Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Stereotypes and Self-righteousness

As one of the editors of IndieInk, I agreed to participate in one of its weekly writing challenges. This week, my challenge was from Sir: “He/She placed the stereotype on the anvil and began hammering it into something sharp and deadly that could be used to open the minds of the self-righteous.” And, while that’s poetic and all, it doesn’t really fit with this blog or my writing style. But it does lead into the idea of stereotypes and self-righteousness -- and, with that, a story.

When I was in my last semester of law school, I worked as an unpaid intern in the county public defender’s office. (I've mentioned it before, in passing.) I had great, lofty goals about what I would be doing there – the kind of lofty goals that only a 22 year old with no real-world experience could have. Mostly, they were along the line of defending the wrongfully accused, reforming the criminal justice system, abolishing the death penalty, etc., etc. Oh, the naïveté of youth . . .

The internship was jointly supervised between the assistant chief of the office and one of our criminal law professors. We had a classroom session each week, where we learned, essentially, the basics of how to practice law as criminal defense attorneys. And during the week, we were required to work a certain number of hours at the office. In bigger cases, we were required to work under the actual attorneys – and generally, they were busy enough to be thankful for whatever help we could provide. In smaller misdemeanor cases, the clients could agree to let us act as their lead attorneys, with assistance from the supervising attorneys.

Early on in the semester, the professor asked us what kind of cases we were uncomfortable with. My answer, as an upper-middle class sheltered suburban girl was easy: I wanted nothing to do with domestic battery. I didn’t want to envision a world where men hit women, where families were anything less than happy and stable. And, of course, if a fight escalated to the point where an arrest was made, in my mind it was clear that the man must have hit the woman. Accordingly, I, perhaps self-righteously, did not want to defend those men.

Of course my professor saw that as an engraved invitation to assign me to a pretty horrible domestic battery case. And lucky for me, the defendant had agreed to let me be his lead attorney. Worse yet, even though it was a misdemeanor, my client had been sitting in jail for days, because the arrest was a violation of his probation, and if he plead guilty or lost at trial, he was facing mandatory jail time.

My client was a stereotype: a young black offender with a history of violence and drugs. I remember going to the county jail to see him. I was frightened out of my mind. I remember the security, the sound of the doors closing behind me, the fear as I was led to a private interview room where I was to meet with my client – alone, without any of the guards to protect me. When my client was brought to me in shackles, I was scared to death.

I finally relaxed enough to start talking about the case with him – whether he would be interested in a plea deal if it meant that he would have a reduced sentence. But he kept maintaining that he was innocent. I didn’t believe it, not for a second. Not with his violent background. Not with the photo in the case file of his cute little girlfriend with bruises on her face and arms. I firmly believed that his desire to fight the charge was posturing, or a fear of having to do real jail time.

But then I remembered that I was there to do a job. I also remembered, from our classroom sessions, that we needed to examine the facts of the case carefully, avoid responding instinctively and jumping to conclusions, and instead, use our intellect. And so, I started digging through the files, interviewing witnesses, piecing together a defense. First I researched my client's alibi for the night of the attack, but it was a bit shaky.

But then the tide turned: I found out that the alleged victim, my client’s ex-girlfriend, was also the mother of his child, and that she had been pressuring my client to sign away his parental rights to the child. I also found out that the officer that helped her fill out her statement was her new boyfriend. The officer-boyfriend had taken the photo of her injuries, handwritten the affidavit detailing the fight, had her sign it, and one of his co-officers witness it.

After I interviewed her, the prosecutor dropped the charges against my client.

Do I think that the ex-girlfriend was a victim of violence? Unequivocally, yes. After all, it was before digital cameras, and the police report had that horrible, horrible picture in it. On the other hand, do I think that my client was innocent of the charges? I’m still not sure, but I am firmly convinced that the outcome of the case was correct.

If I learned anything from the case, it’s that not everything is what it appears to be. And I am certainly glad that I opened my mind enough to prevent stereotypes, prejudices, self-righteousness and biases from getting in the way of doing my job.

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