for eh judge and the prosecutor to let Teresa out. To their credit, the judge and the prosecutor also listened to me as I described the difference between the Teresa who stood before them today and the one I had first seen on the floor of the jail, screaming and coming down off heroine.
The judge was not altogether lenient, however. While Teresa was sentenced to probation, she had to wait in jail for thirty more days. While I didn’t want this for Teresa, I thought it was a good message to send. These were serious crimes and while the judge was impressed with how well Teresa had done in jail, she was telling Teresa how unafraid she was to put her back there if she didn’t take the probation seriously.
Teresa was thrilled. She now had an “out date” to focus on and knew what she had to do to avoid going back to jail. I saw a changed person, but when she asked about Mickey once again, I suspected that she could slip back to her old self fairly easily.
Next, I did something for Teresa that I rarely did for clients. I prided myself on working hard for them but also drew a bright line between my work and my home. My clients were often desperate and sometimes dangerous. As hard as I tried, my clients were usually found guilty and they most often truly were, as much as I hated to admit that the “rarely are suspects innocent” phrase was actually true. I hated a system that believed this, but I had to admit it was true. Even if my clients were often innocent of all the crimes they were charged with, they were usually guilty of something. I longed for the truly innocent client, but rarely found him or her. What killed me were the few truly innocent clients that I couldn’t save inside a system that believed they were “probably guilty of something.” I had to fight off cynicism myself amid a parade of horribles, where an occasional innocent was paraded in alongside the assholes and addicts.
While my clients were often guilty, my two small daughters were truly innocent. I felt guilty about the debts I had acquired and the low pay I brought home in a job that I had grown addicted to. The least I could do for them, and for my wife, was to make sure that my chosen career didn’t creep into their innocent world. I kept an unlisted number, kept only small family pictures at work and never discussed my kids.
Because I believed in Teresa and felt badly about what a shame it was that she had fallen so low, I asked a family friend to talk to her. My wife had a good friend, Marnie, who was a recovering alcoholic / addict whose life was now coming together completely. I knew that as a part of Marnie’s recovery, she now drove her new car to the jail once a week to conduct a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous for females only. “Marnie” invited our family to celebrate her five year sobriety “birthday” and at the party I pulled her off to the side. I told her about Teresa, how Teresa once had it all and pissed it away as an addict. I asked Marnie if she’d talk to Teresa and to tell her that her life didn’t have to go back to the way it was with heroine. It seemed like such a shame and a waste of a life to just let her go out without any help. Since I knew Marnie’s words would mean a lot to Teresa and that, as a recovering addict, Marnie would know how to talk to Teresa in a way that a non-addicted person could never grasp, I asked for her help. I couldn’t keep Teresa from going back to using, but maybe I could give her a tool, or a person to talk to, in case she decided to reach out for some help. Marnie nodded and said she’d talk to Teresa, but only if Teresa came to a meeting. Marniee knew, as I suspected, that the first steps would have to be Teresa’s or she would be wasting her time.
The next time I talked to Teresa, I told her my friend would talk to her if she came to a meeting. The next time I talked to Marnie, which was about a month after Teresa was released from jail, she told me Teresa came to the meeting in jail, had gone to a meeting nearly every day with Marnie since she got out, and that she was now Teresa’s “sponsor.” I knew “sponsorship” was a voluntary system in Alcoholics Anonymous where a person with several years of sobriety advises a “newcomer” about things they need to do to stay sober. Since it is voluntary, it can end by either party at any time, but since the only requirement for being a member of A.A. is a sincere desire to stop drinking or using, if it ends it’s almost over anyway. Alcoholics describe alcoholism and addiction as a “cunning and baffling” disease, and sponsorship not only helps the “newcomer” stay sober, it also helps the more seasoned alcoholic or addict remember how messed up they were when they came it and how important it is to stay sober.
Teresa stayed sober. Six months later she came into see me. I hardly knew her. She looked unbelievably healthy and clean. I knew Teresa had Hepatitis C and that her health was always questionable because of this, but she still looked great. Just seeing her almost brought me to tears. I couldn’t believe the difference a few months could make. She smiled even more easily now and thanked me for what I did. She talked proudly about Mickey and said he was going to be getting out of jail soon. “He’s going to be in the program too, with me,” she said.
