Justice, Fairy Tales and Myths
We stood in the well of the court, backs turned to the packed gallery. The man spoke of his pain, his sorrow, and his grief. "You have destroyed my life," he said. He lives in pain. "You owe my children," he said. He wanted my client to go to prison, and, to be sure, we knew that she would be sentenced to time behind bars; her daughter, age five, would learn about a new sorrow this very day, the sorrow that comes of asking where is mommy, and why isn't she home? Fresh tears to dampen a pillow in the name of what, justice?
You see, my client had been drinking with friends one night several years ago. She should not have been driving. As she approached a DUI checkpoint manned by local police, she panicked. The officers were dismantling the checkpoint for the night. It was dark. Rather than depress the brake of her car, her foot hit the accelerator. She collided with two police officers, injuring both. Luckily, no one was killed. Both officers have now sued her in civil court; she permitted a default to enter, and has cooperated with the efforts of officers to bring an underinsured motorist claim. She cannot undo what has been done.
The judge insisted throughout the pre-trial negotiations that this was "a jail case." In the bartering for souls known as plea bargaining, that is a shorthand way of telling me to save my breath. On a plea, my client is going to prison. Period. The only question is the length of the sentence. I begged to avoid a felony. My client is a single mother, and a nurse. A felony conviction could mean loss of her license and her ability to support her child. No deal. The state pressed for a prison term measured in years, not months. Negotiations broke down, and the case moved to the list of cases ready for trial. Long months passed in which the case lingered, my client's life, and that of her daughter, held in limbo.
Finally, my client wanted the case resolved. Her daughter is getting older. She will start school soon. My client's mother is young enough and healthy enough to care for the child if my client must go to prison. So I request that the case be returned to an active docket. We meet to discuss how much time she must do on a plea. The state still wants years. The judge agrees to a cap of 30 months with a right to argue for less time. We pin out hopes on one year to serve.
So there we stood in before the court yesterday. The prosecution was firm, but not in a nail-spitting frame of mind. "We leave it to the court to determine the length of the sentence." Then one of the victims spoke. He walked to the front of the court, seeming young and fit. He has returned to work as a police officer. But his voice catches, and, although i do not look at him, I sense he is in tears. He wants his life back. He is now assigned to a desk. He has had to resign from the police department's SWAT team. "I wasn't made for a desk," he sighs.
My client's family speaks. And then it is her turn. She turns to the victims assembled in the gallery and apologizes. She had made a stupid mistake. This was not who she was. She is sorry, and she knows she must be punished. I see the judge is moved by this display of remorse; it is genuine and heartfelt.
I ask the judge for no more than one cycle of seasons as a sentence for my client. Let it be enough for mother a child to miss one spring, one summer, one fall. A year is a long, long time to spend behind bars. Only those unfamiliar with prisons can reckon otherwise.
The judge imposes a sentence of one year in prison. As he does, I see a hand reach out to me. It is my client's. She squeezes my hand and thanks me with tears in her eyes. I tell her I wish I could have done better for her. She understands, she said. She made a mistake. Now she must pay, Handcuffs are clasped around her wrists and she is led from the court to a holding cell.
I lay awake tonight thinking about her, and wondering whether justice isn't really just another fairy tale. "Once upon a time," we begin such tales. Once upon a time, a police officer could be a SWAT team member, his back did not hurt: his future seemed bright. And then an evil genie took possession of a car. The genie had, you see, drank a noxious potion, a potion than transformed her from a caring and lovely woman into a witch. The witch cackled and roared and drove the car into the man. Now the man hurts. The man went to the prince of the realm for justice. He wanted all to be well again. And so the prince banished the witch to a dark forest. And then? How is it that fairy tales end? The man lived happily ever after and peace was restored the kingdom? Isn't that the fairy tale ending?
Except in this case nothing changed. The man is still in pain, and a little girl cried out for her mother as darkness fell. Nothing changed. Justice, you see, isn't a fairy tale; it is a myth.