When I first walked into D.C.’s Central Detention Facility, I could hardly contain my excitement. I could not wait to show our client the evidence my partner and I had found. I wanted to prove to him that his case was in capable hands. I now realize my naivety. I worked with several clients over the course of my internship at the D.C. Public Defender Service–all male, all poor, all African-American. Yet, when my first client walked in and sat down across from me, I was shocked. I could not believe how young he was. We easily fell into casual conversation, and for a while, I forgot where we were–in a tiny, whitewashed room with correctional officers watching his every move. Once we finally began reviewing his case materials, our client was engaged and hopeful. He thought that with what we had shown him, surely the jury would deem him innocent. Surely, they would see his point of view. But then, he abruptly changed his demeanor and became fixated on his backpack left at the crime scene. He wanted to know where the police had taken it. I had no answer, to which he replied flatly, “Well, I’m the bad guy, so no one cares about what happens to me or my stuff.” Little did I know that my work over the course of the summer would overwhelmingly support what he had said.
I find it difficult to explain my time at PDS due to the fast-paced unpredictability of public defense work. As an intern investigator for two Felony I defense teams (Felony I attorneys handled the most serious cases), there was no such thing as a typical work day. My tasks ranged from driving to Maryland or Virginia to subpoena a police officer, canvassing a crime scene for potential witnesses, or obtaining video footage from the back of an IHOP. Yet, my most treasured, and often most challenging, task was visiting our clients. Each of them echoed the underlying message of our young client’s statement. I did not realize how dehumanizing the criminal justice system can be and how easily defendants’ lives were defined by a mere accusation. It is easy to forget that these individuals have lives outside of their alleged mistake. They have loved ones yearning for their return, families struggling to get by, children lacking a father or mother, and goals they hope to accomplish. On the first day of training, the interns were warned about the conflicting emotions we may feel on the job. We were taught to view jadedness as a virtue and to compartmentalize in an effort to remain focused on our responsibilities. Yet, I could not put up a wall between myself and my clients. I longed to empathize with them, but I could never fully understand what they had experienced due to my position in society. I could not avoid my emotions, so I used them to improve rather than hinder my work. My remembrance of every name, conviction, and family has shaped who I am and is the root of my desire to become a public defender.
Halfway through my internship, I worked with another client that had been waiting patiently for his case to go to trial. Finally, his trial date approached, the jury was selected, and the time to tell his story had come. When the prosecution revealed that some evidence had not yet been tested, he had a choice–he could exercise his right to testing and have the trial postponed, or he could pretend like the evidence did not exist and begin his trial that day. When he chose to have the evidence tested, the judge’s face fell and his/her tone of voice was filled with reproach as he/she attempted to convince our client that the evidence would not work out in his favor. Our client did not waiver from his position, and the exasperated judge expressed his/her distaste to everyone in the courtroom, including the jury when they were brought back into the courtroom to be dismissed. I did not understand how a judge, whose job is to ensure a fair trial, could prioritize his/her schedule over a man’s life. In that moment, the blind trust I had placed in the judicial system was severed, and I am grateful for my eyes being opened to my misguided idealism. If they had not, I would not have been exposed to what my future career entails.
At first, I thought it was a fluke that I had witnessed so many injustices in just a few short months. It was difficult to understand how public defense attorneys could keep fighting for the afflicted when it seemed like it made no significant difference. Inescapable bias would always cloud the minds of individuals operating within the criminal justice system. When I finally asked a public defender this question, he/she explained that it is not how you will get through each day, but how you will get others through each day when change is not forthcoming.
My time at PDS was uncomfortable because it caused me to question my previous beliefs, but in retrospect, I think that was the point. I grew up in a small, rural Texas town where the dangers of this world are dramatized and its residents are fear-stricken by the thought of socializing with those different from themselves. I now attend a university known for its “bubble” which, in turn, can unintentionally alienate the surrounding, impoverished community. SHECP purposefully integrates its cohorts into communities that students are often shielded from and allows them to expand beyond the abstract knowledge from the classroom. The culture shock associated with SHECP’s mission resulted in one of the most liberating experiences of my life, and I will be forever grateful for my involvement in the program.
When I began my internship, I questioned my interest in a legal career. Yet, this transformative experience, in tandem with my studies of race and poverty through a sociological lens at my home institution, has assured me of my desire to understand the human, personal impact of public defense work. Prior to my time at PDS, I was able to stay within my bubble and look at statistics about people, not the people themselves. Similarly, I was guilty of trying to make sense of criminal defense clients by making generalizations about who they are, and who they are likely to become. The clients I worked with changed this and taught me what the comfort of college life had not: empathy. The time spent outside of my university has provided a greater understanding of both what my future career entails and its urgency. Because of SHECP, I was able to fulfill a sense of purpose and connect the dots between my studies and how I could best serve. I now realize my potential and without my experience, I would not be able to even comprehend the value of those who seek a just “system.” I plan on dedicating my future education and career to combating our young client’s sentiment. Our society has neglected those who fall at the mercy of a broken criminal justice system and my hope is to utilize my time in the trenches of public service as a means to ameliorate the detrimental effects experienced by the incarcerated. Maybe one day, I will sit across from another young man, and he will feel like someone cares.