And justice (is not) for all!
This summer, I worked at the Scott County Courthouse with Justice Thomas Waterman, Judge Mark Cleve, and the rest of the amazing 7th District Court judges and staff. It was by far one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had, full of researching for supreme court opinions, sitting-in on trials, and getting to see the behind-the-scenes of the justice system.
Entering the courtroom for a sentencing hearing, the first thing I noticed was the stark contrast of the orange jumpsuit with the back of the defendants head. The fabric looked starchy and tough. But his head was smooth and shiny. His neck jerked back when the door shut and his look froze me in place like a deer facing oncoming traffic.
“Who’s that?” he asked, leaning into his lawyer. The voice was gravely. Angry. His baggy jumpsuit bunched up beneath the handcuffs that kept his fists in his lap. One pair of cuffs around the wrists, another around the ankles, both connected by a middle chain.
His lawyer barely glanced at me before whispering something back. I couldn’t hear him, but the defendant glared another minute before turning to face the judge.
What am I doing here? My discomfort was practically palpable.
I was learning. Using his life experience like an unpublished textbook. I shouldn’t be here. I tried to shake the feeling.
Nevertheless, I stayed. I stayed to hear the state attorney recommend the maximum sentence and the defense counter with a request for the minimum. “Does the defendant have anything to add?” the judge asked, not looking up from the PSI — a pre-sentencing investigation that condensed every detail of this man’s life (since birth) into a 10-page, single-staple document.
His lawyer nodded and the defendant started to speak. “Your honor,” his voice was deeper now. I imagine it’s what the darkness of a bottomless cavern would sound like. “I can’t argue with what I did. I know it was wrong, I shouldn’t have done it. But I ain’t never been under that kind of pressure before. I was laid off. I couldn’t make rent for the first time in 15 years…15 years… I had to get the money, where were my kids gonna sleep? I didn’t hurt anyone. I was never going to. Please, I just don’t wanna be away from my boys. My two boys. 7 years is just too long…”
The judge’s hands, which had been clasped, opened. Her lips unpressed and as she looked down from the bench the seconds felt like hours. I wondered if she had heard it too. The longing. Maybe I was being played. But I wanted the lighter sentence for him. I thought about how I couldn’t imagine a situation where committing a crime felt like the only way out.
It also dawned on me that I may be seeing this man’s last day of “freedom.” Even if he got the minimum sentence, there’s not much he would see but the inside of his cell for a long time. And he was here alone, no kin, just this stranger who looked barely old enough to drive, two opposing lawyers and the one person who may or may not have already decided the defendant’s fate but had yet to speak.
I tried to imagine my walk into the courthouse that morning and how it would have felt if I’d known it was the last time I’d be walking out. What details could I remember? Are those the memories I’d take with me? I get to go home after this, I thought. He gets to go to a cell barely bigger than a twin-sized bed and sleep headfirst next to a stainless steel toilet.
When the judge gave him the longer sentence, I didn’t know how to feel. I was inexperienced. Who was I to, for lack of a better word, judge? People deserved to be punished…right?
I walked out of the courtroom feeling a hundred pounds heavier. My suit weighed me down as though I’d put on an anchor. Part of me wanted to cry. Part of me did. It felt unfair. Emotionally, I was drained.
I had a lot of days like that this summer. It was these moments that reignited my passion. After 1helL of a first year of law school, I remembered why I came here to begin with.
To help people. Defend them. Protect them.
Some people I saw were cruel. They deserved what they were getting, maybe they deserved even worse than that. But many people, I learned, were born into a life where they knew nothing else. They had no means to break the cycle. Why should they be punished for being victims of circumstance? Why are we, society, incapable of providing better? Doing more?
Justice seemed unjust. I felt angry. So many times I wanted to shout, “Justice, you are not blind! You, with your scales, are just a bully preying on victims of circumstance!”
But who’s at fault? Justice, or us? After all, isn’t justice inevitably prone to human error? And how do you differentiate between the individual born into a bad life, and the 20-year-old living comfortably who decided to shoot his parents because his mom asked him to stop playing video games and move out? His parents weren’t the only victims. I can still see the ripples in his sisters navy blouse, stiff shoulders sitting three rows in front me, her back tense. She was holding her breath. I knew that four younger siblings now had no parents.
I don’t know what’s right. Or how to fix it. But after this summer, I know that I want to.