Posted by: Freya Cartwright on Jul 1, 2020

Journal Issue Date: July/August 2020

Journal Name: Vol. 56 No. 7

April 2018

She is ready to run. I see it there in her clenched hands, the way she glances up furtively when I enter the interview room, her whole body twitching towards the door with a sudden force that startles me. I am immediately uneasy.

“Ms. Martinez. I’m Jessi Walker.” I extend my hand. She barely touches it, raising and dropping her right arm stiffly. “I’m the assistant district attorney assigned to your case.”

This isn’t exactly true. I’m assigned to the state’s case, for which she is a vital witness —my only witness — but by no means my client. In these early days of my new job, it’s a complication that I struggle with. A technicality, sure, but a vital one.

 “I’m glad you could make it out here today. I know our victim-witness coordinators have been blowing up your voicemail. I really appreciate your cooperation and patience.”

She shrugs and barely nods. Her head is tilted away from me, but I can see where she’s combed her bangs forward to hide the stitches.

“Okay, so I just wanted to talk with you for a bit and get a few things straight before the hearing.”

Her eyes dart to me. “Hearing?”

She’s too surprised. This isn’t good. “So I’m going to make him an offer through his attorney, but I strongly suspect that he isn’t going to accept it. Looking at his history —” I thumb through the file in my hand for dramatic effect. Pages and pages. “The offer I have to make isn’t one that he’s going to like very much. I’m guessing he’ll decide to take his chances with a preliminary hearing.”

She sits and stares at the wall in front of her, tracing her finger around a hole in her dark skinny jeans. I get a chance to really study her: glossy dark hair with expensive, tasteful amber highlights, a ratty hoodie with the strings frayed as if she secretly chews them when nervous, knockoff Coach bag, beautiful flawless skin with dark bags and traces of yellow bruising around the eyes. So many contradictions. Another woman stuck between where she’s always been and where she wants to be.

“I didn’t come here to testify.” Her voice is so soft. Chin tilted down with hair curtained across her face. She is glancing at the door again.

“I’m sorry?” I ask even though I heard her fine. Shamelessly stalling. 

She doesn’t speak again, just presses her lips together and shakes her head stiffly. Her boyfriend’s file seems to grow heavier in my hands.

“Ms. Martinez, I know it isn’t easy.” This is a lie too. I have no idea. “But like I said, I don’t think he’s going to take the plea. Which means that we need your testimony today if you want him to stay locked up.” 

“I talked to the cop already. He took pictures.” 

“I know, but Officer Haddock can’t testify on your behalf about what you told him. That’s called hearsay. He can tell the court about what he saw that night, how you looked when he arrived. But Alan was already gone when the officer arrived. You’re the only one who can tell the court who did this to you.” 

The pictures are clipped to the back of the file. Eight of them, taken by the responding officer with his three-year-old cell phone. The flash is garishly bright, and the photos pixellated slightly upon being blown up. But they’re more than enough to give the judge the idea.

Full front, right profile, left profile. Right shoulder, right arm, right ribs. Two close-ups of the hairline and forehead, hard to figure out what you’re looking at with the blood. 

“I’m not going to testify against him. I can’t.” 

In my mind, I overlap the photographs with the woman in front of me. I have the sudden, perverse urge to pull them out, shove them under her face, force her to look at them. This is what he did. Don’t you remember? And this and this and this. I don’t know what you’ve been telling yourself. I don’t know if you avoid the mirror or blame the drugs or pretend it was an accident, but I know you can still barely raise your right arm and I swear to God you better not tell yourself it won’t happen again. Look at it. It will. 

Of course I say nothing. Her body is rigid, her gaze fixed. It’s twenty minutes till docket call. 

“Ms. Martinez, I’m sorry to catch you off guard like this, but this case is not going to go forward unless . . .”

“I understand that. I’m sorry. I’m not testifying.” 

Shit, I think. Shit.

I shift sideways in my seat so that I can look into her downcast eyes. I’m young and new at my job and everything is my responsibility, my fault if it goes wrong. The ink on my law degree is barely dry and I still believe that a rational argument can convince anyone of anything. 

“He will come back,” I say softly. “If you don’t testify today, he gets out. If he gets out, he will come back to you.”

