It could happen to you. It could happen to anyone. In fact, it happens more often than you could imagine. You’re living your life, moving toward your future, and then tragedy strikes. Someone you know meets their death; murdered. Just as you’re suffering through your confusion and loss, the unthinkable happens and for some reason the investigation focuses on you. It doesn’t matter that you’re innocent. It doesn’t matter if you were in a room full of a hundred people, a thousand people; all witnesses to your whereabouts when the crime occurred.
Maybe you had a relationship with the victim. Maybe you worked with them, knew them, or loved them. No one is immune. The only prerequisite to your being implicated is that the detectives assigned to work the case don’t like you. For whatever reason. They might not even know you. But once you’re their focus, they lose sight of the facts, the truth; everything.
It doesn’t matter if you have a motive, or for that matter an iron-clad alibi. It doesn’t matter if the facts fit. After all, facts can be molded and shaped to fit the accepted scenario if need be. Innocent until proven guilty? Not a chance. Innocent until someone decides to make this crime yours. Until yours is the only name they choose to know.
You are arrested and charged. Once the charge is made, you struggle uphill, pulling the entire legal system behind you, trying to clear your name. You against everyone else. And you fight everyone. The prosecution, the judge; public opinion. Even your own defense team. The state has unlimited resources and the need for “a win” to further their political careers feeding their determination to secure your conviction. You, however, have the defense of whatever attorney you can afford, or a court appointed attorney if you cannot afford to pay one.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford an attorney, your family sits across from him in his office while he weighs their wealth, determining what he will charge them for his services. But whatever price he chooses they will pay, because your freedom is worth it. And they get to pay that price, in full, up front.
From that point on, your attorney controls your life, such as it is. He controls what you will say, when you will say it, or if you will say anything at all. He gets to decide who the court will hear speak on your behalf and what they will say.
But then, your attorney doesn’t have enough time to prepare your defense, so you have to sign a document to postpone your trial. When the trial finally does come around, he doesn’t have enough time to get to the jail to prepare you to testify, so you have to stand before the judge and tell him you have nothing to say in your own defense, giving up your only opportunity to shout your innocence to the world. But the attorney wouldn’t lead you astray, would he? That would be unthinkable. After all, this is your life he’s gambling with.
Yet, he does. During the most important event of your life, he isn’t prepared and has asked for numerous extensions. He doesn’t care enough to review the evidence or interview witnesses. He stops taking phone calls from your family, those who just gave him their entire life savings.
Most people think the system works. That innocent people aren’t arrested, charged or convicted of crimes. They cannot fathom that a jury could find an innocent person guilty. The common belief is that if a jury finds you guilty, you must be guilty. That juries don’t make mistakes. Yet people make mistakes and wrongful judgments in their daily lives. You, me, everyone. A jury is a group of twelve of those mistake-making people who were unlucky enough to be chosen for jury duty.
No one is ever thrilled to be chosen. They sit in the jury room with everyone else, their heads down, hoping for dismissal. Those who are eventually chosen sit in a hard chair for an unlimited number of days, making a few dollars a day for their efforts. They listen to facts about a case concerning people they don’t know and don’t care about.
God forbid if they don’t like the way you look or act. After all, you wouldn’t be sitting there if you weren’t guilty, would you? If you didn’t commit this crime, they secretly believe you probably committed another crime that you got away with.
Your attorney has convinced you not to testify, and the judge has instructed the jurors not to consider that in their decision concerning your innocence or guilt. But they wonder among themselves, if you’re innocent, why don’t you testify on your own behalf? Your silence must mean something....
The evidence is presented, statements are made. You know in your heart that your defense was inadequate. Guilty. You suck in your breath and try not to fall to the floor. The attorney that didn’t have time to interview witnesses or to prepare you for trial also didn’t take the time to defend you successfully against these charges. He stands you before the court and tells you to beg for your life. He tells your family to forget about you; that you’re as good as dead. He boasts to everyone else that he won the case, because after all, you didn’t get the death penalty. The hungry press can’t get enough of you. They call you a monster.
Then the whole process begins again. You hire an attorney for the appeal. He meets with your family and once again measures their severely depleted wealth. He prepares the bill for his services. Your new attorney reviews the case. He listens and explains the legal process to you. It’ll take time, but he knows he can win your freedom. He says all the right words and your hope of exoneration begins to build once again. You believe that he might actually care about you and about your innocence.
Time begins to pass with no word from him. He hasn’t visited you at the prison to discuss your case. Dread begins to build once again. Your only hope, the only thing that you can cling to, is the love and support of your family and friends. But they stop visiting and no longer take your calls within a few short months. You’ve become a burden. They actually have to put effort into their relationship with you now, and they have more important things to do.
When you finally do receive a letter from your attorney, he’s telling you he won’t be able to work on your case this month, because he needs a vacation, doesn’t feel well, or has other pressing cases. He tells you that he’s filed for yet another extension to spend time with his family for the holidays, while you sit alone in your jail cell awaiting your day in court. After all, it’s Christmas, right? The time to celebrate with family and friends. His of course, not yours. That’s okay isn’t it? He knows you’ll understand. After all, it’s just a job to him. It’s only the rest of your life.
-Sue Gless Thorne