Mountain Climbing

My wife flicked on the headlights and there, framed by the oblong, yellow glow as if it were on stage, was a book. It leaned propped against the trunk of a tree and seemed to stare directly at us.

We both startled. “Woah,” and “weird,” we said. I felt the book called to me. “Should we take it?” I asked. “No, it looks like maybe someone left it there for whoever lives in that house,” Sarah said as she pointed at the house directly across from the tree with the book.

It seemed odd to me that someone would leave a book resting against a tree by the curb if they wanted the homeowner to find it, but I didn’t really need more books at that moment and I didn’t particularly want to get out of the car and grab it. I looked closely at the cover as we pulled out past it and drove off; Mountains Beyond Mountains, it was called. I headed to work. 

It was Monday, and I was staffing the domestic violence arraignment calendar that afternoon. In our jurisdiction there is no court on the weekends. That meant that today I alone was responsible for everyone who was arrested for misdemeanor domestic assault over the weekend; well, virtually everyone. As it turned out, there had been an incident at a wedding and a couple of people on the calendar could afford private attorneys, so they were stuck footing their own bill. The rest would be mine.

That left me with nine in-custody cases to handle that afternoon; a tall order, but by no means record breaking. It was mid-October, and the weather had just turned over the weekend. I speculated that as the temperature dropped outdoors, tempers may have flared inside many homes.

After a morning in court on other cases, I cut my lunch off early in hopes of getting a jump on interviewing my new clients before the afternoon calendar. I buttoned up my suit jacket and made a brisk walk across the street from my office into the pinkish-slate, 24-story courthouse.

Court this afternoon was on the 11th floor. It was the first day after the new remodel had been completed. I had been warned that while the courtrooms had new, ergonomic, convertible sit/stand desks for the judges, clerks, and lawyers, the holding cells where I’d interview my clients had plastic lawn furniture and tiny metal desks that had been attached too high up the cinder block walls to be used while seated.

I buzzed the deputies’ intercom as I stood before the large metal door in the sally port leading back to court holding. It continuously chimed for at least five minutes before someone answered: “security,” he said with a curious, questioning tone. So much for heading over early, I thought. I looked up at the camera in the corner over the door and said, “PD for the domestic calendar.” He replied, “Okay, come through to the second door.”

I met with eight of my clients. We talked about getting them out of jail, we talked about what would happen if we couldn’t. We talked about their rights, and we talked about trumped up allegations. We talked about how easy it is for someone to just call the police and lie. We talked about their past and their current lives, where they lived, what they did with their time. I tried to prepare them all for the demonizing and dehumanizing treatment they were about to get in the courtroom. I struggled to explain probable cause, that a mere allegation of being made afraid was enough for this case to continue against them. I apologized for how the prosecutor was going to talk about them. I explained that they pretty much always ask the judge to order thousands of dollars in bail. I told them to let me do the talking, and that I’d ask them if I’d missed anything before we finished.

With some I talked confidently about their release and the strength of their cases. I wished I could tell them that it was shocking to me that they were in jail for such scant and obviously incredible allegations. I wished I could tell them that their case of “invading her personal space” or “apparently bumping her with his body,” or “poking her in the arm,” was the most ridiculous one I’d ever seen. “Yes, I know” I say when they try to explain to me that she didn’t want anyone arrested, that she was shocked about the repercussions of that phone call. Instead, I say it happens all the time. I say that we’ll straighten it out as the case progresses. I say, “let’s focus on getting you out of here.”

With others I say much the same, but with a little less confidence, with a twinge of doubt, with an understanding that the judge decides and can’t be predicted. With others still we have to face a truth at once harsher yet more expected. They will not be released; not because of the capricious whim embodied by the prosecutor’s charge or the unthinking rubber stamp of the court, but because of the extremity of the evidence against them or the posture of their case and their history. In these situations, I walk a tight rope between camaraderie and pragmatism. I have to convey that I am a there to help them, but also paint the dire reality of their situation.

After each interview, I tell my client I will see them shortly in court and I push the metal, “complete interview” button and wait for the deputy to come open the door and take my client away.

“Who do you want next?” They always ask, and I tell them. When I asked for my last client, they said “Oh he’s being kept separately because he’s TB. He’ll be brought to court straight from the jail. You’ll have to talk to him in the box.”

The box is the large, dehumanizing, plexiglass terrarium that my clients are forced to stand in as they face the charges against them. I struggle to explain the presumption of innocence.

I ask the deputy “What’s TB”? Imagining it is yet another bureaucratic acronym I’ve somehow managed not to have heard yet. Transportation barred? Temporarily blocked? Temper bad?

“Tuberculosis,” he says.

The dissonance rang in my head. What was this strange reality I delved into each day? Just when you think you have a grasp on the grim facts of the world, you can’t interview with a client and must meet him for the first time in the box because he’s got consumption.

After each branch of government had batted and pawed at the first eight of my clients that afternoon like a cat’s macabre squeak toy, after each had checked and balanced my clients like parcels for routing and shipment, I waited for the jailers to bring over Mr. TB, special delivery. Could I humanize him to the court?

The jail is not far, of course, and I imagine there is a labyrinthine series of underground tunnels connecting the buildings. As I waited in the brand new courtroom, antiseptic LED lights blazing overheard and straining my eyes as they glared off of white piles of nearby paperwork, I fidgeted with the new ergonomic sit/stand desk I stood at. I wheeled a chair over and pushed the button to lower the desk. I sat and filled out my paperwork while I waited.

The deputies brought my last client out into the box. He had a medical face shield on. I walked to the side of the box with a slot in it and handed him my card. I spoke through the drilled holes in the plexiglass, “I’m going to try to get you out of here, ok?”

The complaining witness, the alleged victim, sat at the back of the courtroom with a bruised face. I hoped she wouldn’t get involved once the case was called on a the record. Absent that, I felt that Mr. TB would likely be released.

The first thing the judge asked when she came back out was, “have you had a chance to talk to your lawyer?” He answered “no.” I explained the medical situation, and asked if there was a no-contact room we could use to interview. The deputy informed that the microphones had not yet been installed in the no-contact room, and that we would have to talk through the box. The clerk killed the microphones and turned on the white noise.

Over the static hiss I briefly explained to my client that I had enough information to make a good argument based on a review of the file. I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to tell me. As usual, he wanted to tell me everything. It is hard in a situation like this to ask a person you have not even met to trust you with as important a task as arguing for their release from jail, but I told him I had enough information and proceeded to argue. In the end, the judge agreed with me that considering Mr. TB’s limited criminal history and the risk of exposing the jail population to contagion, he should be released. The complaining witness sat quietly in the back.

Later, back in my office, I related the tale of Mr. TB to a coworker. When I first mentioned the deputy having said my client was TB, my coworker said “oh like Mountains beyond Mountains.” I gasped. He told me it was a favorite book of his, and it was all about tuberculosis. I told him about the startling synchronicity of the day and of the strange circumstances in which I had seen that book for the first time that morning.

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