And so it ends -- a beginning wrapped in a three letter word -- law. Gasping and choking in the noose of economy. Here today, gone tomorrow, and with it morale. And so it goes.
Walking in to work the first morning, past the delis and coffee shops, in a soundtrack of my own making, past the stench of future clients, I walk in my clicking hills. click. click. click.
One crazy one stands out in the street yelling at the drivers of cars, bending metal in his mind, being mental in reality.
Crazy eyed Joe stands in what I later learn is his usual corner spot with his arm extended. I am uncertain if the twist of his elbow and gnarled u-turn of his wrists are a result of a lifetime of retardation or an adulthood of begging, or some combination of the two. (Here is some money for you).
The building stands before me, with Gold lettering, lines swaying within the marble. “The Grant Building.” The street is busy below it, but the building stands still, unmovable in what it seems it took centuries of fine architecture to produce. If I look more closely, I see a new brand of erosion. Corners of marble and gold stencil flaking off into the concrete of the street.
“The ninth floor. The ninth floor” I am repeating to myself as I walk down the hall toward the elevator.
“Hi. It is my first day,” I nod too much information to the doorman as he bows his head to me and wishes me luck.
On the ninth floor, I am greeted by a hallway of silence. I step to the right of the waiting room, a young girl lazily pulls aside a clear screen and asks me who I am there to see. I explain my name and purpose in short yips that do not even sound like my own tone of voice, I think that I may have even mispronounced my name. When she tells me to sit down, that someone will be right with me, I hear her giggle in harmony with another young sounding laugh.
I glow red.
A few minutes later, a tall thin black man comes to greet me on the couch. He is wide eyed and large smiled, he shakes my hand and asks me to follow him. I walk after him into his office and he toothily grins his name, “Orlando Daniels...investigator.”
I can tell that he is proud of this job title, and I can also tell that it is not one that he has held for long.
“The head of interns is not here today,” he explains to me. You are going to sit in my office with me while I do client intakes.
I see a girl with dark rimmed glasses pass by the office room. She walks by twice before finally stopping into the room where we are sitting. Hi...I am Amanda, I am the other intern. I think that I am supposed to be in here.”
Sit down. Sit down. He smiles to her. I extend my hand to her. “Juliane”
Immediately after our introduction, a voice comes over the loudspeaker, “Mr. Daniels, there is one interview in the lobby for you.”
Mr. Daniels gets up to escort the um… alleged escort in. The client has been accused of prostitution. She wears fierce make up and a shirt that does not cover up her stomach. She is 40-50 pounds overweight and looks like her prostituting ways likely ended their glory days over a decade ago.
Mr. Daniels introduces Amanda and I to the client, she smiles gold teeth at us, and sits down.
Daniels asks her to explain her version of her events. She tells about the day that she was arrested, explaining that when she got in the car with the man, she asked him,
“was he the police,” to which he said ‘no.’
“They supposed to tell you.” She nods to both Amanda and myself, like a law school instructor explaining the obvious. Daniels writes down this information as she provides for him the setting and circumstances leading to her arrest.
Before she gets up to leave, she leans over and coos to Daniels…
“Ya know, I got a twin sister named Carolyn. My name is Marilyn. Maybe it was my sister who was actually out there doing this.” This contrived hypothetical is nonsensical in nature. Daniels slyly winks to us, his two assistants, as he gives directions to Marilyn on how to get to the municipal court.
“And when you show up, ma’am,” he says as she slinks out the door, “You may want to wear something a little bit more, um, conservative…”
“Oh, you won’t even know it’s me darlin’,” she draws as she sashays out.
Daniels laughs to Amanda and myself. “So a twin sister named Carolyn…” He shakes his head slowly, “Do we think that she really has a twin sister?” He then unfolds the copy of her citation and shows it to us. “Doesn’t matter anyway. It was our friend MARILYN who signed this ticket that they gave her.”
Within this hour of work, I know that it is going to be an interesting summer with the city of atlanta office of the public defender.
