Defending the Guilty

By Leavitt, Michele | The Humanist, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview
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Defending the Guilty

Leavitt, Michele, The Humanist

The first time I meet Lisa, she's in the courthouse lockup, a six-by-twelve, foot cement-block cell that smells like a hundred people breathing out cigarette smoke and alcohol vapors. I run through my questions: address, age, schooling, marital status. She sits on the edge of the toilet, looks up at me seductively through her morbidly black false eye, lashes, and whispers, "I'm a widow."

Lisa is a prostitute as well as a widow and, like many street walkers, she sells her services to support her drug habit. This first time I defend her, she's in for prostitution and possession of a needle and syringe. The prosecutor and the judge want her held on a high bad. I argue with the judge: it's a victimless crime, it's a waste of the state's money to lock her up, and there are no programs for her in jail. And, I say, the police don't arrest the male customers, although they could. This woman is being denied her equal-protection rights. The judge finally agrees - or maybe he just gets sick of my harangue. He lets her walk. Lisa tells me I'm the world's greatest lawyer. I walk out of the court, house with her. The late March sun makes us both squint; it's very bright, still low in the sky.

As New England warms to spring, Lisa's new cases mount up, and old ones she's in default on keep floating to the surface. By the end of summer, I represent her on over a dozen complaints: shoplifting, possessing and selling heroin and cocaine, common nightwalking, pickpocketing her johns, and violating her probation, as well as the social services case against her for being an unfit mother. We get along pretty well. She has a quirky sense of humor that matches my own.

Then her social worker calls to tell me she caught Lisa shooting up during a visit with her little girl. I'm ticked off because I've fought long and hard with everyone - the social worker, the agency's lawyer, Lisa's daughter's lawyer, the judge - so that Lisa could have that visit.

The next time I see her, she's in custody on a new drug case, handcuffed to a tall, mean-looking woman who's charged with armed robbery. The two are snuggled together in the prisoners, dock, putting on a subtle show for an old man sitting in the front row of the courtroom. I lean over the oak railing of the dock, blocking his view, and tell Lisa that her options are no longer open. She should have gone into a detox program, she should have gone to therapy, she should have apologized to the social worker. Now she'll have to do some time. But in the future she should stop behaving in a self-destructive fashion, she should get a job, get an apartment, get her daughter back. Her lips thin and flatten, and her eyes turn vacant. Should. She disconnects her gaze from mine like she couldn't care less.

I still defend her. I threaten that I'll make the prosecutor try all 12 of her pending cases, that I'll have them writing memos on sex discrimination until the end of the world. They cave in and agree to a good deal: wrapping up all her pending cases with a 30-day prison term and a suspended sentence. This is her punishment for being guilty of everything she was accused of - and probably much more.

People always ask public defenders: "How can you defend someone who you know is guilty?" Sometimes I try to answer that question by talking about what defend means or what guilty means, but I rarely try to answer by talking about what someone means. I suppose that's because it's so easy to label someone whos a defendant - hooker, drug addict, murderer. And it's so much work, so complicated, so unfashionable to talk about those some, ones as individuals.

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