Just then Kelly, Teresa’s felony attorney walked by. “Teresa?” she said. “Oh my God, is that really you?” Kelly was a tough-minded p.d., but she also had a soft side and an incredible amount of empathy. I saw that Kelly was tearing up as I had, upon seeing Teresa, and I remember that moment as one of the great, rare ones that only Public Defenders get to see and live for. Kelly and I saw Teresa when she was at her “bottom” and now we saw her on the rise. Our jobs required us to see horrible things constantly and now we got to see that one of these horrible things cleaned up well and changed from looking like a corpse to looking like a colleague. We were overwhelmed to have participated in this transformation. Instead of being called names and blamed by our clients for their transgressions, we were able to hear a rare “thank you” and see its sincerity as well as the effects of our labors. Suddenly, all those student loans, all the hand sanitizer, all the ill treatment by clients, judges and prosecutors seemed worth it. My classmates were driving new cars and rising up their firm’s ladders, but I was making a difference, even if it was for only one person out of a few thousand. “I helped saved one,” I felt like saying to anyone and everyone, as Teresa walked away.
I filed Teresa away in my mind, as a success story, and it sustained me for months. I looked for more Teresa’s amongst my clients and thought of my role as both helping my clients fight for their innocence and also fighting to give them the tools they needed to stop using or drinking, if they asked for the help. I didn’t care that they called me “public pretender” or asked if they should get a “lawyer,” even though they already had one. I wasn’t so envious of the private attorneys, even the ones who knew the law only half as well as I did and yet who made four times the money. It didn’t matter so much. If my most addicted, sickly looking client could change, who couldn’t? I knew that most wouldn’t, but now it was worth trying in every case. Maybe there was someone else out there who just needed the right tools to go from dirty and drugged to clean and sober.
I thought things must be going well for Teresa, until I read the paper one night after work. It told how Teresa was involved in a drunk driving accident, and that a sixteen year old girl had been killed. Teresa wasn’t drunk, and was still staying sober, but she wasn’t altogether innocent either, unlike the sixteen year old daughter of Mickey who was killed. Mickey was there too, but he should have been somewhere else at the time. Mickey was supposed to have been on his way back to jail, from the “work release program” but he broke the rules and left work early, instead going Christmas shopping, and meeting Teresa and several of his kids at the mall. As Teresa, Mickey and two of the kids followed a car driven by Mickey’s sixteen-year-old daughter as she drove home, a drunk driver crossed the center line, struck the young girl’s car head on and killed her instantly.
Once again, Teresa and Ricky’s names were in the headlines. This time, however, they were both described, accurately, as victims of victims rather than perpetrators. Since almost a year had passed since Teresa and Ricky’s names were associated with theft, and since the newspaper needed to place either black and white “hats” on the people involved in this tragic incident to make it simple enough for the headline-reading, scandal driven public to understand, the newspapers never mentioned Ricky or Teresa’s recently checkered past history. No mention was even made in the paper of the fact that Ricky had essentially escaped from jail that night and gone Christmas shopping when he was supposed to have gone straight from work to jail.
Perhaps this omission was done out of respect for Ricky and Teresa’s loss. After all, Teresa had done well since her release and it was easy to sympathize with a family who broke the rules to go Christmas shopping together, especially when a one of their lives had been snatched tragically on the way home. I found out about Ricky’s “escape” after I told Kelly that I didn’t know he had been released from jail and she told me he wasn’t supposed to have been out at all. A check of our computer system, which told us who was in jail and when they were supposed to get out, told me that Ricky was “confined” in the work release center and not due to be released for months.
The next time I saw Teresa was several months later. She met me in my office in anticipation of her “show cause” hearing. This hearing date gave Teresa, and to a certain extent me, a chance to show the judge why Teresa should not begin serving ninety days in jail.
Teresa looked terrible. Her skin was pale again and the her eyes were again taking on a vacant look. I wondered if the pressure of watching a loved one die, and of being away from her new husband during this tough time, had not led her back to her old ways and her old drugs. Yet her clothes were still clean and she kept the appointment she had called to schedule with me, unlike most true users who typically showed up for court in orange jumpsuits after being found on the street.
