My foray into the Halls of Justice is over. Thank goodness. That was a scary way to spend a morning.
Your advice convinced me to dress very mommish and conservative, though not TOO business-like. I wore black slacks, a white shell, and a turquoise cardigan. I hadn’t planned to wear any jewelry (you know, to communicate "I’m much too grieved by my traffic sins to accessorize"). But in a last-minute brainstorm this morning I put on a simple strand of pearls. It was perfect–I looked the very part of a slow-drivin’ June Cleaver.
I got there in plenty of time to sit and watch the other defendants stroll in. This was criminal court (mine was not an optional appearance–in my city, when it’s a school zone violation you HAVE to appear before the judge.) They were an interesting lot, as I had been told they would be. The young man next to me had something in his ear that I think was meant to be an earring, and he furiously drew elaborate tattoos on his hands and arms the whole time.
There were two other "PTA moms" there. As the crowd grew and we shuffled together to make room, the other two PTA moms and I found ourselves seated together. "Birds of a feather," you know.
I was very, very nervous. A courtroom is a scary place, especially when you’re the one being given instructions on how to approach the defendant’s table. The judge reminded me of Dick Cheney–kind and teddy-bearish in a gruff, don’t-mess-with-me sort of way. Thankfully, I was not in the first couple of batches called, so I could observe what to do. People who pleaded "not guilty" were given a court date to come back and plead their case. Those who pleaded "guilty" or "no contest" received their fine and/or sentence on the spot. I quickly noticed that the judge was more lenient on "guilty" pleas than on "no contest" ones. There were some other traffic violations there, as well as some more serious things–public intoxication, shoplifting, drug possession. I felt terribly out of place and more than a little miffed that I had to be there.
Until I saw her.
The judge called her name in the group before mine, and she stepped forward very slowly, her shoulders hunched forward. She looked to be about my age, though she was very tiny–she couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds. She had obviously made an effort to present herself well–she was clean and respectably dressed, but she looked ill, tired and pale. She was clearly frightened and embarrassed.
As she stood at the defendant’s table, the judge read her name (in a sterner voice than he’d been using with others) and stated her crime: solicitation of an act of prostitution. She began to speak, very quietly, her face lowered. I could barely hear her, but I could tell she was explaining to the judge that there had been some sort of administrative mix-up. She had already served jail time for this offense and shouldn’t be here.
The judge looked over her records. "It says here your attorney has recused herself from your case," he said. She nodded. She looked very confused. And alone. She mumbled some more explanation that it was hard to hear, though I caught the tail end of her words:
"….because I was raped, and so I was in the hospital. I have the medical papers with me here." She held up a stack of forms bearing the familiar logo of a local hospital. The judge’s voice softened ever so slightly as he encouraged her to plead "not guilty" today and give herself some time to find a new attorney. She nodded. With painful slowness she turned around to face the 50 or so spectators in the gallery. She didn’t look at anyone. Her cheeks were blushing, stark against the paleness of the rest of her face. Shoulders still hunched, she shuffled out the door.
And just like that, she was gone.
I was quickly snapped out of my somber thoughts when my name was called for the next group. The person ahead of me (one of the other "PTA moms") received an especially harsh penalty–a large fine and 15 days of probation for a simple speeding violation. My knees were weak when I approached the defendant’s table. The judge read my name, he read the accusation against me, and he asked me I understood. I normally don’t have trouble talking to anyone, yet I weakly offered, "Yes, sir." He asked me how I’d like to plead. I had planned to state my plea in a calm, reasoned, apologetic tone. As it turned out, I was lucky to have any voice at all. "Guilty," I nearly whispered.
The judge looked over my paperwork (hopefully noticing my spotless driving record?) Though the maximum fine for a speed zone violation was $500, he announced I would receive a $200 fine. I was given instructions on how to pay it.
And that was it.
I walked to the car, relieved, frustrated, and thankful all at once. My nice leather loafers made a smart little click-click echo throughout the parking garage. I pulled my sweater more tightly around me against the brisk April air. And I thought of her.
I looked down at my nice shoes. I looked at the cell phone in my hand, poised to call a supportive husband who had been praying for me all morning. I looked at the nice car I was about to climb into. I thought of my happy and healthy children. I thought of my tight support network of family and friends.
And I thought of her.
What was she doing, right then? I doubt she was walking as briskly and purposefully across the parking garage as I was. I wonder if she was looking for a lawyer right now? I wonder if she was wondering how she’d pay for it? Or for those medical bills she showed the judge? I wonder if she was warm? If she had kids? Who took care of them today so she could come to court?
I don’t even know her name, but I think of her today. I’ll be thinking about her for a long time.