Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The criminal justice scales...

One day as a public defender, as I was managing the daily pre-trial calendar in a busy courtroom and was listening to the other matters handled by the judge, I witnessed a very memorable scene that I can't forget. The judge was apparently deciding on whether to grant probation (DEJ) to a defendant charged and probably convicted of a felony (or perhaps admitted to the allegations). I was not the attorney of record and so I don't know the specific charges or the specific facts. But after the attorneys' pleas, it was time for the victim's and defendant's statements. First, the defendant spoke. He was basically asking the court to give him another chance and let him prove himself on probation, in freedom, out of prison. Then the victim spoke and I remember it so vividly. This was a very young girl, appearing to be in late teens, or early 20s. She spoke and my heart really sank inside. She told the judge about the defendant's long pattern of cruel abuse to her for years, how he really destroyed her life, how she was unable to continue with her life as a normal being, how afraid she was of him and of the possibility that he would continue such behavior if remained in freedom.

Her statements were so sincere, non-hysterical, calm but also so deeply emotional that at that moment I really wanted to be the District Attorney standing next to her. She was a victim of a crime who often is forgotten. The judge did not grant the probation and I thought it was fair. Where there is crime, there must be punishment. This defendant probably had many chances to stop his abuse against this victim, but he chose not to do so until time came for the society/law to render its justice.

This moment stuck in my memory because it represented the very essence, cataclysm of the criminal justice system. On one side of the scales we have the defendant and his rights that we must vigilantly guard. On the other, we have the society and often the victim of the crime that we need to protect just as vigilantly. As attorneys, representing either side, we need to remember how both sides of the scales are important and how each of us is playing a vital role in ensuring that justice prevails and there is punishment for the crime on one hand, while on the other the defendant's rights are not shed.

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