I asked Teresa how she was doing and she told me that it had been “tough.” I told her that I wa sure it had been, that she had undoubtedly been through a lot of challenges as well as temptations. I asked her the one question the judge would care about: had she stayed sober so far? Teresa nodded her head. I had long ago learned to believe only the testing data submitted by the probation office to answer this question, knowing that lying and using go together. But something about Teresa’s look, even though it was unhealthy, made me believe her. I pressed her further. “You don’t look so good. Are you doing okay?”
“It’s my liver again,” she said. “I need to go see the doctor again.” I remembered the Hepatitis C and the needle usage that were described in the police report. I told Teresa she needed to get back to the doctor quickly, to make sure the judge didn’t do what I did and confuse sickness symptoms with drugs. I didn’t preach to her, though. How easy it would have been to do so, but how hard how hard had Teresa’s life been lately. Instead of preaching, I told her to do the one thing that would convince the judge to give her another chance.
“You need to get in and do a drug test, so the judge knows for sure you’re staying sober,” I told her. I knew a clean test would back up my future claim that the pale skin was from health problems and not heroin. Teresa nodded her head.
“I went down to Lincoln and talked about what happened to Nicki,” Teresa said. I remembered that this was Ricky’s daughter’s name, the one killed in the accident. I also remembered that, after the accident, a state senator capitalized on the headlines and the public outrage over the crash. He proposed a toughening of the drunk driving penalties and cited the tragic case as an example of the need for his new idea to send drunk drivers to jail instead of giving them a chance at rehabilitation and treatment.
“Who did you go talk to?” I asked.
“The whole chamber, or whatever, everybody who was voting on the law,” Teresa told me. I knew this meant the State Senator had summoned Teresa to give testimony before the legislature, asking her to tell them about what it was like to watch your stepdaughter die because of a drunk driver. I wondered if any of the obviously emotionally-touched would have voted for the new , tougher penalities (which passed by a huge majority) had they known that the eyewitness who described the tragedy for them was a recovering heroin addict, with a recent drunk driving conviction, who was herself the poster child for the potential of rehabilitation programs to help drug abuser get the chemical dependency help they truly needed.
As ironic as it was to hear about Teresa’s role as a “Mad Mother,” against drunk driving, it was my job to defend Teresa, and to keep her out of jail, so she could continue with the treatment-centered sentence that was seemingly working well for her. I knew that after I showed the judge Teresa’s (hopefully) clean drug test and told her about Teresa being called before the legislature to tell about how much tragedy comes from drunk driving, that Teresa would get another chance to continue on her seemingly-successful, rehabilitative probation.
After Teresa showed up for court with a clean drug test, and a description of the doctor’s plan to control the Hepatitis, the judge looked relieved. After I told the judge about Teresa’s family tragedy, and subsequent testimony before the legislature, the normally reserved, stoic judge’s jaw dropped. Whatever Teresa was doing, the clean drug test showed it was working and, after all, if the legislature was willing to listen to Teresa, the judge was not going to jail her. The judge “vacated” or eliminated the ninety day jail sentence from Teresa’s probation, meaning that she would simply have to stay out of trouble, and stay sober, throughout the remaining months of her probation to stay out of jail, at least on this case.
Teresa called me one day several months later and asked for my help. She told me she moved into a “halfway house” and met a friend there who needed help canceling an arrest warrant that was hanging over his head. I knew about this halfway house and knew it was a good place for people who were struggling with addiction to live while they transitioned back to life “on the outside,” away from drugs. I was glad to hear that Teresa was staying there since I knew, from talking to clients, that the only real way for real addicts to stay sober was for them to want it and for them to have a chance to talk to other addicts who were of like mind. I even knew a woman who was currently staying at this “New Creations” halfway house. I asked Teresa if she knew this person, found out that she stayed just down the hall from Teresa, and told Teresa to tell her I said “keep it up.” She told me Mickey was trying to live there too, but that for right now it was just her. She didn’t give me a lot of details but I knew Mickey was still in the picture, and evidently doing well “outside the box.”
Teresa and the friend who needed help met me in the office and I helped the man take care of the warrant. Teresa still looked sickly but I didn’t even have to ask if she was staying sober. After all, she was helping another human being with his problems. That told me she was staying sober since I had never met an addict who, without treatment and sobriety, really cared about anyone but himself or his supplier. The fact that Teresa was there for someone else told me she was taking care of herself and on her way back to the land of the living. Teresa told me her probation was over, that the probation officer terminated it early since she was doing well and had so many health and family problems to deal with.
