By Katherine (Kate) Mortensen • May 27, 2008•Internships and Clerkships
Today was my first day of work. Once again I didn’t really have expectactions, but I was nervous and excited to see what was in store for us. Our supervisor, TP had indicated to the other students that he would be taking Susan and I to court to get us oriented and to give us an experience as a sort of running start for the summer. I have already described, in detail to my boyfriend John the events of my day and he can attest to my exuberance when describing the experience. I guess for sake of the written word, you will just have to take my word for it.
Our day was to begin at 9:30. We arrived at the building where the Legal Aid Board is located, only to find that TP was standing at the other side of the street waiting for us. We walked to the courthouse about 3 blocks and we chatted for a bit. Then he gave us some information and background on both the South African judicial system and the details of the case we would be privy to. 16 year-old boy. Killed his Uncle’s girlfriend. Very troubled childhood. Felt it was necessary to protect both himself and his uncle. I have to admit I had some initial callous thoughts. A public defender trying to create a sob story for a cold blooded murder. I’ve never been gung-ho about criminal work as far as a career path and I think it is because I would find it difficult to find a balance between having a hardened enough heart such that I could deal with losing a case and being sensitive enough to feel sympathy for my clients when necessary. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the information TP gave me because I have never really had any intimacy with someone who is an admitted murder.
We arrived at the courthouse. It was very different from an American courthouse to say the least. It had an atrium in the middle and all the different individual courtrooms could be accessed from this central atrium. With no disrespect meant, it honestly was reminiscent of a Holiday Inn. We entered one of the courtrooms upstairs and sat for a bit. The prosecutor in this case came up and introduced himself to us. I cannot remember his name but I distinctly remember his introduction. “My surname is ______.” Susan and I sat for a minute and thought of how to reply and settled on the traditional American greeting of the full name and the handshake. He was very friendly. Everyone was very friendly.
“The accused” as he was referred to had not arrived yet. We went down to the jail under the courthouse and sat and waited for him. We got to read the document that was to be entered into evidence that day. The accused was pleading guilty and this was the statement that was to be entered into the record at sentencing. It was a sad story about his life and his childhood. I was still somewhat unmoved by it and Susan and I discussed what arguments a prosecutor would likely make and where the strengths of this approach lay. TP returned from his “puff” as he calls his cigarette breaks and sat with us for a while. We compared our respective legal systems and our experiences and learned a little about his history. His dedication to public interest and his enthusiasm for his work are very admirable. The Accused still had not arrived. TP was assured that he was on his way and would arrive in about 15 minutes. We waited 30. Apparently in SA they simply wait for people and if they do not show up, they simple put off the hearing. TP said it is at the discretion of the attorneys and the court to make issue of a delay, but said it was rare in the interest of justice. Finally we decided not to wait any longer and headed back to court, but ran into The Accused just outside the jail and so we went back to talk to him.
He arrived in cuffed pants that looked similar to the ones I was wearing to work, a jacket, flip-flops, and handcuffs. He emerged from what looked like an ordinary SUV accompanied by 3 young looking gentlemen in dress shirts and black pants. He held his head low and walked very timidly. We followed him into the jail and went into a cell with a desk a chair and a bench- this is where advocates (the term attorney is reserved for someone really specialized) meet their clients.
We sat down, facing him. He looked so young and so scared. He did not speak English. A translator was necessary. He explained to the boy that he was going to read these statements and the boy would have to verify that the information was correct. I was familiar with the document and despite not knowing even a single word in the Zulu language I knew exactly what he was saying. The boy, with his head down, responded to everything with a muffled, meek “yeah.” I didn’t know where to look. I knew what they were saying and I knew that this boy was about to plead guilty and sign a large portion of his life away. Suddenly his story got to me. It’s weird how things change when you actually put a face to a story. This wasn’t tactics by some lawyer, this was a boy’s troubled past that came to a head in something that he undoubtedly regretted doing. I know this all sounds cheesy and very Law and Order-y, but it really is true. Sitting in a bare cell looking at this kid, I found myself just wanting to give him a hug, knowing full well that he stabbed a woman three times in the chest. It’s a weird feeling.
We talked to him until it was time to go back to court. Tea time had run from 11-11:15 and it was not 11:30 so I guess that’s when things start. We sat and waited for a while. I think it was about12 when things finally got rolling. The judge was late- I’m not exactly sure why. I guess things are a lot less formal there. It had been decided that another matter was going to be addressed first. A young boy was charged with something, but the other boy who was involved didn’t show up because apparently we was being detained by police in another matter so he had to stand before the judge and simply be told to go home and return tomorrow. Then it was our turn.
The advocates introduced themselves. They wore black robes over shirts with puffy collars. They don’t do the wigs in SA anymore, but it is still interesting to see the lawyers in a uniform dress. The judge was a middle-aged Indian woman and she wore some sort of bright red kimono-looking thing. I will have to inquire about this at some point. TP referred to her as m’lady, which is a term I don’t think I’ve ever heard in person. They read the report through a through a translator and once again had the boy confirm that it was all true. TP had previously explained to him that certain parts were left out and not to elaborate on anything because this is the story that he wants the judge to hear when considering sentencing. The translator read the statements to him, often with a click or another mouth sound not found in European languages. He nodded to indicate that they were true. The judge expressed some concern as to whether or not he is an actual juvenile because he looks old, and there was much discussion as to how a birth certificate would be gotten. Apparently it is not as easy as going to your local hall of records and obtaining one. The boy plead guilty and is awaiting sentencing. He will be evaluated by a social worker to determine whether his home life is conducive to a probation type thing or whether he will ever be able to be an active member of society. His hearing is on June 25th. It is nice that we will still be in town and be able to find out how the case ends.
We returned to the office and had some delicious chicken shwarma for lunch. TP told us to marinate on what kind of things we want to do this summer- civil or criminal? Client counseling or research? I will have to consider what I want most out of this summer. Who knows, perhaps I will discover that I want to do criminal work after all.
This was an exhilarating day. Unfortunately I have to end it working on my casenote for my law journal application. But I suppose all responsibilities at home cannot be ducked just because I am in an exotic location.