The judge was not having any of it
The other day, in court, I watched a defender try to get her client out on what she called compassionate release. The client, a young woman, was accused of violating a probation condition and for this reason, was facing a two year prison sentence. She had been ordered detained without bail. And just days after her bail was denied, her mother died. Her lawyer was trying to get her out of custody so that she could attend to her mother’s matters, most notably, to actually take her mother out of the morgue in which her physical body was confined in the absence of a single other soul in the world who could identify and release her from that human freezer.
The judge was not having any of it.
Where’s the body? He asked. In the morgue out by Stockton. Why can’t anyone else get it out? There is no one else. What do you mean there is no one else? The judge was incredulous. There just isn’t anyone else, was the reply. The young woman had been taking care of her mother and when she was imprisoned, her mother became homeless. Left to live in the streets, she died.
She was a drug addict, the young woman’s lawyer explained, and so she lacked stability. Oh I remember how your client was so quick to blame her mother for all of her problems the last time she was before the Court, the judge snickered. As if to say, and now you’re just using your mother’s death as your get out of jail card. As if we can’t find fault in and simultaneously love the people closest to our hearts. As if a woman cannot be both the best and worst thing in her daughter’s life.
The judge had reasons, of course, not to let the young woman out on even a very limited bailâ€Š—â€Šthe young woman had warrants, a lack of sureties, etc, all sufficient pretext for the real reason, which he later admitted, “If she was a different type of person, maybe she could be released, but she’s not that type of person.” Since the judge didn’t explain what type of a person he meant, I was left to speculate. The young woman was not the type of person who had family and friends who would call local officials demanding her release. She wasn’t the type of person whose community would take to the media or post to Facebook and start a viral campaign for her release or lobby the state legislature for a change in law and policy. But she was the type of person we are going to keep in jail for those 3 weeks. She is the type of person whose mother can decompose in the county morgue. The type of person who might, in 30 days or so, get a letter (if she’s lucky) from the morgue that states that because they cannot continue to keep her mother’s body in storage, they will cremate her. And maybe, she is the type of person who, if she’s lucky, if the morgue is organized and affordable, can one day hope to buy her mother’s ashes.
And this is the community we have built. I feel sure that there is a better way. I was baffled when the judge said that he would have released the young woman if, she had been an eyewitness in a murder or something, then yes, that would be a good reason, but not this.
In San Diego, a federal judge once released my client for 48 hours so he could attend his mother’s funeral, grieve with the rest of his family, and return himself to custody. He was only 26. The judge looked him in the eye and said, “This is important. I want you to process your loss, to grieve as is your right, to be comforted by those you choose. And I am looking at you now and asking that you come back and turn yourself in.”
And my client did. With puffy eyes and a heavy heart, he did.
The young woman could have too. Or maybe she wouldn’t have. I don’t know. But I feel certain that I’d rather live in a world where she was, at least, given a chance.