She refuses to meet my gaze, but her spine stiffens resolutely. 

“Please. If you testify today, he can stay locked up at least long enough for you to get away somewhere. We have programs that can help.” I extend a glossy brochure towards her, listing shelters and food pantries and every kind of help she could need. Except help with this, the first step. In this decision, she is alone.

She stares at it but makes no move to take it. I lay the brochure on the chair next to her. 

“Listen, I’ve got to drop something off to a colleague real quick. I’ll be back before the docket call, okay?”

I rise and walk away, shutting the door behind me quietly. I pretend not to see her pick up the brochure and study it thoughtfully, looking for an answer.

June 2019 

I’m hovering over the coffee pot in the break room, peering into the creamer cabinet. We’re supposed to have hazelnut, vanilla, and plain, but today there’s only vanilla and plain. The one day that I want hazelnut. 

I hear someone striding past the break room door and catch a glimpse of a bright pink shirt that can only be Charlie’s. 

“Hey Charlie,” I call. “Where’s the hazelnut?” 

Charlie turns and walks in, a bag of peanut M&Ms in one hand. Charlie’s wife is allergic, so he keeps stashes of peanut snacks all over the office to enjoy while he’s at work. 

“The hazelnut? It’s on Shirley’s desk.”

I roll my eyes. “Why is it on Shirley’s desk?”

“Because Mike was in here making coffee, but Shirley called him into her office to look at something, so he just brought the hazelnut in there to finish stirring it in. I only saw because I was looking for my M&Ms.” He tosses a handful in his mouth. It’s an unusually slow afternoon, with nothing more urgent to do than hunt for M&Ms or the hazelnut creamer. I start to leave for Shirley’s office.    

“Hey, by the way,” Charlie mumbles through a mouthful of peanuts. “You remember a girl named Lucy Martinez? Late twenties, boyfriend named Alan Leary?”

I stop. He knows I do.

“Yeah. That was that case.”

He nods. “The one you took kinda hard.” He glances at my face and winces. “Sorry, I didn’t — I mean everyone has a case that catches them like that. God knows I’ve had a few.”

It’s true. Thousands and thousands of names and faces and files, and there would always be that select few that rose above the rest for some reason. The faces you could conjure up quicker than memories of your own family. Sometimes, as with me, your earliest cases left the deepest marks. But sometimes even seasoned attorneys like Charlie caught a case, mid-career, that they could never quite shake off. None of us were untouchable. It was impossible to grow hardened enough to be “safe”. 

“What about Lucy Martinez?” I ask cautiously. 

He suddenly seems uncomfortable, leaning awkwardly against the counter and crumpling the bag between his hands. “I just saw the name on my desk today. I didn’t want to make a big deal about it, but I know that one meant more to you than some of the others. I just thought I ought to tell you about it.”

“Tell me what, Charlie? She’s part of a case you’re on?”

He nods, and my stomach drops. Charlie works in homicide. 

“Well, shit.” I turn back to my coffee cup, trying to fix my expression before he sees my face. 

“Yeah. I’m sorry.”

“I mean, I saw it coming. That day in the interview room with her.” Those pictures. I still see them. It was only a year ago, sure, but I’ve dealt with hundreds of domestic violence cases since Lucy’s. Her injuries weren’t that unusual, but for some reason, those pictures haven’t left me.

“I know it’s a tough thing,” Charlie is saying, “when a victim gets stuck in your head and you never know how things ended up. That’s why I thought I’d let you know.” 

“How did it happen?” I’m not sure I want him to tell me. 

He sighs. “Shot. Four times. It’s pretty cut and dry.” 

I shake my head mutely. 

“I know. Again, I’m sorry. I thought you’d want a heads-up, in case you hear or read anything about it.”

“I appreciate it, Charlie.”

“Sure.” He opens the M&Ms again, staring at them thoughtfully. “He was asleep, too. Responding officer said he would’ve never known what hit him.”

I nearly drop my spoon. “He? Who’s he?”

“The victim.” Charlie looks confused. “Alan Leary.”

“Oh my god. Her boyfriend.” Relief washes over me. “Charlie, you’re the most verbally ambiguous lawyer I know. So then, wait, what does —”

The realization comes to me just as Charlie says it aloud.

“Leary is the victim. Lucy Martinez is the defendant.” 

