Dust and Ash
Once, in a time that seems like a different life but was really only about five years ago, I packed up my tiny apartment, gave my dog to a friend, and moved across the world to take my first job as a public defender.
I had been a lawyer for about a year and a half, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. In Texas, where I had lived my entire life, public defender jobs are hard to get, especially in Houston, and especially if you don’t have much experience. I was unable to stomach the idea of practicing anything other than criminal defense, so I started working for myself when I left law school.
Mostly, being a lawyer to me was about networking, which I had discovered (rather pleasantly) really meant drinking with other lawyers, perfecting the “you’re so fascinating and brilliant” gaze, and learning to how to smoke cigars. I was living off of the dregs of a meager divorce settlement I had received the previous year, and as the last of it slipped through my checking account I started to wonder how I was possibly going to make this situation tenable. I was thirty, divorced twice, broke, and restless.
Fortunately, one night as I stumbled back to my cramped efficiency apartment bleary from a late networking session, I got an email from a job I had applied to half-jokingly four months earlier- so long ago I had almost forgotten about it. “I’m going to call this woman back, and if she offers me this job, I am going to take it. And that’s it. No agonizing. That’s the decision. Done.” And she did. And I did. And a month later I was on a plane headed to the Republic of Palau, a small island nation in the South Pacific.
And that’s the part of the story you really need to know now. There’s more to it, of course, so much more than I can ever say, but that’s what you need to know to contextualize what I want to tell you about, the smaller bit of this story that is coming next.
In one of the stranger twists of my life, the incoming prosecutor of the Republic of Palau was also from Texas, but he wasn’t just starting his career, he was at the end of it. Back then, I called him “Voldemort” and I will call him that here, because I don’t ever want his name in my mouth again. His reputation preceded him in the worst possible way. His prior bad-faith and bungled involvement in an extremely prominent actual-innocence case in Texas was and is well-known, and after losing an election and serving ignobly in a brief appointed position, I suppose he went about as far away from the Lone Star State as he could go. Well, I suppose we both did. But we were running from different things.
He was gaunt and evil. His face and soul were juiceless and sallow. He appeared on beaches with a sunken-in chest looking for all the world like a vampire beef jerky. I despised him. I felt like everything he did was the epitome of the things that are wrong with the criminal justice system.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” people told me. “He’s starting over, he’s trying to be better now.” But I couldn’t forgive him. My heart was an icy bone.
When the defendant in the actual-innocence case back home wrote a book about his experience, my boyfriend, a professor at the local college, ordered copies of it for the library and put up a little display.
I made a picture of Ray Fiennes in Voldemort garb the background on my computer, and when I was tired and dejected, I would look at it to keep me going, to keep fighting.
When I met Sekool|STAR| he was shivering in the thick, warm air of the basement where the police brought inmates to meet with me prior to court. He was as thin as a feral cat, barely seventeen, and he was covered in a fine layer of grey dust. He was being held in solitary confinement in the local jail- a concrete shower stall, essentially, without a window, grate, or light. It was incredibly hot and muggy in those concrete boxes, and even the equatorial afternoon felt cold to him when he was waiting for court. The smell of someone who has been kept in the dark rooms is something I will never forget. It doesn’t smell like you think it would smell- it doesn’t smell robust or alive-like ripe or rotten flesh or body odor, it smells like ashes.
The floors of the boxes were littered with plastic grocery sacks filled with urine and feces, the understaffed jail unable to even let inmates in and out to use a toilet. When I saw them I thought of when I had first arrived in Palau with my best friend. Every shop gave out the same printed plastic sack when you bought something. “Ah, the national bag of Palau,” Mason had joked, unpacking the contents of a happy impromptu picnic by the baseball field. “Great day?” he asked, “Or greatest day?” and we laughed and drank our Fantas in the sunshine.
Sekool had been in “the dark rooms” for three weeks. I wanted to give him a hug, to protect him like a hollow-boned baby bird.
Initially I filed a motion to release him from the dark rooms. The judge granted it. The initial prosecutor involved in the case, Mike, came into the office before Voldemort. Voldemort was hired to be his boss, but Mike was one of the kindest men I have ever met. He taught me a huge amount about practicing law and, later in my life there, he became a good friend (but that is a different story altogether). As we walked out of the courtroom, Mike told me it should have been a habeas writ rather than a motion.
I went to the jail that night to see if the warden had abided by the order. He hadn’t. I went to the gas station down the street and bought food to bring to Sekool- fried chicken and kimchi and sodas and a ridiculous amount of well-intentioned candy. I brought him comic books to pass the time, foolishly not realizing that, of course, he lived in total darkness.
