No room for the boy

by Jamison Koehler on May 28, 2021
Baltimore graffiti

I have seen far more disturbing things during my time as a criminal defense attorney. But there is something about this particular image that haunts me still:  Frozen on my computer screen is the round face of a chubby 9-year-old boy.  Behind his mask, the boy is crying.  

***

I am watching body worn camera recordings from events that happened several months ago.

If there were such a thing as a “garden variety” domestic violence case, this would qualify.  A couple gets into argument, one party grabs the other party in anger, and the police arrive.

In this case, the police separate the couple. They take the person who will become my client out into the hallway so that the parties can be interviewed individually.  

The boy remains in the small, cramped apartment that is overflowing with furniture and belongings. He is standing next to the computer where earlier he was trying to attend school through zoom. He is overweight and he is wearing a striped shirt that is many times too small for him. His arms hang by his sides.   

The boy is thus a silent presence as the two officers interview his grandmother.  He is there when the grandmother explains that it was his very presence in the apartment that caused the disagreement. 

I can’t go to the homeless shelter, the woman explains.  Because they do not allow children there. We have nowhere else to go, and now my husband says we need to leave here because of my grandson.  My husband’s voucher for subsidized housing does not allow for unrelated occupants.  

The female officer notices something on the boy’s face as the grandmother says this.  It’s okay, baby, she says to him and gestures toward him.  The boy steps into her open arms and begins to sob.  The two of them hug.  For a long time.  Time seems suspended.  For just a moment we let down our guard and it seems as if everything is right with the world.  There is no cruelty, no pain, and everything will turn out fine in the loving, reassuring embrace of this woman.  

Then the officer’s body worn camera beeps and the officer releases the boy and steps back. It is as if she suddenly realizes it is not appropriate to be hugging a potential witness to a criminal offense. The boy continues to stand in front of her, his arms still extended out toward her and his face still in pain. The officer, now seemingly embarrassed to have had this spontaneous gesture of humanity captured on the body worn camera, busies herself with her notepad.  Make sure you are taking notes, she instructs the male officer standing next to her.  

It is at this point that I press pause. The image of the boy’s chubby face is frozen on my computer screen. 

***

I know nothing about this boy other than what I saw on the recording of events that happened months ago. For all I know, he is a mean-spirited little stinker who tortures animals and teases other kids on the playground.  He is thus undeserving of my sympathy.  Or maybe this was a one-time unfortunate situation that led to the police officers’ arrival at his home.  He and his grandmother found a new place to live, and he has been happy ever since.

I want to search out this little boy.  I want to find out what has happened to him in the intervening months.   

I want to set up a scholarship for him so that he can live in an apartment in which he is welcomed and loved and in which he does not have to attend school from the cramped corner of a studio apartment.    

I want to tell him that life is going to get easier for him:  He will lose weight and the teasing will stop.  

I want to assure him that he will grow up and find a woman and a job and he will have his own children and he will be happy and loved and appreciated.  

Because life is good.  We do not inflict such pain on each other through cruelty, indifference, or inattention.  

I am left instead with the knowledge that it was the well-crafted and persuasive legal motion that I filed on behalf of my client – the motion I was so proud of — that reversed the stay-away order and ultimately put this boy and his grandmother out of the apartment. 

***

I tell colleagues – many of whom try to avoid domestic violence cases – that I like to do this type of work.  The cases are challenging. Because the parties know each other, there is always plenty to work with. Things tend to happen behind closed doors so that events are rarely captured on video, thereby preserving wiggle room.  The complainants often make poor witnesses, and the cases go to trial quickly.  The win rate is disproportionately high, and it is always gratifying to secure an acquittal.  

That said, my wife hates it that I represent people charged with domestic violence.  Although she is a smart and talented lawyer with great instincts, she has forbidden me from ever discussing these cases with her.  She knows that everyone deserves representation.  She just doesn’t want this representation to come from her husband.  And she certainly does not want to hear about it.  

This deprives me of what is typically my best sounding board.  That is why, in this case, I cannot unburden myself of this image by talking it out with her.

Making matters worse is the fact that, confined along with me to our house during the pandemic, my wife now overhears my conversations with the complainants.  She hates that I am good at developing a rapport with them when she knows that I will only use the information I gather against them.  

It is true, too:  I am good at it.  It is in fact my ability to empathize with the victims in these cases that makes me particularly good at ingratiating myself with them.  People can tell when expressions of empathy are insincere.  

I am good at breaking down the barriers and gaining their trust.  I am good at getting them to give statements to my investigator.   I am good at getting these cases dismissed.   

These are the decisions we make when we take on domestic violence cases.  These are the decisions we choose to live with. 

4 Comments on “No room for the boy

  1. Heartfelt and well-written. Thanks for reminding me that your clients and those they may hurt are all human beings worthy of compassion, and that seeing the pain on a child’s face is the worst part of an already hard job.

  2. Mr. Kapler: Thank you for the kind words. The collateral damage in these cases is sometimes the most painful.

  3. The saddest part of all is that you (we) should not have to do this. Yes, I get that domestic violence is a horrible crime often committed against people who have done nothing to deserve it except hook up with the wrong person, because, somehow, that’s what they’ve learned to do.

    How much better our world would be, though, if we had some sort of a real justice system, which worked — instead of giving felony rap sheets that will potentially trap them (all: not just our actual clients) in a downward spiral — to help them learn the skills of proper communication, of dealing with their pain in some other way than striking out at those they’re supposed to love, of gaining understanding of what has motivated them to commit the crimes they’ve committed.

    Like you, I’m also good at these cases, and for the same reason. I cry for the victims — I spent 10 years playing Santa for a local DV shelter — and I see similar videos.

    There are no winners in a DV case. Even when we “win,” we don’t win. Our clients don’t win. Our clients’ families don’t win. Obviously the State doesn’t win.

    You’d think someone in leadership would put their heads together to build a better way of handling these hurting families.

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