Ross Essay Contest

Still There in the Ashes

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Bryn had sat with Eleni for so long that she had to race to get to the magistrate courthouse for preliminary hearings. These hearings were her first chance to really defend her clients, but they were generally undramatic and formulaic. The DA had to present enough evidence for the judge to find that there was probable cause the defendant had committed the offense, which was a very low standard to clear. Bryn often suggested waiving the hearings, especially for drug offenses, but sometimes her clients wanted them just for a chance to see the legal system in action, or, more commonly, to get out of jail for a few hours.

Today, she had two hearings at which both she and the DA would recommend the defendant be bound over to drug court. The magistrate judge would agree; he always did if the DA recommended it. She also had one nondrug-related hearing: a simple assault charge.

The assault hearing went quickly. The arresting officer testified, though the alleged victim didn’t show up. It was common for victims to back off from the court system once charges had been filed, especially if they had a personal relationship with the defendant. Bryn tried to argue that the lack of a testifying victim made the case against her client worthless, but ultimately wasn’t surprised when the judge bound her client over to criminal court.

She could tell the client was confused, maybe even suspicious, by how calm the hearing was. Bryn had asked the arresting officer a few questions on cross-examination, but she hadn’t gasped and shouted and tricked him into admitting the whole thing was a conspiracy against an innocent man. People who came in expecting A Few Good Men were generally surprised to find a level of drama slightly below two office employees arguing about the communal coffeepot.

When the remaining hearings had finished, the DA and Bryn drove over to the county courthouse. DA Julie Beck was a no-nonsense woman in her 50s Bryn had come to greatly respect and admire. Together they went into the DA’s office to discuss deals for a dozen of Bryn’s clients.

Julie had been the county DA for a long time but had adjusted her once tough-on-crime style when the drug epidemic reached crisis levels. She liked to build in drug treatment requirements into her plea agreements. Privately, Bryn thought that was always a smart choice, but some of her clients knew or believed they couldn’t comply and had asked her to push back against those sorts of deals.

The meeting was cordial, even friendly. This was something else that surprised people about the criminal justice system. Losses and wins rarely occurred in a courtroom, under the eye of a stern judge. Instead they usually happened in this tiny office, brokered by two women who sometimes had brunch together on Sundays.

Bryn brought up Eleni in the middle of the meeting. “I talked to Eleni Mitchell this morning,” she said casually as she opened Eleni’s file. “Remember her?”

“Yes, I do. I was sorry to see she was arrested again.” Julie gestured to the corkboard behind her desk, which held dozens of photographs. “After her daughter was born, she sent me a photo with a thank-you note. I was really impressed by that. Not many defendants thank me.”

Sure enough, Bryn could see the same photo of Angela she had returned to Eleni that morning. “I was thinking that she’s still a really strong candidate for drug court.”

“She already failed it.”

“But not because she started using. That didn’t happen until she was put in prison with no access to methadone. She just agreed to let her ex-boyfriend stay with her.”

“And he was a user.” Julie’s voice was calm, but her spine had straightened enough to signal that she was all lawyer now. “She broke the rules. The judge acted correctly in sentencing her, even though it contributed to her relapse. If he made an exception for Eleni, what would that say to everyone else?”

“That doesn’t mean Eleni shouldn’t be given a second chance now.”

“Rules exist in part because people need to see the consequences of breaking them. It’s my job, and Judge Travers’ job, to think about everyone in drug court, not just one person, and weakening the rules to help Eleni will make everyone think they can bend their own requirements.” Julie shook her head. “It’s not happening. She’s staying in the criminal court system.”

The disappointment was crushing. Bryn could have pushed. She wanted to push, but she had seven more clients whose futures depended on this meeting going well. “Fine,” she said, and stuck Eleni’s file to the bottom of the stack in her lap. “Let’s move on.”

There was a decidedly cooler tone to the rest of the meeting. When they finished with the last client—Julie agreeing to let Jasmin try drug court—Bryn quickly started to pack up her bag, but Julie’s quiet voice stopped her. “Did you see the paper today?”

“No.”

“Remember Davy Mendoza?”

Bryn’s heart sank. She’d represented Davy Mendoza two years ago. He had been a high school football star who became addicted to opioids after an injury. He hadn’t even turned 19 yet when he was busted for possession.

She’d nearly killed herself over Davy Mendoza. With her help, he’d successfully completed the drug court program, enrolled in night classes at the local community college, and he was able to continue working on his dad’s farm, which would have gone into foreclosure without him there to run it. When she’d appeared with him at his drug court completion hearing, he’d gripped her hand and said with the shy earnestness only a true farm boy could have. “Ma’am, I just want to say thank you.” It was one of her best success stories.

“Did he get arrested?”

“He died this weekend.”

Bryn sat very still. Something cold snaked through her veins, making its way to her heart.

“He overdosed at home. His dad found him.” Julie watched her sadly. “I know he was an important one for you. I wanted you to hear it from a friend.”

Bryn pressed her fingertips into her forehead, hard. Davy had been fine when she had last seen him. She had thought about checking up on him a few times in the past year, but she never did because she didn’t want him to think that he was even on her radar. She’d wanted him to feel like he was free of the criminal justice system, but there was a thin line between feeling free and feeling abandoned, and maybe Davy had fallen on the wrong side of it.

