Everyone who’s watched the news these past few days has seen Melisa McNeill put her arm around Nikolas Cruz, the 19 year-old young man charged with the most recent school massacre. Melisa is an assistant public defender in the homicide division of Broward County, where she has worked as an attorney for eighteen years, and she and Assistant Chief Gordon Weekes are now representing Cruz on the long and terrible road ahead of him.

Gordon made the first statement from his office about Cruz, choking back tears, according to reporters, as he said that Nikolas was a troubled young man who was about to face some very grave decisions, and that their office would help him make those decisions wisely.

No one is questioning who the gunman was that day. Confessions and stories are swirling, and the wild-eyed mugshot of green-eyed, big-eared Nikolas is everywhere.

The internet has also been roiling with criticism, largely uninformed, of Melisa, for her decision to touch, in a familiar and kind way, this “broken” young man as he stood before a judge who was ordering him to be held without bond pending his trial.

Though I freely admit I have never stood next to someone accused of multiple murders, I will tell you I have stood next to a number of people who were charged with horrible things, where the evidence of guilt was overwhelming, and where the outcome was certainly grim. There is something very strange and unique about standing next to a young person, especially, who is accused of something truly horrible and is suddenly confronted with the reality of the situation. Everything feels like it’s slow and heavy and palpable, like there’s too much gravity in the room. You imagine how this kid, standing very close to you, looking impossibly young, must feel, like the acts that got him here were a dream or a nightmare, and it was such a quick decision that lead him here, and now it’s irrevocable and the best outcome is still a terrible one. There is a clammy, sticky sense of mortality, and imagining of long and institutional gleaming hallways filled with fluorescent light and the extremely distinct smell of prison. 

As Melisa stood next to Nikolas, as he was read the charges and the reasons the State was asking for a no-bond hold, I wonder if she felt that same sucking, sinking feeling coming from this sad and terrible boy, and if she was moved by his suffering to this small act of kindness, of touch. We know that Nikolas’s mom died last year, and I wonder if, in those few seconds when she touched his shoulder, Nikolas thought that this might be one of the last times in his life someone would touch him with any kind of tenderness or affection.  Whether or not Nikolas thought about it in that brief moment, it is likely true, which is bizarre in itself. Nikolas will almost certainly never be a free person again, and he never even made it out of high school. It doesn’t downplay the severity of the crime or the pain of the victims to recognize that the criminal is also a person- a howling and hurting little boy.

Melisa, I don’t know you. I imagine you are probably unflappable, because you’ve been doing this job for eighteen years and you still have your heart. I hope that the things the media and the jackals of the depths of the internet are saying about you now and in the days to come mean nothing to you, roll off of you, as they should. But I just want you to know that it’s not just them out there.  That I am here watching you, too, and I am looking up to you, in awe of you, applauding you, speaking highly of you, and so are the rest of us, your brothers-and-sisters-at-arms, dug into the trenches all around the country. Thank you for your radical and revolutionary act of compassion. Thank you for the life you’ve devoted to revolutionary compassion. Take care of yourself, please- we all need you so, so much.