THIS IS A GUEST POST BY HARRY K
When I started representing poor people accused of crimes, I wrote some of my experiences in emails to my mother. Much of what happened back then would not happen now. I couldn’t buy cigarettes for a client in the lock-up for example. But much remains the same. Like how little we have to offer people in need. Here is one of the stories I told my mother.
A girl was charged with “common night-walking.” I say “girl” for a reason. She didn’t look much older than 14 despite her Florida “identification card” which listed her age as 17– an adult in the eyes of the law. She had been arrested several times in the same area during a short span of time and, on this occasion, I was appointed her attorney. I went to see her in the lockup. The girl wore clothing suited to a warmer climate. Her silver bra top and tight matching mini required repeated adjustments to cover what they could of her pale skin. Her stunning clear plastic platform shoes brought her from the height of an average 12-year-old to a stratum reserved for fashion models. She was lonely and crying, her stringy blond hair falling in her face, wet with tears. She was mistrustful and reluctant to share her story with me, but her unmistakable accent helped me to get her talking about growing up in Texas. (I lived there for part of my life.) She had little family to speak of and had come from Texas through Louisiana and Florida with a man she called “Poppy.”
When I later went looking for Poppy in the courtroom, I found him to be about 30, with a beeper, a cell phone and a pending criminal charge. This was her “only friend in the world.” I suspect he was the only person she knew in Massachusetts, other than perhaps, the motel desk clerk where they’d been “staying.”
I tried to imagine what it must be like for a teenager alone in a strange place, locked up, without much identification, no bank accounts, credit cards, and not even a sweater to throw over her shoulders. The tears that fell on my hand as I reached through the bars to pat her arm were warm, and I can still remember how soft they felt.
She was brought into the courtroom before I was ready. I had intended to get her covered up before she had to walk past the scrutiny of the judge, a prim woman whose contempt for those who sell their bodies was always evident. Unfortunately, the court officers traipsed the girl in front of the counsel tables, the clerk and, of course, the judge while wearing only her silver ensemble and platforms. The outfit even got the attention of a dozing septuagenarian lawyer because the girl’s demonstration of her wardrobe’s shortcomings – lifting up (the top) and pulling down (the skirt) – caused her handcuffs to jingle alarmingly.
The court’s business came to a halt and the regular thrum fell quiet. The jingling of handcuffs and leg shackles and her occasional wet sniffles were the only sounds. The judge stared, her head slowly turning to follow the girl’s halting progress, her eyes strafing the girl’s body. She looked like she had just swallowed a bad clam. Mercifully, the girl was oblivious.
I hurried to meet her in the jury box. She had goose bumps from the courtroom’s chill. I removed my suit jacket and draped it over her shoulders. She thanked me, wiping snot from her nose with the back of her hand.
The judge did not want to release the girl. She did not want the girl to be with Poppy. She wanted me to schedule the case for one day, and then advance the case to get the girl in on a day when Poppy wouldn’t know she was there. I argued for her release. Denied; previously posted bail now forfeited. I got a short date, thinking that Poppy would likely learn of it by a collect phone call. During the morning recess, the prosecutor asked me if I would be throwing that suit jacket away, or at least dry cleaning it. Neither had occurred to me, and, while putting it back on, I saw his look of disgust.
Before her next court date, I made dozens of phone calls, looking for a place for the girl to go if released. She did not qualify for a battered woman’s shelter, she did not qualify for drug treatment, she was too young for some of the programs, and there were no beds in another. I pleaded and a generous woman at a medical clinic in Somerville said she would deem my client in need of treatment and admit her, but it could only be for one night. My client said she really just wanted to go back to Texas, so I started researching the cost of a bus ticket.
At the next court date, I argued for the release of the girl and the return of her bail money. I pointed out that with the return of her bail, she would be able to buy a bus ticket and have enough left over for incidentals on the trip south. The judge wanted to know if the girl had anything else to wear if she was released. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I requested a second call, asked my client her size, ran home and pulled out an old suit, a silk top and a pair of stretch pants. I worried that my client wouldn’t accept what I selected, so I stopped at Marshall’s on the way back to court. I bought her some underwear, another top, and a pair of flat heeled, soft Italian leather pink shoes. They were $8.00. Back at the courthouse, I dressed my client in my pastel lemon-colored suit, white silk blouse and flats. As predicted, she decried the clothes as “not sexy enough.” But she was warm looking and presentable.
We resolved the girl’s case favorably with a return of her bail money, but the judge insisted I take her to the bus station. She cautioned me to keep my eyes peeled for Poppy who might appear and do me “some harm.”
After cashing her bail check, we walked to the bus station together. The girl kept insisting she was fine and I could leave her alone. I told her I was following the judge’s orders. Then she insisted I return her clear platforms and silver ensemble. I was disappointed – I was looking forward to trying on those shoes! Outside the bus station, she merrily walked away from me in my old suit with a pocket full of cash and a plastic shopping bag of clothes.
I don’t know if I made a difference in her life. I don’t even know if she got on a bus. I remember hoping that someone else would do her a kindness and that she would be grateful for it. What I do know is I really wanted those shoes.