I was sent this story from a criminal defense attorney. It is fairly long but oh so worth your time. Straight from the front lines of the War. We need more advocates like “Mercy”.
Please send me your War stories at firstname.lastname@example.org !
The first time I met with Mr. W he struck me as an intelligent and almost scholarly old man. A 65 year-old African American man with thick square eyeglasses and grey hair—he had a scholarly air about the way he spoke. Mr. W was in the county jail and he was charged with possession of crack cocaine and because he had previous felony drug convictions the state had “enhanced” his charge to a more serious level of felony offense. Mr. W was looking at 2-20 years in prison for less than one ounce of crack cocaine.
I was the SECOND lawyer appointed to represent Mr. W. He told me he did not like his first lawyer and she eventually got off his case because he refused to deal with her. He said she was a prosecutor and he didn’t like people who were really working for the government representing him. I told him I’d never been a prosecutor and that I’d only ever been a defense attorney. And with that information, his countenance changed, and he took more of a liking to me. I can’t blame him.
I couldn’t help but think “red flag!” I even remember kind of telling myself, “great they’ve appointed the baby lawyer to deal with the client who cannot get along with his lawyer.” Looking back I realize how wrong it was for me to assume the problem had to do with Mr. W and not his lawyer, or that the real problem wasn’t just a broken criminal justice system that treats some people in our system as “lesser.” I took a deep breath and reminded myself why I do this work: to help people, to be a servant, to try to fight against injustices, to zealously advocate in the courtroom, and to at least try and do my part to make sure my clients receive the same level of protection that our Constitution is supposed to provide to every accused person. I could at least do these things for this man, and I would do my best to afford him the dignity he deserved in the legal system, even if it meant a lot of time, a lot of listening and a lot of jumping through hoops…It turned out my attitude and my heart worked with Mr. W.
Mr. W was a Vietnam veteran. He’d fought for his country in Vietnam, and then he came back ravaged from war and could not cope with life anymore. He told me of his failed attempts to “get help” at the VA hospital, but eventually he turned to the streets and he turned to drugs over and over again. He struggled with addiction for most of his lifetime. Interesting though, especially for those that might have the perception that “only really bad people” or “monsters” sit locked in our prisons for decades….I saw this man’s full criminal record, not a single violent offense, not a single theft, just a lot of drug possession charges over many decades. He was an addict, a man with a lifelong illness, an illness that he suffered from for decades, an illness that continued to swallow his life and his freedom.
Sometimes I try to step back from my cases and do my best to see it from the “other side,” meaning I try to see it from the side of the State or the side of the law and order person who might be looking at the case as a juror. It’s my job to try to look at it from the other side, for the benefit of my clients. And when I looked at it from the other perspective, I knew he’d possessed and used drugs, and that’s illegal, ok he violated some laws……however I tried to look at it, the extreme seriousness of the punishment he faced still did not seem any more fair to me. And even though I knew he had done some things that were “wrong” under the law, it still completely broke my heart that a fellow human being was being sort of just thrown out as a “lost cause.” I struggled with the thought that a man who clearly was a uniquely created human being, with a clear depth of intelligence, a man who’d fought for our country, a man who had his spirit broken in the process of that fight, that THIS man would just be cast away as useless to society by the same country whom he’d sacrificed body and soul. It just felt so wrong, and yet I saw it happening before my very eyes….
Mr. W wanted a motion to suppress filed because he told me the police had simply stopped him in the projects late one night for being a black man late at night in the street. I told him I’d review the police report and all of the discovery and we’d go from there, and if that’s what he wanted I’d do my best to fight for him. He seemed satisfied with that promise. He looked at me and said, “you sure look young.” I couldn’t say anything really but, “Yes, I am young…but I will work very hard on your case.” He responded with, “it’s not always what you know, but how hard you work that matters.” I smiled and as I left I knew that Mr. W and I had developed a good rapport and maybe just maybe he was starting to trust me….My second visit he explained how he’d gotten a LIFE SENTENCE for a drug conviction in the 1980’s. He told me how he’d been “railroaded all his life” and he was tired of it and he wanted a jury trial. I told him if that’s what he wanted then I would fight for him to the very end and I told him I was sorry that he’d not been treated well in the past. He also added, “I don’t want none of them [University] people on the jury, they’ll hang me.” I told him I’d do my best to keep “[University] people off the jury.” I also had to be very frank with him that day, as I sadly must be with many of my clients, and I had to discuss the harsh truth that [the] County juries are not typically easy on men in his situation. He looked back at me through his scratched & smudged thick eye glasses and I could see in his weathered eyes that he already knew the harsh truth much better than I did. Despite that harsh truth, Mr. W was still grasping for a piece of hope, a piece of dignity he’d never received, but we both knew he deserved. I told Mr. W I’d be back in about a week to think about what he wanted to do and we would proceed from that point.
A week later I talked to Mr. W and he said “file the motion to suppress, let’s do it.” I spent a few days researching and writing a pretty darn good motion to suppress. It was a special and personalized motion for Mr. W’s case that tried to call attention to the police just stopping an old black man in the projects late at night, because he was an “old black man in the projects late at night.” I filed the motion and then I went to the prosecutor on the case to see if he still wanted to bargain. And by bargain, I mean bargain for a lower offer of prison time because the prosecutor wanted to avoid the work involved with going to trial and arguing this motion before the judge. As much as I wanted to argue the “rightness of my motion,” the prosecutor did succumb to my requests.
I talked to Mr. W about the offer—it was in the range he’d requested. I asked him if he’d gotten the copy of the motion I’d mailed to him at the jail. Mr. W said “Miss____,I got the motion, and that was a fiiiiine motion, it was very good….” I explained the new lower offer from the DA’s office and then also the risks involved with going forward with the motion and going to trial. He said, “I tell you what, I feel like this time I got myself a fiiine attorney who worked real hard for me for the first time, but I’m gonna have to accept the offer.” I was both happy that I’d gotten him what he really wanted and sad that I would not get to fight for him in the courtroom. It was a small win and I felt good that I’d given a man who’d been beaten down by the system a little glimmer of hope and the dignity he deserved. This time…Mr. W did not receive a 20 year or more prison sentence for less than an ounce of crack cocaine. But what about all of the other Mr. W’s in our jails and prisons? What about the ones that were given maximum sentences?
One last thing, one of my favorite things about Mr. W was in one of the letters he sent me from jail, at the bottom of the letter instead of putting “sincerely” above his signature he signed the letter, “knowledge is power.” I loved that for many many reasons. He was a true gem. It’s a heartbreaking shame this man spent most of his life behind bars.