I am a Public Defender. I believe that no matter how damaged, addicted or despised my clients may be, there is always, without a single exception, a piece of humanity locked away inside them that is worth searching out and defending as if it were my very own life.
I had a client named Jim. He was thin as a dry stick and his eyes would bulge out from under his dirty blond crew cut as he squeezed my hand without any sign of letting go. His drinking and his mental illness had alienated him from everyone in town. They would think nothing of putting him in jail. They were always worried, they said, that he would kill someone. “They’re screwing me again, Andy”, he would say. The soft breeze of whiskey would flow over my face. “I know Jim. Come on, let’s talk about it.”
And we would talk. In fact, it was quite a task to get Jim to stop talking. He would tell me about his former life in the tunnels under the nearby city of Rochester New York. He quizzed me about current events. Underneath the filthy Carhartt coverall, behind the booze and the attitude, there was a bright man. Every once in a while Jim’s better nature would triumph and send up a flare. You just had to be looking at the right time.
After a while Jim decided small town life didn’t suit him and he moved back up to the streets of Rochester. One night, as he lay cramped on a cot in a bus used to house homeless people on the coldest nights of winter, Jim was murdered. He was stabbed by another deranged soul and bled to death. The reason: Jim apparently would not stop talking.
Not long after his funeral, Jim’s estranged mother somehow tracked me down. She asked me if I knew Jim. We traded stories about him. She told me how smart and stubborn Jim was as a child and how his life had eventually all gone bad. I told her what I could; that Jim was not an easy person to deal with, but that in the end I liked him very much and stuck up for him when I could. That I was sorry he had died.
She sighed quietly and said “Well, at least he seems to have had someone nice to talk to and look after him when he was on his own, away from us. Thank you so much.”
When I have the privilege of standing up next to someone in court who perhaps has done something horrible to another human being, a person separated from their family, targeted by the state and reviled by every single person in the room, I believe it is my calling to search out that cloaked nugget of humanity locked away under the wreckage of my client’s life and actions. And I try to make sure that everyone is looking when I help my client send up their flare.
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