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Defending the guilty.

The first time I meet Lisa, she's in the courthouse lockup, a six-by-twelve, foot cement-block cell that smells like a hundred people breathing out cigarette smoke and alcohol vapors. I run through my questions: address, age, schooling, marital status. She sits on the edge of the toilet, looks up at me seductively through her morbidly black false eye, lashes, and whispers, "I'm a widow."

Lisa is a prostitute as well as a widow and, like many street walkers, she sells her services to support her drug habit. This first time I defend her, she's in for prostitution and possession of a needle and syringe. The prosecutor and the judge want her held on a high bad. I argue with the judge: it's a victimless crime, it's a waste of the state's money to lock her up, and there are no programs for her in jail. And, I say, the police don't arrest the male customers, although they could. This woman is being denied her equal-protection rights. The judge finally agrees - or maybe he just gets sick of my harangue. He lets her walk. Lisa tells me I'm the world's greatest lawyer. I walk out of the court, house with her. The late March sun makes us both squint; it's very bright, still low in the sky.

As New England warms to spring, Lisa's new cases mount up, and old ones she's in default on keep floating to the surface. By the end of summer, I represent her on over a dozen complaints: shoplifting, possessing and selling heroin and cocaine, common nightwalking, pickpocketing her johns, and violating her probation, as well as the social services case against her for being an unfit mother. We get along pretty well. She has a quirky sense of humor that matches my own.

Then her social worker calls to tell me she caught Lisa shooting up during a visit with her little girl. I'm ticked off because I've fought long and hard with everyone - the social worker, the agency's lawyer, Lisa's daughter's lawyer, the judge - so that Lisa could have that visit.

The next time I see her, she's in custody on a new drug case, handcuffed to a tall, mean-looking woman who's charged with armed robbery. The two are snuggled together in the prisoners, dock, putting on a subtle show for an old man sitting in the front row of the courtroom. I lean over the oak railing of the dock, blocking his view, and tell Lisa that her options are no longer open. She should have gone into a detox program, she should have gone to therapy, she should have apologized to the social worker. Now she'll have to do some time. But in the future she should stop behaving in a self-destructive fashion, she should get a job, get an apartment, get her daughter back. Her lips thin and flatten, and her eyes turn vacant. Should. She disconnects her gaze from mine like she couldn't care less.

I still defend her. I threaten that I'll make the prosecutor try all 12 of her pending cases, that I'll have them writing memos on sex discrimination until the end of the world. They cave in and agree to a good deal: wrapping up all her pending cases with a 30-day prison term and a suspended sentence. This is her punishment for being guilty of everything she was accused of - and probably much more.

People always ask public defenders: "How can you defend someone who you know is guilty?" Sometimes I try to answer that question by talking about what defend means or what guilty means, but I rarely try to answer by talking about what someone means. I suppose that's because it's so easy to label someone whos a defendant - hooker, drug addict, murderer. And it's so much work, so complicated, so unfashionable to talk about those some, ones as individuals.

When I see Lisa again, she's out of jail and in district court on new charges. She's been on the street three weeks and already has seven new criminal cases against her. In the hallway, I notice her left shoulder is scraped raw, a six-inch square scab with what looks like claw marks running from the bottom of it. "What happened?" I ask. She doesn't answer, just laughs at me huskily and lights a Virginia Slims cigarette. Later, I see her in the dock, held in lieu of bail, mouthing instructions to a pasty man with pink eyes and a bald spot who's seated in the audience. She has a new lawyer. Now I'm the one who couldn't care less. She blows me a kiss from the dock like she's spitting out some bad medicine.

That night, I stop at an automated bank machine to pick up some cash. I hear someone knocking, banging on the kiosk window. It's Lisa, stil wearing the red tank top and jeans she'd had on in court, even though it's a raw October night. She's yelling, jumping up and down; she needs a ride back to the city, but that's not the way I'm going.

"Well, where are you going?" she asks.

"A poetry reading at the college," I reply.

She crosses her arms at her waist and sneers. "You're so intellectual."

"Get in the car," I say.

As we drive out of the parking lot, I can smell the alcohol on her breath because she keeps talking nonstop about how she's already stood up the john who bailed her out, about what a snob I am, about how cold she is, until suddenly she unzips her jeans and starts pulling things out as if performing some kind of magic act. My front seat fills up with clothing, scarves, lingerie, jewetry, bottled perfume.

"I just boosted all this stuff from Marshall's!" she screams delightedly.

I check the rearview mirror for the police, visualizing the headlines: "Local Attorney Nabbed in Shoplifting Attempt." Lisa holds up a skimpy black satin dress and says, "I'll look like a real whore in this!" Tears are slipping from the corners of my eyes, but I can't help laughing with her at her sheer delight in the tacky, ultra-feminine loot that she's still pulling out of her pants in her excitement over her upcoming night on the town. I'm amazed, awed, at her eagerness to get back into the life of the street - at her desire for any life at all, at this point.

I know that the street where Lisa tells me to drop her off is a place to buy drugs and sex. She wants me to come out with her, to "let my hair down." She says she knows that's what I really want to do, what I really should do. "Oh, come on," she whispers, then slams my car door shut with a flourish worthy of a diva when I say, "Thanks anyway."

Five days later, watching the morning news with my husband, there's a story about some trash collectors finding the beaten, crumpled body of an unidentified woman m a dumpster near Mystic River Bridge. My stomach clenches. I know that it's Lisa, and later that day I find out it is her, was her. She's been punished, permanently, and for something she probably was guilty of a quick, flippant mouth; a bad attitude; a case of impaired judgment. I didn't know how to defend her. I still don't.

Michele Leavitt spent 15 years working as a public defender and now teaches writing and literature at North Shore Community College and Fisher College in Massachusetts and Vermont College at Norwich University in Vermont. She also facilitates a creative writing group at a shelter for battered women.
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Author:Leavitt, Michele
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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