He was 73 years old. A gentle-looking white man but not sober. The whites of his eyes were swollen and glassy-pink. Scotch, probably. He walked off the elevator slowly with his wife holding his arm. I knew it was him from his criminal file. The law firm who asked if I would take the case months before sent me his petition for “Certificate of Rehabilitation” with a copy of his driver’s license. The color copy had been enlarged and gold veins ran through the photo to prove the license was not a fraud.
A Certificate of Rehabilitation in California is the step before a full pardon by the governor. And if he were deemed rehabilitated today, it would mean that this client would no longer have to register as a sex offender as he’d done every year on his birthday since he was convicted 12 years ago. In essence, he would no longer be a danger to society. Or more accurately, a danger worth tracking. He had served his time, paid all his fines. All that was left was this lifetime registration.
I had spoken to this client only once to confirm our meeting time and to tell him on which floor of the almost 20-story building we’d meet. Which department. I almost never speak to clients until I meet them on the day of the hearing. Before then, they are only photos, receipts, written statements, rap sheets, and police reports.
But I’d remembered our phone call and the intermittent quiver in his voice; it matched what I’d expect of the man coming off the elevator. Sitting on the hallway bench, I didn’t signal him right away. I wanted to read one last thing in his file — the age of the girl he was convicted of molesting. Fifteen.
“I’m your attorney,” I said as I stood, confirming his name and giving mine. He told me that I didn’t look like who he’d imagined. “Your deep voice,” he said, “made me think you’d be bigger and older... but I knew you were black or from the South.”
“My family’s from Alabama,” I said, not sure if I should take offense. Today wasn’t about me.
He appeared proud as he stood in his 30-year-old suit. His gold watch was tight around his wrist, framed by sparse gray hair and bruised-looking age spots. He had been a prominent figure in his community before he retired. Maybe retired because of this. But the recommendation letters he’d collected from business associates read like a Who’s Who of his town, all of them attesting to his great character, community service, and a gentle spirit incapable of what he’d been convicted of.
His wife’s calming voice was louder now, saying, "It’s all right. That girl was a liar. Both of those girls were liars."
Another woman, who was dressed like she’d been golfing, moved into our huddle. I stepped back, not realizing they were all together. But my client and his wife made room for her. “Our neighbor,” his wife said.
I told him we needed to go over the facts of what happened that day. That I’d read the statement he’d written a few months ago but it didn’t go into enough detail and I’d need to know a little more to help frame my oral argument. We had about a half hour until we would be heard in open court. “But I’m not allowing you to speak,” I said, and told him that I was glad he had written a line in his statement saying that he’d accepted full responsibility for the hurt he’d caused his young victim, now 27. “Most people don’t do that,” I said.
I let my client know that the District Attorney might oppose our motion given the type of crime committed. I also told him that I wouldn’t know the D.A.’s position — to oppose or not — until after we received a copy of “D.A. Investigator’s Report,” which the detective was finishing upstairs. I might not get it until five minutes before I argue. “That report,” I said, “will give everyone — the judge, the D.A., and me — more details, and it will refresh your memory about small things you might not remember. But for now, just tell me again what happened.”
He opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated. His wife and neighbor assured him. “It’s all right.”
I nodded and said, “As your advocate, I’m stepping into your shoes. Being truthful is helpful.”
He held up two fingers, pressed together like a Boy Scout salute, then lowered them to his groin area, near his left hip and said, “I just touched her here like this. Just a brush. Outside of her clothes.”
He said he knew the victim for most of her life. His business supported her soccer team. She called him uncle. Most of the kids did. It wasn’t unusual for him to take her to and from practices, or out to eat.
“It was just a graze. Blown out of proportion,” he said. His explanation was consistent with my paperwork including his rap sheet — it was the only criminal conviction or arrest in his lifetime, and this conviction was one of the lower charges for child molestation — a misdemeanor annoyance of a minor. It had to have been a minor thing, I thought.