I was happy for Teresa, knowing that no more probation meant no possibility of going back to jail on these charges, but I wondered about letting a still shaky addict, who had checked herself into a halfway house, go it alone without the threat of jail as a motivator. By this time, though, Teresa had over a year of sobriety and a support system in place. She had been before the legislature, for God’s sake, and had seen firsthand the pain that stupid, drug induced behavior could cause to innocent families. Teresa had been through so much, that maybe the probation officer was right to cut her loose. I believed in Teresa, after all, so why would I second guess a probation officer who obviously believed in her too.
I have not seen Teresa since that day. I heard nothing from her for over a year. As I watched countless other clients get probation, blow it by getting new charges or using drugs again, Teresa stayed silent. She didn’t call and I didn’t get any new files with her name at the top. She must have been doing well, unlike a lot of my clients, it seemed. She was a rare success story and she had pulled herself up off of the floor of the jail and back into her former life, clean and sober, helping addicts instead of supplying them. Carrying a purse instead of snatching them. Telling the legislature dangerous drunk driving is instead of shooting up and hitting the road herself.
I thought about Teresa when I saw hard core addicts and one day I even used her as an example to a judge who was considering whether to give a third offense drunk driver a chance at probation or a long time in jail. “Judge, this man is not the same man I met in the jail, shortly after his arrest” I said. “He is different; he isn’t blaming other people anymore, he truly wants to stay sober,” I went on. After I told the judge all about this guy, and how I truly believed in his chances on probation, I talked about Teresa.
“Judge, I don’t’ know if he’ll make it on probation and either do you, to be frank. Only he knows that. All I know is that one of my most hard-core drug using clients went from lying on the jail floor to testifying on the floor of the legislature after a judge gave her a chance at treatment and probation. If she can do it, he can too. All he is asking for is a chance to prove himself, just like she got.” I told the judge Teresa’s story and he gave the man probation. On the way out I told the man, “I went out of a limb for you, don’t let me down or the next time he’s not going to believe me, or you.”
I could not have blamed this judge if he would have rolled his eyes when I rambled on about recovery and redemption. After all, Teresa stood out as one of the few success stories I could point to amid what seemed like thousands who kept using and kept getting in trouble, no matter how many tools and chances were laid on the table in front of them. Sure there were a lot fo success story clients I could point to, but Teresa truly stood out as a seriously addicted client who turned her life around. Teresa’s case truly motivated me and I worked hard to give other people the same chances she received, thinking that everyone deserved a chance to make the same turnaround that she accomplished.
At first, I didn’t believe she could make it, but she proved me wrong. If I was wrong in her case, couldn’t I be wrong whenever I guessed that someone else was “too far down” to climb back up? If I was wrong about Teresa’s chances, shouldn’t I fight not just for the people I thought could make it but instead fight for equal opportunities, as our nation claimed to provide for everyone?
I thought so, and Teresa’s story kept me going, against the odds and the examples of blown chances that I saw every day. I watched judges, prosecutors and public defenders grow more cynical as time went on, but I tried to fight this off, using Teresa- and a few others- as examples to hold up against the thousands of failures who kept coming back to see us in criminal court.
Since I heard nothing further from Teresa, I assumed the best. While other clients came back to see me, assuming that I could help them get out of trouble and out of jail again, like I did the last time, she stayed away. She didn’t call me, didn’t stop in and, most importantly, I didn’t see her name typed on any new files in my “in” box. She must have been doing well, I assumed and believed.
One day I cut though the City Prosecutors office, past the desk of a friend I knew there who worked as a records clerk. As he told me about his new birdhouse business, I glanced down at his desk and saw Mickey’s name on a new file. “What’s this guy doing back in court?” I asked as I saw the charge of “theft by unlawful taking” typed underneath his name.
“Back to purse snatching again,” he said, “just like before.” He smiled sadly, shaking his head, at how stupid the (alleged) crime was described in the police report. “Caught on videotape in the grocery store.”
“With a woman?” I asked, knowing the answer and feeling the posture being sucked out of my shoulders. “Teresa?”
“Yep, that’s her. Wearing a blond wig,” he said.
“But she hasn’t called me?” I protested, probably taking on the look of that kid who asked Shoeless Joe Jackson, “say it ain’t so?” in the midst of baseball’s game-rigging tragedy.
