This I Believe

Shauna - Hopkins, Minnesota
Entered on January 7, 2009
Age Group: 18 - 30
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I believe your worst act does not define you.

I was seventeen when my boyfriend shot himself. We were fifteen when we started dating. We had loved each other with the intensity of most first loves, sneaking phone calls in the night and promising we would get married when we were eighteen and live happily ever after. The night before he shot himself, I knew he was upset. He’d been acting unusual for a month, not eating, ditching class on occasion, yelling at me for petty things. At first I bent over backwards to change his attitude with love and affection, but after months of trying, writing him letters, meeting with his mom, I was fed up. The night he picked me up in his car to go to a friend’s house, I turned the music up loud to drowned out the silence between us. I didn’t know what to say or do anymore. I didn’t know how upset he was, but I didn’t ask. My silence was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. He was dead the next morning.

Eight years have passed since that boyfriend died. I’ve been a lawyer since October, and I work for a Judge. Yesterday, I had lunch with a prominent defense attorney. Before my salad arrived, he asked me, “Could you defend someone that had raped a child?” The attorney told me that the moment a defense attorney won’t sit close to their client, the case is lost, whether the client is innocent or not. I pictured the space I’d like to leave between myself and the worst client I could picture. Is a person that committed such a serious crime no more than the crime itself?

I thought of my brothers. Each one has been involved on the other side of the criminal justice system. One is facing 90 days right now, and one is under juvenile jurisdiction. The sentence for my brother John will mean no more community college, no more working two jobs, just straight time in a jail up north. When I think of John, I can picture him shoveling my grandpa’s driveway after fresh snow, or helping cook for Jake, our brother with cancer. I can picture John as far more than a kid that sold drugs to an undercover cop at a concert. If one of my brothers had been the child molester, I would see them as more than “the child molester”.

We’re all born into chances of wealth, poverty, health, disability, abuse, or love. There are Desmond Tutus, Pope John Paul IIs, and Ishmael Beahs among us, scaling adversities most of us will never face and changing the world for the better. But, there are just as many that perpetuate abuse, or worse yet, create it. There are no excuses for the worst crimes, and it took me a moment to realize that the attorney was not was asking me to make one up. The attorney was not asking me to create a defense for a child molester; he was asking me if I could see a child molester as a person separate from a heinous act that he committed. “Yes.” I said. I think some crimes are unforgiveable and deserve harsh prison sentences, but the people behind those crimes are human, and all humans deserve compassion.

I could not defend everyone. I wish I was that much of a saint. I think 98% of the time, I could separate the crime from the person, but a particular person could keep me from being able to be a true zealous advocate. This may sound like a cop out, but I’d rather be honest and let a person truly be innocent until proven guilty, than save my own face and sentence a man with my body language before the trial begins.

Another attorney I know once said, “My job is to protect those that have fallen from God’s graces from those that believe they’ve actually attained them.” I’ve fallen far from God’s graces on numerous occasions. I hope that when I’m judged, it is for more than my worst sin.

I believe your worst act does not define you.