“I was embarrassed,” he said. “Going through the trial hurt my reputation and my family. I struck the deal to end it.” His wife nodded, sympathetically.
I was already thinking of how to frame the argument around an accidental touching. Misinterpreted, at best. At worst, I might be able to get the court to agree that he’d done his time. Criminal law is as much about guilt or innocence as it is about the appropriateness of punishment.
His wife was rubbing his back by then, speaking sweetly to him, telling him everything would be all right. She pointed to me and said, “This gal’s the best attorney the firm has. She does these kinds of things all the time.” And this was true. I don’t know yet how I feel about it. Not all the ways. I consider this my missionary work as a Christian who believes in redemption — what Jesus did for me and all — and the other part of me is just another mother, a Black woman, a lawyer yes, but I am also “the People” being protected from him.
I remember pausing as his wife spoke, suddenly curious about her support. Not just hers but all of the spouses in my last 10 years of doing this particular kind of work. How in almost every case where the convicted sex offender was married, the spouse was there — fully supportive — even if the victim was their own child.
I left to see if the Investigator’s Report was ready. That report would help the judge consider “suitability” for relief — is he a good candidate for this freedom, his likelihood to offend again, etc. — and this would be what the D.A. and I would argue about. Based on all the factors I’d read over the months, I’d say he was suitable.
When I went into the courtroom, the D.A. was at his table separating my copy of the finished report from his and handed it to me. I walked back out to the hallway and began flipping through the pages to the section marked “Summary.” Included in it was my client’s confession from 12 years ago. It wasn’t part of my file.
I read the summary, which interspersed his confession with the complaint of the victim. I asked my client if it was okay to read it, then I proceeded to read it aloud — but not loudly — to my client, his wife, and neighbor. I was already sure we’d gone over the big points — the two fingers, there on the victim’s hip.
So I read the words matter of factly, my mind drifting to some future version of myself, visualizing success, the way I learned to do on my high school basketball team — “See the ball going in,” my coach would say. So, I saw myself standing at the podium in open court in 10 minutes. With each word I read aloud, I was immediately crafting my argument to attend to that detail. For them, it must have sounded like a cold reading, like an actor’s audition — but flat.
“So…” I said, reading over the lines. “You picked her up from school to take her to soccer practice and blah, blah, blah.” I was skipping over lines that didn’t help — what the victim was eating, what he had done earlier that day. “You took her to your house instead...gave her wine coolers and told her it was soda...She was drunk. You touched her breast. Kissed her. She told you she was sick. Okay,” I said, lost by then, seeing my future self stuttering at the podium in open court. My thoughts, then, were only of myself, how I might recover in front of the judge and continue this argument.
I looked up at my client briefly and noticed that his face was red and he was shaking. But at that moment, I had no emotional intuition. Didn’t realize there was a real problem. Or, better, it hadn’t sunk in. I had to get through the facts and we were running out of time.
“You put your hand down her pants,” I read. “...You threw a 100 dollar bill at her. Told her there was more where that came from. You went through her phone looking at photos of her friends. Asked her to call a friend who was 17 to join you. You thought she was pretty. Said it would be fun. That you’d pay her friend, too. She called this friend. And when said-friend arrived in her car, the victim went out to meet her on the street while you watched her from inside thinking said-friend was going to park her car. But the victim jumped into her friend’s car and screamed, ‘Drive! Go!’”
I looked up at my client again, nodding. “Okay,” I said, thinking how I might frame this argument. My brain was still on a mission to solve the argument for my future self while myself was standing at some distance. Myself was remembering that this client had only touched the victim like a Boy Scout.
I flipped through more pages while he continued to shake on the bench. His wife lay peculiarly over his shoulder and side like a scarf protecting him from my words. I was confused when I saw the neighbor scowling at me. I knew it was not because of what he’d done. Not what the victim had claimed. What he’d confessed to. She was angry at me, about what I had just said about her neighbor, and she told me so. I was the enemy.
