Last Sunday, Montana Women Writers sponsored a free heart information event at our local community center, with Dr. Betty Kuffel presenting medical information and many of us reading from our books. We didn’t get a large turnout, given it was the last day of Winter Carnival, but the gathering gifted me with an epiphany.
A year ago, I returned to my criminal law practice and since then, I’ve felt overwhelmed, stressed out, and, at times, hopeless, as I yet again face uphill battles for my clients, expectations from my family to provide them with the same level of care and concern, and a pervasive sense that there’s no end in sight for my legal career – ever.
On Sunday, for the first time, I read a scene from Courthouse Cowboys wherein I’d met a young, disabled client at Deer Lodge State Prison fifteen years ago. He’d pled guilty to a murder he didn’t commit, and the judge sentenced him, at age 18, to 100 years in prison. His parents hired me to try to get his guilty plea reversed and take the case to trial.
As I stood before my fellow writers, nerves wracked me. I opened my iPad to my book and uttered the first line of the scene. As I read along, I felt stronger, not only in my voice, but in my soul.
My heart sailed back to 1999 when I’d met this bruised and battered kid. On that day, I’d had the same feelings about my law practice as I do today – stress fueled by fear of failure, heart strings tugged in a thousand directions, the urge to quit mixed with maternal guilt piling rubble on my back.
Yet when I finished reading, my purpose in trying to help these scattered, damaged, prisoners crystallized.
Not much has changed in the system since 1999. Kids born into families of violence, addiction, and mental illness too often become batterers and addicts, their brains impaired from head injuries and substance abuse. They lack impulse control, which simply means they act without thinking. Most pick up their first offense as children, add arrests into adolescence, and land in prison by their early twenties. There they suffer more beatings, more exposure to drugs and disease, bleeding them of faith, trust, and hope.
I give them legal advice, sure. I file papers, go to court, and consult with them in jails throughout Montana. But mostly I do what all Moms do: I smile, I listen, I ask them about their lives, and often I share parts of mine, where I, too, have screwed up.
On Sunday, after I sat down, I remembered why I spend my days in the bowels of the criminal justice system. I do it because I give my clients a glimmer of hope, peppered with a bit of faith and trust. And maybe, lifted by hints of promise, helped by the grace of forgiveness, they can find freedom from custody and the past, and a future steeped in peace.
So, thank you, ladies of Montana Women Writers, for that gentle kick in the derriere. By listening, you restored my hope.