I reached out to my network in Texas, and over the slow and piece-y internet connection and the thirteen-hour time difference, they helped me come up with an emergency writ to file the next day in a country with almost no history of habeas litigation. It felt like throwing a handful of dust into the wind. Worthless and futile.
As soon as I filed the writ, Mike was taken off the case and Voldemort took over. The thing I will never be able to forgive Voldemort for was the fact that he stood up and said that those conditions passed muster. The gist of his argument was that things could be better, for sure, but jail is not supposed to be fun, after all, and this is a developing country. What could we expect? What could we do? Nothing. Stop committing crimes. That’s what people could do.
It was racist- he knew these conditions would never be acceptable in the United States, but for these islanders, they were good enough, according to him. It was disgusting. It was lazy. It was dishonest. He was older than my father, and had been practicing law as long as I had been alive. He had held elected positions and been appointed to positions by the governor. But he was wrong. He was totally, completely, morally, legally, absolutely, objectively wrong.
There are things that are still hard for me to think about when I look back on that time in my life. The details of the dark room litigation are some of the things I don’t like to think about, and I haven’t written about it since then because of that discomfort.
I was wildly, unbelievably inexperienced. Back home, I had a ragtag docket of ghostwriting and cast-off misdemeanors from other attorneys. I had fast internet and LexisNexis. I had mentors to talk to in real-time and courts that were in no rush to move on anything. Time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. In Palau, I had nothing but dangerous bravado and a creaking, massive docket of serious felonies. All I can think about now, and for the years that have passed between that and this, is what I should have done differently. My filings were embarrassingly bare-bones, and my voice shook and fumbled as I talked on the record.
Another inmate, aware of the proceedings, bullied the police into letting him bring a three-gallon bottle, sloshing with syrupy dark urine, up to the courthouse. “That’s my rights! I want the judge to see! My kidneys are shutting down! I been in the dark rooms for months!” He saw me walk by as he yelled, and, knowing that I was the lawyer involved in the litigation, yelled at me for help. “Tell the marshals this is my rights! I have to take this up there to show the judge! Allison, you have to help me! They can’t take this away from me!” he yelled, as the marshals struggled to restrain him, eyeing the precarious, uncapped bottle. “That’s my piss bottle!”
“Hush,” I said, running up to him. “Stop. You can’t bring that with you into the courtroom. I’m not your lawyer, but if you stop screaming about all this I will try to help you. Put it down. I’ll look into it. Put the piss bottle down.” He calmed and I put my hand on his grey arm. He smelled like ashes. He agreed to go to court without the bottle. Voldemort skulked in the parking lot, eavesdropping.
Later that day, Voldemort told the judge on the record that I had “promised an inmate that I could get him out of jail.” My face burned. I jumped up. “No I did not!” I shouted, furious and flushed. I have never been so angry as I was at that moment, filled with righteous fire. He was just blatantly lying. I had done a lot of stupid things, I had done a lot of naïve things, but I had not done a ridiculous and unethical thing like promise a client I could get them out of jail. I saw him smirk when I lost my cool. Breathe.
The ruling that came down as a result of those hearings had nothing to do with me or Voldemort. It had everything to do with an extremely smart, extremely skillful judge (with, I suspect, a hefty amount of support from his equally brilliant and civilized law clerk) who saw the cruelty and inhumanity of those jail conditions and stood up for the proposition that they were not reflective of the values and judgments of the kind and familial people of that country.
Eventually, Voldemort got tired of doing anything at all and gave the rest of the mess to Mike to clean up, which he did. Mike worked with the jail staff to turn the dark rooms into a different place entirely on a shoestring, with running water and air and light. He even arranged for a mural to be painted on the concrete walls. Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables was no greater feat than this.
Voldemort continues to rear his ugly head from time to time. He is still practicing law, I understand, though not, fortunately, in that peaceful republic.
Our profession is full of young lawyers charged with representing clients in matters that, ideally, more experienced lawyers should be handling, but low wages, overwhelming caseloads, fatigue and secondary trauma drum out too many too soon. The prosecutors don’t suffer from the same drain. They settle in for the long haul. They collect their pensions. They have years and years and years on us, huge might and towering size to our small rocks and slings.
I am telling you this story, dear friend, for a reason. I am telling you because I need you to know that you don’t know what things you will set in motion. I am telling you because I need you to know that no matter how it feels on a daily basis, sometimes evil loses and light and air prevail. You still have to speak and write on behalf of your client, even when you don’t know how, even when it feels so impossible and the bile is rising in your throat and you just want to quit because the evil is great. Especially when the evil is great.
And sometimes a speck of dust gets caught up in a draft of air and reflects the sun, just as bright as any diamond.