* * * * *
“While you are here with the public defender’s office in Atlanta this summer, you
will be exposed to the most messed up public defender’s office that you are ever likely
to see.” This warning, provided to me by the head of the summer interns, Rosalie Joye,
proved to be truer than i ever thought to be possible. “Atlanta Public Defender’s Office
Unfairly Under Attack…” read the headlines. Inside the story, more grim reports in this
opinion page. The city of Atlanta is bankrupt. I am not certain how one allows a city to
become bankrupt. Whispers suggested that the Brian Nichols’ trial was the reason for
the city having no money. Others suggested it was just the current state of economy.
Regardless of reason, I spent my summer working with ghosts of public defenders.
They walked the halls of an almost abandoned building hoping that come five o’clock
they would still hold their jobs. Some refused to go back to the office and spent their
days instead at the courthouse, worried that to go back to the home base would result in
a finding that no office door longer bore their name and what once would have been
referred to as “their desk” would now be bare with the exception of a pink-slip. Some
public defenders were bent by the process while others were entirely broken by the
chaos. Or perhaps they were broken long before the talks of budget cuts. I am not
certain that a public defender position is one that man or woman need have for a period
past five years.
I work alongside these ghosts, me young and idealistic, with the belief that
certainly the city will recognize the importance of these attorneys. I stand shaking before
the city council, using the words “constitutional rights” in the same sentence as
“violated,” hoping that maybe this will stave off the office attacks. Hoping that maybe
people will keep their jobs. Hoping that maybe the city will provide the office some
money. The judgment passed down is yes, yes they will. The men and women
representing the city of Atlanta say yes, and they assign six million dollars, to be split
between the office of the solicitor and the office of the public defender. There is a huge
sigh of relief around the office and everyone resolves to stay around for one more year.
The lease is paid, and I am thanked for saying what the others told me they hadn’t dare.
I have never been fearful of truth.
The first few weeks of my days are spent with the most spent of the ghosts still
haunting the courthouse, a man who works in traffic court who says that he is working
his “retirement job.” He fills out guilty sheets for all individuals who come before him.
He tells them that the judge will offer a “rotten deal at best…just sign on the dotted line.”
Anger lurks barely beneath my skin and soon begins to reveal itself in my jerky motions
around the courtroom. I see no difference between the job description of the solicitor
and that of a public defender. Not in this methodology. The attorney is becoming used to
me, telling me that I am to spend my summer working with him. First chance I get, I
sneak to go speak to the DUI attorney about joining him in the courtroom for a while. He
tells me, yes, that I can spend the next few weeks in DUI court.
The solicitors have placed all of their interns in DUI court. I am sworn in, and
allowed to argue in the presence of a supervising attorney. Days come and go, and no
trials take place in the courtroom. I move around the pews at a frantic pace between the
hours of nine and eleven, counseling clients in the presence of a licensed attorney,
listening to stories, so many “wronged.” Reset requests ring off of every lawyers lips and
court is closed by noon.
Afternoons are spent watching DUI tapes. Usually our clients stumble out of cars,
insert too many of a letter into their recitation of the alphabet...A B C D E D E F G H…
Fall over themselves while trying to walk in straight lines. Often times they are making
the case against themselves for the other side.
One afternoon a videotape creeps through my sense of sight into some crevices
of my brain where it is stored well enough to haunt me in my sleep. One officer has
pulled over a carload of what are later learned to be illegal immigrants. On his ticket he
cites the reason for pulling them over...missing back taillight.
We have scanned the video. We have restarted, rewound, re-watched over and
over, searching for the taillight that is out. The only explanation we find is the taillight in
the center of the car. Some cars do not even have such a taillight. “Valid reason?” I look
to the lawyer quizzically.
“I don’t know. We need to do some research.” I pound on the computer keys for the next few days. searching through Westlaw, Georgia Code, probable cause, keyword brake-lights. I find a statute that says it is ok for an officer to pull someone over to give him or her a breathalyzer for a non-moving violation such as the missing of
brake-lights, but what does brake-light mean? The answer is, what a reasonable officer
interpret brake-light to mean. Certainly a reasonable officer knows that the only
brake-lights necessary are those that are required on all cars. “Arguable,” says the
attorney. The officer’s name continually comes up among our clients. None of them
speak English. All have been missing back center brake lights.
