I got a chance yesterday to see what freedom looks like: freedom is a man still dressed in his orange prison jump suit springing from the passenger seat of your car into the waiting arms of a loved one standing outside a housing project. Freedom is the stunned, even shocked look of two brothers charged with murder walking out of the courthouse with you on a sunny summer day, after learning that the charges against them were just dismissed. Freedom is the shock of hope restored, and saying farewell to the cell that could well have housed you for a long life to come.
It should have been obvious to me that something was afoot when the prosecutor walked into the judge’s chambers looking as though he had swallowed something toxic. We had been summoned in for a pre-trial. I intended to press for a trial date this Fall. My clients, two brothers, were locked up, held on impossibly high bonds. It was time to get it on, hold the state to its burden of proof, see if the state could prove they shot and killed another man one night. It didn’t look like much of a case to me; we never considered a plea. We plead not guilty. It was trial all the way for this case.
The prosecutor told the judge he did not think he had a case he could in good conscience pursue. He did not think the evidence sufficient to get it to a jury. He was making a hard, and principled, call many prosecutors seem reluctant to make: he was set to drop a case charging two men with murder because he knew he could not prove the state’s mere suspicions. He was acting in the interest of justice. He grew a foot taller in my mind’s eye for taking this stand.
We asked the judge to dismiss the charges, and he did. The men were taken to the basement lockup while marshals and Department of Corrections employees verified that there were no other charges upon which to hold these men.
How different the lockup felt. I’ve lost my share of men to the belly of this concrete beast. It is most often a place of busted hopes and dreams. Those confined talk tough and posture, but there is fear there, and anger, and hopelessness. I wish lawmakers could spend time behind bars with the men sentenced under the laws we pass in the name of justice. We
But yesterday I sat in the lockup waiting for my clients to be released. I wasn’t leaving without them.
“You waiting for your clients?,” one marshal asked as he walked by.
“You bet I am,” I said. “I’ve left too many people here. I am taking these boys home to their family today.”
“Not many people wait in here,” the marshal said.
It took an hour or so to get the young men out into the clear light of day. I’ve known both for a long time now. We giggled about how surprised their father would be to see them. They talked about their children, and how good it would be to be free to hug them. Both men wondered whether the jobs they lost when they were arrested all most two years ago would be waiting for them.
“The economy has really crumbled,” I told them. “It’s tough in the world just now.”
But we were riding on a cloud through the streets of New Haven. They were free, did I tell you that? They were going home. The sound of a cell door slamming will become a memory in time.
An old woman bent by years burst into tears when we pulled over to the curb in front of their grandmother’s home. Folk looked on, some smiling, some seeming surprised. The beast often takes young men, particularly young men of color; it is rare to see them return.
“You got a card?,” one guy asked me. “My brother, he caught a murder case.”
I told the man these cases are hard. There are no guarantees. There is only the fight. The beast takes. It roars. It consumes the flesh and hopes and dreams.
The man said he knew that. But, like me, he watched two men come home and saw the tears and the joy. He believed for a moment. And he hoped.
We both stood stunned and watched freedom. There is nothing better in a lawyer’s life.