have you seen "jesus christ superstar
"? not the stage production, but the movie -- the rock-operatic hippie-fest adaptation of the story of the passion
. it's my favorite version of the passion. way better than this one
*, for damn sure. why?
because it takes two characters -- jesus and judas -- whom the bible portrays as (if you'll forgive the oversimplification here) divine and despicable, respectively, and casts them in the glorious light of imperfect humanity. and there are electric guitars.
anyway, there's this scene in JCS, where, well, i'll just use the wikipedia listing
description, rather than write my own:
Jesus arrives at the temple in Jeruselem and finds that it is being used for selling everything from weapons to prostitutes, and drugs. When Jesus arrives, he is furious and demands that the merchants and money changers leave the temple. Angry and tired, Jesus wanders off and gets confronted by a mob of lepers, cripples, and beggars, all wanting to be healed. However, the mob is too large and Jesus gets overwhelmed. Unable to take the pressure, Jesus demands to be left alone.
and that particular scene is what kept going through my head all morning yesterday, when i was helping out one of the attorneys from the PD's office during pre-trial fridays.
not to say that the clients of the public defender are "a mob of lepers, cripples, and beggars, all wanting to be healed." but the idea of those in need struggling to get some face time with someone whom they believe is able to help is the relevant part...
there's a 10 page, 60 yes/no question document that defendants entering into a plea agreement with the DA must understand and sign before the judge will accept the plea. my job yesterday was to be there to review this document with the defendants to make sure they understood that they were waiving their right to a trial, that they were doing so voluntarily, and that they knew what their appeal/plea withdrawal rights are. although it is obvious based on the information contained within this blog, i just want to put on the record of this post that i am an intern, i.e., NOT AN ATTORNEY. yet, for the courtroom full of defendants who have a constitutional right to counsel, i was a visible extension of the public defender's office and therefore was someone who was an easy target for lots of concerns/questions/anxieties/uncertainties.
so many people came up to me and said, "are you with the public defender's office?" i responded with, "yes, but i'm not an attorney -- i'm an intern." all that seemed to register of my response, however, was the "yes". so what followed was an inevitable stream of questions that i had neither the experience nor the authority to answer. i did my best, answered what i could, didn't attempt to answer what i knew i couldn't. there was only one attorney from the PD's office who was available, and he was already pulled in about four hundred directions. the whole experience was overwhelming, frustrating, impossible.
...and here's what it got me thinking...
first, in the supply and demand sense, the judicial system is really dealing with this whole gideon v. wainwright
guarantee to counsel in a pathetically under-resourced way. how fucked up is it that we live in a nation that in theory acknowledges the rights of those accused of crimes, the presumption of innocent-until-proven-guilty; yet in practice, the way those rights are valued is obviously to the contrary.
second, in the due process sense, it is incredibly difficult for those who aren't as a matter of profession involved in the way the court system works to understand, well, how the court system works. while the constitution guarantees a right to counsel, nowhere does the law guarantee that a criminal defendant gets to have unlimited access to his/her attorney and have his/her hand held throughout the process. you get an advocate to stand up on your behalf in front of the judge and/or jury. this, says the 6th and 14th amendments, is necessary, yet is so insufficiently laid out. it makes my head hurt. it makes my heart hurt.
i go back to the idea of the defense attorney as a check on the prosecution, as a presence that enforces the rule that the prosecution must put on his/her case fully and fairly. given the number of criminal defendants, the importance to society of retribution, and the lack of adequate funding for public defenders, it seems that this is the best and most successful understanding of the role of a PD. yet, how completely unsatisfying is this for the layperson? the defendant? the actual human being who is terrified and stressed out and who knows nothing of the particulars of the process? it's almost inevitable that you get courtrooms full of desperate and questioning clients, lawyers who burn out, judges who lose their patience.
third, if i'm truly going to do this work, i'd better build up a thicker skin. what i fear in that process, though, is crossing the line from thick-skinned to calloused. i don't want to ever be insensitive to the reality that for these defendants, nothing is more important than the reality that they are on trial. whether they be in truth innocent or guilty, they've been accused, and being accused, even with the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, is a source of anxiety that i can only imagine must be devastating. it's going to be a real struggle to compartmentalize how available i'll be able to be versus how emotionally involved i can become. there's a job to be done. and it's not an easy one.
*which, aside from having too many definite articles in its title, is, in this writer's opinion, an overdramatized zealous fool's attempt at proselytizing and evangelization that fucks up what is one of the most compelling stories** in all of literature.
**seriously -- the passion story is right up there with the best of the greek tragedies, as far as i'm concerned.***
***i hereby dedicate this footnote to a footnote of a footnote to david foster wallace
, with whom i'll always be in love.