Mary Wagner

Tough Enough?

The scene in the courtroom still haunts me more than a decade later.

I remember the tears that sprang hot to my eyes as I shut the door behind me and walked down the corridor, thinking "I am not tough enough to do this job." I was a law student then, a seasoned criminal prosecutor now. And from time to time, out of nowhere, still comes that memory. It is seared into my consciousness, a testament to "collateral damage," and a mother's grief—two mothers, in fact—and consequences reaped by horrific acts, and how nothing in life, either evil or good, ever happens in a vacuum.

But first, a bit about my job. I've been unbelievably fortunate to work as a criminal prosecutor in a part-time capacity. When I got hired, I felt like I'd hit the jackpot in terms of balancing life and work and family. I still do. I had four kids at home when I'd started law school, and still had three kids living at home when I finished. Getting to do the work I loved in a half-time structure meant that I could still make it to soccer practice and gymnastic meets and find the time to bake team cupcakes decorated like tennis balls and help with homework and volunteer at school and cook dinner on a regular basis. Okay, a semi-regular basis. My kids really got quite sick of "rotisserie chicken" and potato salad from the grocery store deli every Tuesday night.

This was a new position, not only for me, but for the District Attorney's office as well. And so little by little, my job duties evolved to make the most use of my time there and my previous background as a writer. While no one I work with would, I think, dare call me the politically incorrect "miscellaneous backup chick," I make sport of it myself. One cop, introducing me to another, described me as the office's "utility person."

I have my areas of specialty—appellate work, child support prosecutions, seizing assets from drug dealers, responding to requests by inmates who are unhappy that their probation or parole has been revoked and want the trial court to overturn that administrative decision—and then I just get thrown into a lot of things with little warning. It comes with the job. I've argued five cases before the state supreme court, I've been admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court...and I handle a lot of speeding tickets as well.

But being the part-timer means that for the most part, I don't handle the big cases from start to finish. I may review their police reports, I may issue the charges, I may even brief or argue a pre-trial motion,  but I'm rarely there for the finish.  Sixteen years ago, I was simply a spectator in the courtroom. And it has stayed with me every step of the way since then.

A young man's life hung in the balance. His was the last sentencing hearing of a trio of young men who had, months earlier, kidnapped and savagely victimized a young woman in a highly-publicized case. There were no reporters in the courtroom this time, no television cameras, no members of the public. Just the routine players in this type of drama. A judge, the defendant, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, the courtroom staff. And the families. Both his and hers.

His mother went first, a lioness trying to protect her son. She walked into the courtroom with a bearing that was so precise it was almost military. She was a flight attendant, and wore her navy uniform proudly, crisp white accents with glints of gold, her hair pulled severely back. The courtroom was a high security place, which meant that in addition to armed bailiffs being present as a matter of course, the "gallery" was separated from the court by walls of glass and wood. Sound was amplified and conveyed by microphone and speaker.

For nearly a half hour the young man's mother spoke before the judge, passionately pleading for mercy. Sometimes her voice was strong, sometimes it broke with emotion. In her hand she held copies of papers and artwork he had created in grade school that had hung on her refrigerator door years before. She told the tale of his life, which was in large part a tale of hers as well. Of a severely abusive relationship that she had finally found the courage to leave, of her struggle to claw her way out of a life of despair and establish herself as a professional in a field that leaves nothing to chance and relies on absolute accountability and responsibility. Her son's failings were not all his, she argued. He had been such a good child. But a cousin—one of the other defendants, in fact—had often led him astray as he was growing up. And she, in her job, had not always been there to counterbalance the influence.

And then the victim's mother spoke. The girl herself was not in the courtroom, but her mother and some other people were there to stand up for her. This mother was, on the outside, less crisply glamorous, more plain spoken than the woman who spoke before her. But she spoke eloquently about her child nonetheless, about a wonderful and responsible young girl who was the first in her family to go to college, who had a life bright and shining with promise and optimism. And whose life had been utterly broken by no fault of her own. Her daughter had had so much taken from her, and would never be the same. There needed to be justice here.

The prosecutor spoke then too, and the defense attorney, though I remember little of what either of them had to say. Real life and real heartaches trump the speeches of professionals most of the time.

And then it was the judge's turn. The words of the law fell heavily in the windowless courtroom. Punishment. Rehabilitation. Protection of the public. Concepts that judges apply  every  day in courtrooms  across  the  country, elastic in their application but fixed in their importance as guiding principle.

But the moment that stays with me was one that was happening on the other side of the glass, in the gallery that separates the official participants in the case from everyone else. As the judge began to speak, the mother of the young man who had done such wrong walked around to the first row of the gallery, and knelt in front of the young woman's mother and put her hand on the other woman's lap. "I am so sorry," she said, and bowed her head, and then the two of them listened together for a verdict delivered in the pursuit of justice that would never make either of their children alright.

I fled the courtroom at that point, though not before hearing a sentence handed down which ensured that the young man would never see an ordinary sunlit day outside of a prison for most of his life, if not all. "I am not tough enough for this job," I thought as I wiped the tears away with my hand and then left the building.

It's been ten years since that day in the courtroom, nine years since I started working as a criminal prosecutor. I've had by victories and I've had my defeats, and none of them have shaken me to the core as much as this one did. I look back and still wonder whether I'm "tough enough" for the oath I've taken. If I'm very lucky, I think and pray, I'll somehow make it to retirement before I ever find out.

This reflection appears in my second book, a collection of essays and nature photos titled Heck on Heels--Stlll Balancing on Shoes, Love & Chocolate.

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