“That’s probably ‘cause she’s in jail, in Iowa, on felony theft and possession charges,” he said. “She’s not coming back to Omaha for a long time.”
I returned his smile, but only half-heartedly. I liked him, but the difference between people who worked where he did and where I did was our fundamental belief in the goodness or corruptibility of common people. He was a good person, but he was a realist who looked at people like Teresa and Mickey as being at least half empty. I had to be an idealist, however, who looked at such people as being half full and capable of great things if we only gave them a chance.
We both had to smile and laugh often, as we did that day, to keep the parade of horrible examples paraded before us from dragging us down to its level. Teresa’s story had picked me up, but suddenly I was reminded that while people were capable of amazing recoveries from amazingly painful circumstances, Flannery O’Connor was right. “Everything that rises must converge.”
I was down the rest of the day, just going through the motions. Luckily all I had were “traffic” clients to represent, whose cases were mind numbingly routine, and no one went to jail because of my mood. I told myself to forget about Teresa, that there were plenty of other success stories to focus on. I reminded myself that one of these people was now rumored to be dead, amid mysterious circumstances, and I wondered if perhaps Teresa was lucky to be in jail, where she was away from drugs and close to a doctor, since by now she must be much closer to death.
I took the edge off of my attitude that night by consulting with my long time legal advisor, Samuel Adams. He was both a brewer and a patriot, and the flavor made in his name washed bad memories and broken promises away better than my own mind could. I stopped at two, though. As good as the beer tasted, I was profoundly aware, through my job, of the dangers of numbing yourself to excess with substances, whether illegal or advertised.
The next morning I was late for court. The judge yelled at me and the other public defenders pretended to care as I vented Teresa’s story to them. I couldn’t blame them. They each had heard hard luck stories all day long and knew that I was just letting off steam after a particularly big letdown.
I prided myself on being the type of lawyer who tried to crawl inside the skin of my clients, who got to know them and feel their pain or their predicament so that I could accurately describe it to a judge or jury at a trial or sentencing hearing. None of my colleagues had ever cried in court the way I had several times, except one woman who cried her way back to the office after being yelled at by a judge. I knew a lot of people quietly laughed at me, standing up in my used clothing store suit, trying to hold back tears as I told the judge about my client’s sad story. As laughable as my style could be, it usually worked. I knew that just as people laughed at me, they also respected my sincerity, and my sometimes manufactured idealism. My own style was more like a roller coaster than a merry go round. I felt my client’s pain and their successes, probably too much for the low rate of pay they gave us. But I also felt immense pleasure at seeing my clients do well, at being hugged by them or even thanked occasionally. To me, being a p.d. was not just a job, it was an adventure. I knew I couldn’t afford to stay in this job for long, so I tried to savor every moment, before financial reality set in and idealism let me down.
Teresa’s story was truly an adventure, but afterwards being a public defender felt much more like just a job. I wasn’t ready to get off of the roller coaster yet, but the safe, predictable merry-go-round, of a well-paying private sector job or a less emotionally-invested style, personal looked a lot more appealing. I wasn’t ready to give up on human nature, or on my own idealistic outlook yet, but the glass was starting to seem more empty than full, the absence more real than the presence.
Teresa still hasn’t called and i take that as a good sign. If she were the way down again, she would be reaching out to her old friend, her public defender, the way a desperate, drowning person would reach out to (and pull down) a person who tried to help. In jail, you can always call your lawyer, but Teresa has never called me. I had no real reason for this belief, but something made me believe that she didn’t call out of respect for me and the way I tried to help her, without any real success. It would have been sickening to have to hear how her life fell back into after I had seen her put it all back together so tirelessly.
I still wonder about the diamonds, though. Were they real or fabricated? Part of me still believes in fairy tales like these, but I know there are no diamonds waiting for Teresa to dig up and live happily every after on when she gets out. She would have long ago sold them, shot up the proceeds and never fallen back to snatching purses if she had anything else left to lose in her life. They were simply a myth, spun by addicts who were stuck in jail and desperate for something shiny and valuable to focus on, to soothe them through their own dull gray, confined lives. I could now see clearly, as if through a half-empty glass, what I missed before. I was a fool to have ever believed in such a sparkling, senseless story.