“That was the only video that he has turned in,” the attorney tells me.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I always see this officer’s name. It is always for pulling over illegals. It always
involves non-moving violations. They always get DUIs.
The rest of the video is more haunting than the lack of probable cause for
administering a breathalyzer. The driver speaks no English, but he is pulled out of the
car with force. According to the ticket, there is a “gap in communication” between the
officer and the driver. I ask the attorney about legal implications of this, but he tells me
that case law states if the driver doesn’t understand the officer, implied consent is
assumed. This goes against my innate notions of fairness, but I accept it, as I must all
Supreme Court decisions. The atrocity does not attempt to end there, however. The
officer is then circling the car, his shadow moves in front of the headlights, apparently
both in working order. He moves around to the passenger’s side, and flings the door
open. A figure is pulled out by his shirt collar, trembling in the flashing of the blue lights.
His hands fly up; making a questioning W shape alongside his body. The officer begins
tugging at the passenger’s pants pocket, turning the white lining inside out. He then
pulls at the belt of the passenger, and says something that sounds like, “take off your
Then he snaps at the belt of the bewildered passenger, and the man
understands. He unbuttons and unsnaps, until he is standing before the police officer in
a disco of flashing blue lights wearing his pants around his ankles, his underwear pulled
high. The officer tugs at the waistline, and peers down at the man’s privates, and walks
back toward the car. The attorney and I are shocked. We feel as though we have
witnessed something that we were not supposed to see: a youtube video of a moment
gone awry, when unknowing eyes believed that no one was watching, believing they
were performing under the safety net of the invisible. We decide that we are going to
take the video to trial, to a bench trial. Certainly any spectator of such an events would
feel the same, even if it is the “objective” mind of a judge. I help the case move forward
toward trial, knowing that by the time justice plays out, I will be back in school, learning
about proper search and seizure. I swallow the irony, put my head down, and research
the different violations that have occurred in front of our eyes.
* * * * * *
Ten days have passed since the council assured the pd office that jobs were still
to be had. The mayor was supposed to rubber stamp the proposition. We were all
waiting with bated breath for the approval. Certainly it would be approved.
Certainly it was not. On the last possible day it was decided that money was not to be
given to the public defender’s office and that cuts had to be made. Now it is dead men
walking, again, floating through the office. No one knows who will be the next to go, but
everyone seems to somehow know that someone is going. Rumors surround old Ray
Gordon, he who had been around forever and seemed to be far past the suggested self-
imposed five year limit of public defending. He is grandfathered in to a pretty pension,
so this news is met with shrugs.
After the smoke clears, not all remain standing. Mr. Gordon’s time is finished. The
HR person was fired, as was one investigator. 3 down. Not many left to go. Questions
come with the firing of the investigator, he is the only one that is bilingual. Many clients
do not speak English. Guess they had better start. After learning the news, I am leaning
into the wall, and thinking about a lot of nothing, when the just fired investigator appears
from the elevator. “Did ya hear?”
I nod uncomfortably. I am not sure what to say. Thankfully, he realizes this, and walks
past me and into one of the courtrooms. “I am sorry,” I whisper at him, and I see the
back of his head cock to the left in unspoken acknowledgment.
Some loose offer that had been on the table, said casually to me by the head of
the interns on more than one occasion, “we would like to find a place for you when you
graduate,” has been buried. I continue to work, and to work hard. Not for the hope of
employment, but for the purpose of my clients. Everything is falling down around me.
The lease on the grande, marble building is disapproved, refused, and now boxes are
piling up to be sent to the new home of the public defender. The “Basement” of the
municipal court. The solicitors office gets it next. The city slashes the staff of the office.
People who had been there for decades now ride the elevator awkwardly down with me,
pulling behind them a cart with all of their belongings. I try to turn my eye away from the
pictures of the smiling children traveling alongside me.
On my last day, I hug my goodbyes. I tear up. I wave with limp fingers. I am
somewhat defeated by the system. I am somehow needed in the system. I feel a call,
and a shiver of sadness at the thought that it is not my time to answer.
I hope someone answers.