She had sat in this office once and worked out a deal for Davy Mendoza. She had done her job. It hadn’t been enough.

“Thank you for telling me,” she said stiffly.

•  •  •

 

She could have gone to her office to finish up working, but instead she drove back toward the more rural part of town where her house was located. She wanted to see Davy’s obituary for herself.

Bryn still lived in her childhood home. Her mother had wanted to die there. She had begged Bryn, repeatedly, not to send her to the hospital, where they just saw her as another addict. But when the time had finally come, Bryn had panicked and called an ambulance. Her mother had died in the emergency room.

That day had almost destroyed Bryn. Guilt stayed cold and heavy in her veins, rising through her skin like a fog. She had known her mother was sick, but while she had been away at law school her mother’s condition had worsened, and her dependence on pain pills became an addiction.

Bryn had left her hometown, left her mother, to go to law school, but she could no longer remember why she had done it. Everything that had driven her to become a lawyer—the sense of self-importance; the delight of feeling high-level concepts click into place; the thrill of winning against worthy opponents—seemed small and petty, not even close to being worth her mother’s life. Bryn stayed at the public defender’s office, only because she couldn’t stand the thought of running away from Torrance again and starting over in Philadelphia.

Then she had attended a conference for lawyers focused on the opioid crisis. A man had given a speech talking about how, for some people, an arrest could be a saving grace. The criminal justice system had a long way to go before anyone could say it was designed to help addicts, but it was making strides, and defense attorneys were part of that. If lawyers focused on getting the right kind of deals with built-in treatment plans, showing clients that they were someone worth fighting for, the criminal justice system could genuinely save lives.

“When some addicts reach rock bottom, it’s a doctor who saves them,” he had said. “For others, it’s a lawyer.”

And Bryn remembered that there was another reason she had wanted to be a lawyer: to help people. Something had reignited inside her that day. Not long after, she had watched her first client graduate from drug court, and the little spark became a fire. Staying in Torrance was no longer her penance; it was her purpose.

Once home, she found the story about Davy’s death. It was short. Unremarkable. He hadn’t been the only addict to die over the weekend. Bryn knew that most people—even most lawyers—would tell her not to take it so hard. He hadn’t been a current client; she hadn’t represented him in a year. But once they were yours, they stayed yours. Especially a kid like this.

It hurt to read. Bryn wondered if she had missed something, if she had made a mistake sending him to drug court instead of letting a harsher punishment scare him into rehabilitation. She had truly believed that Davy was going to be OK. Some of her colleagues had become so cynical that they just assumed their clients were past saving, but not Bryn. Not yet.

And that, she knew, was a good thing. As terrible as it was to learn that Davy was dead, it would be worse to have looked at him and seen a walking corpse. She was worth nothing to her clients if she couldn’t see the best in them. She had enough success stories, enough thank-you notes pinned to her wall to believe that was what made her so good at her job.

Bryn picked up her stack of files and walked into her mother’s bedroom, which she had converted to her home office a year ago. On the way, she put the newspaper in her recycling bin, took a deep breath and let Davy Mendoza go.

•  •  •

A month later, Bryn stood with Eleni in front of the criminal court judge. Eleni was being sentenced. She had accepted a plea deal that Bryn had worked out with Julie.

It was a good deal. Eleni would serve the first eight months of her sentence in the Brook County Jail, which was 40 minutes away but had a drug treatment program that Eleni would need to complete. She would then be transferred to a halfway house, which would help her reintegrate while still providing drug treatment support. She would be close enough that her mother could bring Angela to visit, and her sentence was specifically targeted to address her substance abuse issues. It wasn’t perfect, but Bryn knew she couldn’t have gotten anything better.

Even so, Eleni sobbed quietly as the judge spoke, cuffed hands knitted together like she was praying. Bryn knew that a part of her had hoped for a last-moment decision to shorten the sentence or send her to drug court.

When the judge finished speaking, Bryn walked with Eleni out to the hallway, where the guards were waiting to transport her to the county jail. Bryn didn’t have much time; she had five more clients being sentenced today. She just couldn’t let Eleni go without something real and personal. Something more than the clinical words the judge had read out from the Pennsylvania Criminal Code.

“You’re going to be OK,” she said. “Just stay clean. You can call me anytime. I want to make sure you’re getting the support you need inside.”

Eleni nodded. Bryn remembered the first time she had represented Eleni, when the magistrate judge agreed to transfer her to drug court. Eleni had been beside herself with relief. She had thanked Bryn repeatedly through happy tears, clutching at Bryn’s hands.

Today wasn’t anything like that day. Bryn knew how disappointed Eleni was in this outcome. But even so, Eleni whispered, “Bryn? Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Bryn squeezed Eleni’s cuffed hands one last time. As the guards started to take Bryn’s client away, the sunlight coming through the window glinted off her handcuffs and the orange of her jumpsuit. For a moment, it almost looked like she was engulfed in flames. Like she was a phoenix that would one day fly again.

 


Ross Award winner: Guardians of the Sixth Amendment

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