Ross Essay Contest

Still There in the Ashes

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Finally, there was no putting off Eleni Mitchell. Bryn steeled herself as the guards walked her client into the meeting room. Eleni was 25, and this was her third arrest. The first had been when she was a juvenile. The second, when Bryn took over her case, had been a prostitution and possession charge. Bryn had gotten Eleni into drug court.

Eleni had complied perfectly, in part because she had been pregnant and didn’t want to lose her baby. The last time Bryn had touched base with her, she’d been on a methadone script, had a job and was raising her daughter, Angela.

Then she’d failed her drug court requirements. She hadn’t started using. Instead, she had agreed to let her ex-boyfriend, her baby’s father, stay with her, and he was a user. It was a violation of drug court rules. She’d been caught, and the drug court judge had ordered jail time. The county jail didn’t allow inmates to have methadone. There were, however, plenty of ways to get heroin inside—and that’s what Eleni did.

That had been less than three months ago. Last week Eleni had been arrested again on possession charges. She was one of the people who had been denied bail, unsurprising given her criminal history—but a definite blow to her morale.

When Eleni came in, her head was bowed with shame. Bryn didn’t mention the history between them; didn’t give voice to the disappointment they both felt seeing Eleni back in this position. It wasn’t her job to scold or moralize. She wasn’t Eleni’s therapist or preacher or doctor—or even her friend.

Eleni listened as Bryn reminded her of what she was there for and talked her through the next steps of the legal process. When she spoke, her voice sounded dull. “Can you get me back into drug court?”

It was the question Bryn had been dreading. “Probably not. You failed it the first time. Judge Travers doesn’t really give second chances.” Bryn hesitated, weighing the risk of giving false hope against the fear of destroying Eleni’s hope completely. “There are extraordinary cases sometimes where the judge will allow it, if the DA really pushes. I can talk to DA Beck and see if she would be willing to do that for you. But the odds are this time you’ll stay in the criminal system.”

“Please try. I don’t want more jail time.”

“I will. I’ll need all the facts, though. Where was Angela when you were using?”

“With my mom. I asked her to keep her for a while. I knew I was in bad shape.”

“What about your job?” Eleni had worked as a cashier at a grocery store.

“They fired me when Judge Travers sent me to jail. I went to two interviews, but they could tell I was strung out.”

That she’d tried to get another job was good. Bryn wrote it down. “How’d you pay for the heroin?”

“I sold my methadone.”

That wasn’t so good, but Bryn wrote it down anyway. She asked a few more questions, observing Eleni carefully. The answers were important, but so was watching Eleni give them. The hardest thing in the world was defending a client who had stopped fighting. One of her co-workers had once said, if you were to bet on the outset of a case that you would have a live client at the end of it, you would have better odds defending someone on death row than a drug addict who had given up on themselves.

Eleni was in a bad place, but Bryn could tell she hadn’t quit completely. There was something inside her still flickering, still urging her to move forward. Bryn reminded herself that, now, it was her job to make sure that little spark didn’t go out.

“It’ll be jail time for sure?” Eleni asked when Bryn had all the answers she needed. “If we don’t go to drug court?”

Bryn nodded. “I’ll try to get you the best plea deal I can. Of course, we could also go to trial. …”

Eleni shook her head, eyes filling with tears. “Angela isn’t even 2 yet,” she said.

Bryn looked down at Eleni’s file. There was a picture of Angela inside. Eleni had sent it to her after the baby was born, with a note: THANK YOU!!!! “I know.”

“My mom said she would try to bring her in to visit me. Do you think that’s OK? Letting a kid see her mom in jail?”

“I think she’d love to see you. And I bet you’d feel better for seeing her.” Bryn hesitated, studying her client. “What’s going on with you now? Are you detoxing?”

“Yes. But I know where I can get it in here.”

Bryn knew better than to ask Eleni to snitch. “Just stay away from it. You’ve detoxed in a cell before. You need to be clean at your next appearance, Eleni. It’s really important.” Bryn took the picture of Angela out of her folder and pushed it across the table. “Keep this. Just keep looking at it tonight.”

Eleni reached out to take the picture, using her fingertips to slide it toward herself. She studied it for several moments in silence. Bryn knew she was in no hurry to leave this room, to return to the company of inmates and guards who only knew her as a last name and a rap sheet.

“You want to hear something really sad?” Eleni asked finally. “When Angela was born, she wasn’t breathing. I saw that she was this blue-gray color and stiff like a plastic doll. They hurried her away to the corner of the room to work on her. I could just see this little blue arm. I was thinking that it must have been my fault, because of the methadone. They told me it was safest to stay on the script, but she would be born addicted to it, and there could be complications.”

Bryn’s stomach was clenching. She hated stories about hospitals and especially stories about resuscitation attempts. They always made her think about her mother. But she knew she had to let Eleni finish the story. Sometimes, when clients ran out of alibis and excuses and questions, all they had was a story they needed to tell. The story: the one that they thought had already been fully written and had led them to this ending.

“I thought that she had overdosed before she was born. I had seen people OD before, and they all turned that blue color. But never me. I never overdosed, even though I was the heaviest user I knew. In the hospital, I couldn’t believe how unfair it was. I got chance after chance, and she didn’t even get a first chance? I wanted to scream, but then her arm stopped being blue. It was pink. It was that fast. Like lighting a match, and she was pink, and she was screaming.”

Eleni’s voice cracked. She stared down at the picture of Angela, swallowed hard, and continued.

“When they gave her to me, I was just so in awe of her. This little baby who started her life going all the way to the brink of death and coming back. I thought that I never went that far, but I got pretty close. And I came back just like she did. I promised her I would never let her go back there, and I wouldn’t go either. I promised.”

Bryn took tissues out of her bag and passed them across the table. “You’ll come back again,” she said. “Think of how many people helped Angela that day. There are people helping you too, Eleni. Don’t quit.”

Eleni didn’t answer. Bryn just sat with her for a few minutes more, listening to the ragged sound of Eleni’s breathing. Finally, she said, “I’ll talk to DA Beck about drug court. Let’s not decide about waiving your preliminary hearing until we have a sure answer.”

“You said it’s unlikely,” Eleni said in flat confirmation.

“Yes,” Bryn agreed. “But that’s no reason not to try.”

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Ross Award winner: Guardians of the Sixth Amendment

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