As I transition out of doing court-appointed juvenile cases, I realize how much I will miss the kids.
* * * * *
“Darrell” was my typical client. Like all of my clients, he was my favorite. When this is over, Darrell told me one time, you are going to take me out for dinner. You can bring your wife. We will go to a nice restaurant and we will order some really expensive food.
Fifteen years old when I was appointed to represent him for the first time, Darrell sat in a metro car and grabbed someone’s cell phone, jumping out right before the doors closed. There are lots of cameras at metro stations. Darrell liked to wear colorful, distinctive clothing. Darrell’s sister had no hesitation about showing police to the pile of laundry in the back room where they could find his clothes. Police also tracked the GPS coordinates from the cell phone to Darrell’s school, to his home, and to the recreation center where he liked to hang out.
The government offered to dismiss the felony charge of robbery in exchange for Darrell’s plea to two misdemeanors: simple assault and theft II. We took the deal.
* * * * *
Working with adult defendants as a public defender in Philadelphia, I quickly learned not to tip my hand to clients when I wanted them to plead guilty. It often seemed that these clients, many of whom were struggling with mental health and addiction issues and almost all of whom distrusted their court-appointed lawyer, would do the opposite of what they thought I wanted them to do. It was like that Seinfeld episode: George Costanza finds success by doing the exact opposite of what his instincts tell him to do.
You are working for the DA, they would say to me. Or: You just want me to take the deal because it is less work for you.
So I would begin my meetings with them with some bravado. This is how we are going to beat the case, I would tell them. Only later would I mention – almost as an afterthought — that there was also a deal on the table. I would then start talking about the trial strategy again, but the deal tended to linger in their minds. And what if I take the deal, they might say? Oh, I would respond. Then you would be released from custody today and would begin a period of probation. But let’s get back to trial strategy . . .
* * * * *
Reverse psychology is not necessary with the kids. In fact, the problem with the juveniles is that they are usually too ready to take whatever the government offers them. For one thing, they lack the sophistication to understand the government’s burden of proof: It doesn’t matter if you did this or not, the government is still going to have problems proving it. For another, their parents – often the same people who would balk if they were the defendant and a deal were offered to them — are often too eager have their children plead. I am sick of coming to court, they tell me. We need to plead guilty and put this behind us.
It is a tremendous responsibility to have one of these children look at you with these big eyes: I’ll roll with you, Mr. Koehler. I’ll do whatever you tell me to do.
* * * * *
Darrell’s mother is mad at the court. You are making me out to be such a bad mother, she says.
Darrell’s voice wavers: Mom, he says. Stop. You are embarrassing me.
His mother has a long rap sheet. Also an addiction. It is always the parents, his probation officer says. The parents are always the real problem here.
* * * * *
Darrell got straight A’s in school and said he wanted to go to college. All the teachers raved about him. His only fault was that he did not do his homework. It wasn’t until I visited him at his home that I finally understood why.
My investigator Wayne forbids me from going into certain neighborhoods on my own. But in this case, all I needed was Darrell and his mother to sign a piece of paper. I figured it would be a surgical incursion into the neighborhood – a quick in and out. What I didn’t realize until I arrived at the cluster of low-rise apartments was that there were no house numbers on any of the buildings. I was going to have trouble locating his unit. The young men hanging out on an abandoned couch on a grassy quad were not particularly friendly – or helpful. And it got worse when I finally found Darrell’s apartment. The place was crowded with other men, apparently friends of Darrell’s mother. A court-ordered curfew requiring Darrell to be back in this dark, cramped, and run-down apartment by 6:00 pm every day wasn’t going to do him a lot of good. And where in this unit was Darrell going to do his homework? He didn’t have his own bedroom. There was no cozy little nook for him to curl up with a book.
* * * * *
You have closure when the charges against your client are dismissed by the government or when you take the case to trial and your client is acquitted. You and your client can thank each other. You wish each other luck.
It is different when the client is put on probation. No news is good news: it means that your client is complying with the terms of probation. Then one day, without event, the probation is over and the juvenile is no longer your client. In fact, if he or she picks up a new case, the juvenile will be assigned a different lawyer. You never say goodbye.
Darrell’s cell phone number no longer works and when I check with his probation officer, she tells me that she has lost touch with him and his mother. It is good that I don’t run into him at the courthouse. That would mean he picked up a new case.
Someday I will run into Darrell downtown and he will call out to me on the street. His hair will be shorter and there will be openness to him; no more brooding or posturing. He will tell me he has finished high school and is working at a steady job until he can go to college. I will make good on my offer to take him and his mother out for dinner. With my wife. At a restaurant of his choosing. Preferably one that is very expensive.
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