By John Austin DeLozier, 2023 SHECP Intern with the Kanawha County Public Defender
“What do lawyers even do?” I remember asking my dad when I was 7. “They listen and talk for people.” I thought this was silly; I could listen and talk for myself! Now, after spending this summer working as an Investigative Legal Intern for the Kanawha County Public Defender in Charleston, West Virginia, I can say that my dad was right and wrong—though not in the ways I originally imagined. Lawyers must listen and talk, true. However, in the context of public defense, the best lawyers listen to their client in order to amplify their story, blending justice and compassion to communicate the personhood of the ‘criminal.’
Though I assisted with drafting motions and memorandums, the main focus of my job was actively listening. I interviewed dozens of my office’s clients in jail, went to sites to obtain evidence, and engaged in legal research on different attorneys’ cases throughout my summer. I listened to things like I never had before. Now, a misheard word or an incorrect interpretation of someone’s story meant faulty information that could spell disaster in court. The law students and attorneys I worked with, more used to this pressure than I, helped me formulate careful questions and attentive ears, something I know will continue to serve me well.
Beyond the pressure, though, this active listening was made even more challenging for the fact that I listened to people that society hadn’t. Heartbroken mothers, desperate fathers, those continuing to struggle with substance abuse and mental illness, veterans, orphans, people who had been institutionalized before they turned 18; these are the people that we, consciously or unconsciously, see as ‘criminals’ and condemn to that label for the rest of their lives. For every label I shared with you, the face of at least one person I met comes to mind. Regardless of the circumstances which got them there, all of them were people that had been treated like they weren’t. In some cases, I was the only safe avenue for these people to express their pain, having the guarantee of privacy due to attorney-client privilege.
Through actively listening, I saw that those who have felt the most pain are those that our society helps the least. The French philosopher Simone Weil has helpful language explaining why:
To listen to someone is to put oneself in his place while he is speaking. To put oneself in the place of someone whose soul is corroded by affliction, or in near danger of it, is to annhilate oneself. It is more difficult than suicide would be for a happy child. Therefore the afflicted are not listened to…And they themselves soon sink into impotence in the use of language, because of the certainty of not being heard.
Empathy is a sharing of feeling. To willingly share in someone’s suffering is at tamest uncomfortable and at worst excruciating. Much more convenient, then, for us to ignore those who suffer and go about our daily lives without a thought or care. And, when the afflicted are continually subject to our apathetic ears, is it any surprise that their ability to articulate their story suffers with them? Many of the people I interviewed were unaware of their legal rights and full of pain made all the more raw by their being unable to verbalize it. The unheard are not silent; we just haven’t listened.
This intentional deafness was especially apparent during Regatta, a festival in Charleston held every July. City police officers arrested 16 people for being at a public park after hours the night before, throwing them into one of America’s deadliest jails for the crime of existing without a home. To put this in perspective, only one person was arrested for being in a park past 11 p.m. all throughout 2018-2021. Rachel Rubin, a coworker of mine, addressed Charleston’s city council about the incident, saying, “This is now the second year in a row that in order to have its big party the city has undertaken an entire effort to disappear anyone they don’t want to see.” Instead of listening to the desperate needs of those arrested, the city removed them from public view. The afflicted are continually subject to erasure from those uncomfortable with their existence.
However, my experience was not hopeless. In dealing with that incident and others, I learned a valuable lesson expressed by Dominican Priest Gustavo Gutierrez, “We as a human community are making poverty, and we can change that situation, too.” We all share some responsibility in the afflicted’s condition but we also have the power to change that for the better. Like a public defense attorney, the best way to advocate for the most disenfranchised is to listen to and amplify their stories for others to hear. The unheard have lost their voice because of our intentional deafness. The way to restore it, then, is not by playing the white knight, swooping into pain we have never experienced to fix problems we do not understand. “To hell with good intentions,” cries Ivan Illich in his critique of this mindset. We must instead start by listening to the most disenfranchised of our local communities. This is the most valuable lesson I learned through SHECP and I have no doubt I will continue to grow in it for the rest of my life.
My time at the Kanawha County Public Defender was so incredibly formative. Yes, I gained valuable experience in the legal field’s professional practices: court etiquette, legal research and writing, how to search for evidence on-site, how to interact with clients, where to find important documents, etc. The most important experience, however, I found was being given the opportunity to listen to people usually unheard. Their stories full of struggle, pain, and even evil all informed my perspective on what it means to be both just and compassionate. Average lawyers talk and listen for others, sure. The best lawyers, and the best people, listen to those suffering systems of opression, gross erasure, and even their own evil, and sit with them in their agony in epic displays of compassion. The best people begin their much-needed advocacy by listening. That is what I learned this summer. I hope that any future students in SHECP get to learn something similar.
John Austin DeLozier is a University Scholar studying political science at Baylor University, class of 2025. During his 2023 SHECP Internship, he worked as a legal intern with the Kanawha County Public Defender. Each summer, SHECP interns are placed with nonprofit and government agencies that work on the front lines of poverty and serve as co-educators to students.