I followed Officer O’Halloren as we snaked through the hallways between cells at the Cook County jail. I was not expecting to get this close to the incarcerated women, and I didn’t know jail would be so dark. And confining.
Up ahead, I saw an inmate throw a bologna sandwich through the bars. I wanted to laugh to ease the tension building through my shoulders. Terror and curiosity swirled within me as I wondered if any of the faces belonged to my new client.
“Wait here,” O’Halloren said, when we reached the end of a hallway. I saw a closet-sized room with a bench.
I pulled a legal pad and a pen from my briefcase, so I could hold the tools that proved I was prepared to mount a defense for my client.
When she walked through the door to our “conference” room, I realized the absurdity of believing that legal preparation was the same as emotional preparation.
“Ms. K., I am your lawyer.” I rose to shake her hand.
She didn’t say a word as she shuffled over to the bench, her eyes focused on the floor.
How was I going to ask this emaciated stranger about the accident and the charges? My pen poised for recording the facts, I started gently.
“Do you know that the state has charged you with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon?”
She nodded, but still no eye contact.
“How is Andre? Have you seen him?” She asked suddenly, growing agitated about her surviving son. I hadn’t met him, but a social worker told me that their church had taken care of him.
“He is safe. Your minister is bringing him to the hearing this afternoon.”
She turned farther away as tears fell down her swollen face.
“Can we talk about the night of the accident? The more facts I have, the better job I can do for you.” My voice was a mix of compassion and authority, both of which she deserved from me.
“You’re probably judging me,” she said, wiping away her tears.
“It’s not my job to judge you,” I assured this broken bird of a woman.
“I didn’t drink that much. They are lying.” Now she was facing me, almost daring me to defy her. I had a police report that indicated she was well over the legal limit when she was pulled from the wheel of the car.
“Why don’t you tell me what you remember?” I suggested.
“You believe me don’t you? I loved my son. I would never have hurt him.” She finally met my eyes with her desperate stare.
“I believe you,” I said, not as a lawyer, but as a mother.
“Good,” she said quietly.
“Do you think you have a problem with alcohol?” I asked hoping we might use evidence of recovery in mitigation.
“No. I am not going to AA. My public defender wanted me to do alcohol rehab, but those places are full of sickos.”
I backed off the topic of recovery. In the next 30 minutes, I got her to tell me as much as she could remember. When I left, I couldn’t wait to scrub the dust of her anguish and denial off my skin.
I had been to Alanon for over 10 years by the time I met Ms. K., but I wasn’t prepared for how much I wanted her– a stranger and a client– to get sober. I wanted her to walk through the pain of killing her son and whatever other demons she was trying to outrun.
But, I stuffed my desire for her sobriety each time I worked on her case; I focused on her legal issues.
When the judge eventually gave her the “best possible deal,” I cheered for her, but with only half my heart. The other half was freighted with that persistent desire that she get sober. All those months working for her, I never stopped wanting it.
I probably never will.
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