The red tones in the bruising around his age spots deepened and spread like rashes. His wife’s calming voice was louder now, saying, “It’s all right. That girl was a liar. Both of those girls were liars. Don’t worry. It’s fine. It’ll be over soon. This gal here is stepping into your shoes.”
÷ ÷ ÷
When I think about the America I love, its violence, I now think about this moment. And I think about the versions of our history that we’ve told ourselves to protect ourselves and this American Dream. As we’re maturing — still a young country, a child star on display for all to see — it’s time to look back on ourselves... honestly. See the truth of who we’ve been. These truths that are now sending us shaking and red-faced and hiding behind our -isms like racism and classism and in our prisons.
We have told ourselves the same lie about who we are, and the “almost-innocent” things we’ve done so many times that we believe it. Mask it. We even have letters of support from the Who’s Who of our communities telling us we’re okay. We’re good. Or worse, silence.
But when the truth comes rushing in, as it does in our country periodically, by people who have documented it and lived it, we find ourselves red-faced and angry, asking people to fall in line and if not, treating them like the enemy. Unpatriotic. Or worse.
It’s time for us to understand the hows and whys. Not for the purpose of condemning ourselves forever, but to be better. For redemption. To learn to make something bad, better. There’s hope in it. There are so many good things worth saving in us. And us
is all of us.
I still love the idea of the American Dream. We have set a high standard for inclusion, justice, opportunity, and respect. A beacon for the world if we can get there. When
we get there.
When I wrote Grace
, I was surprised by the sanitized history that I had come to believe as truth as an American. I had a traditional public school education; I had learned scantily about the Native Americans, that we had fought them to protect our families and land — not that we were taking their land, but because it was ours. I read about the Japanese internment camps in college. About mental illness. And depression. And nothing about our LGBTI communities. Very little about women. But so much about violence. We have always been so sure of our violence.
I knew about slavery. That our African bloodlines have been here since before Ellis Island. As a college professor, I have asked my students to imagine the length of American slavery, not just as a number of years, but as a period in history like the Stone Age (an exaggeration) because I want them to visualize the damage. “You’re younger than I am,” I tell them. “Maybe you’ll be the generation to see the problem differently, to fix this.” Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it.” So, I’ll ask them to imagine more than 200 years of slavery. About 250 years. Can you think back that far from today? “Are we living on the ruins of that age?” I’ll say. “Or living the consequence of it? Let’s discuss.”
In elementary school, I learned that the Emancipation Proclamation was a happy day for slaves, not the reality of three million people set free in the middle of one of the bloodiest wars in American history. My family was among those freed. THREE MILLION innocent people without weapons or a place to go were expected to walk across battlefields to their “freedom.”
I’ve read that the Underground Railroad only went as far south as Virginia, and those slaves who were living in places like Alabama and Georgia were out of luck. And that the Underground Railroad was not meant to take slaves north to freedom in places like Boston and New York but out of the country altogether — to Canada. Yet, we tell ourselves these stories. Retell them. Only taking full responsibility for our sanitized version, telling ourselves it was bad, misinterpreted at best, but not that bad.
So, as I watch the news of social and racial unrests and the hate that we’ve grown accustomed to in the U.S., especially by those who have been lied to and believe (or don’t anymore), it feels much like that day in the courtroom. Some part of me is trying to make sense of this history, these facts, and the versions we’ve told ourselves. While the other part of me is standing at some distance wondering what’s happening. And if this is true, what do we do now?
But maybe we’re all doing that.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and has been awarded fellowships and residencies at Yale, Bread Loaf, Dickinson House in Belgium, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Named one of 2013’s Most Fascinating People by LA Weekly
, she has an MFA from UC Riverside and is the creator of the popular LA-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit. A practicing lawyer, she currently teaches law at Trinity Law School and Mount Saint Mary’s College.