April 2018    

After leaving Lucy Martinez in the interview room, I head straight to Natalie’s office. Natalie is a senior prosecutor in the domestic violence division, as well as my unofficial advisor and mentor. 

Luckily she hasn’t left for court yet. She’s hovering over her desk, clipping files together and rummaging in a drawer. I knock on her open door. 

“What’s up?” She smiles at me, but her gaze shifts not-so-subtly to the clock on the wall. 

“I just have a quick question. I know it’s almost docket call.” 

“Sure, no problem. Shoot.” 

“I have this victim . . .” Now that I’m here, I’m not even sure how to put this situation into a question. “She doesn’t want to testify. But I need her.” 

“Well, have you explained why you need her? Told her the consequences of not testifying?”

I nod. 

“Not much else you can do, then. You can’t make her take the stand.” 

“No.” It’s a simple answer; if she won’t do it, she won’t do it. Yet I linger in the doorway, hesitant to accept it. 

Natalie looks up, puzzled. “You’ve worked with difficult victims before, right?”

“Yeah.” It isn’t uncommon: victims refusing to help with a case, choosing to return to their abusers because they need the financial support or familiarity. I know this. “But this girl’s different. I don’t know. He really messed her up.”

Natalie looks at me quietly. 

“It’s just, she’s refusing to even consider keeping him locked up, and I’m just sitting there looking at the pictures, and knowing he’ll get out this afternoon and go right back to her.” I toss my hands helplessly. “I feel like I’m not doing my job.”

She leans against her desk, pushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “And what is your job?”

The window behind her is full of sky. Filmy gray clouds with soft, milky sunlight trying to break through. Somewhere eighteen stories below us is a vast and pulsating city, but from this angle, there is only a sea of gray light.

“My job is to hold him accountable for what he did to her. Keep him away long enough for her to get somewhere safe. To convince her to take the stand for just ten minutes so that we have a successful case against him.”

“No. None of that is your job. Your job is to take the case that the state has given you, and do with it what you can under the circumstances.” 

“Right, but —”

“And right now, the circumstances seem to be that your victim won’t testify, won’t leave him, and won’t get help.” She reaches for her coffee and takes a quick sip. “So unless she changes her mind, all you can do is drop the case. That’s all that the state needs from you.”

“I know. But I feel like she needs more.”

“You can’t make her get help, right? You can’t force her to testify. If a victim won’t take the first step, there’s not much you can do. You’ve dealt with this before.” A slight edge creeps into her voice, impatient. “It happens.” 

She glances at the clock again, this time more pointedly. I take my cue. 

“Yeah. I know. I guess I just needed to talk it out.”

“Of course. It’s hard sometimes, but you’ve got to step back and remember what you’re here for. The victims are important, but the victims aren’t your job.” She sweeps up her files and brushes past me in the doorway. “Docket call’s in ten.”

I turn and move forward to her window. Up closer, looking down, I can see the tangled mess of traffic and buildings and people. The sky has grown suddenly darker, and the movement below grows more frantic as everyone rushes for shelter from the incoming storm.

I return to the interview room. The door is open, the room empty. Lucy leaves behind a trace of drugstore perfume and the emergency services brochure, propped up carefully against a vase of wilting flowers.

November 2019

The trial lasts six days. My caseload is heavy, but somehow I manage to attend a small portion of the trial each day.

Lucy sits at counsel table with her back straight, staring ahead. She looks mostly the same, besides the dark, sleepless circles under her eyes that I notice when she takes the stand. I tell myself that I would have recognized her anywhere, though I’m not sure this is true. 

She explains the years of abuse in a flat, soft voice, looking right at the jury as she testifies. She comes across as genuine, and not unsympathetic, but I know her lack of emotion will hurt her in the jury’s eyes. She refuses to cry on the stand. I leave before she is cross-

The jury deliberates a little less than four hours. I wanted to be present when the jury returns its verdict, but I am still arguing a preliminary hearing when the foreman comes out. Half an hour later, I overhear two court clerks discussing it in the hall. 

Voluntary manslaughter 

I return to my office and dabble with paperwork. I can’t concentrate. 

Charlie knocks on my open door, startling me out of a daydream. I’m not sure how long I’ve been staring at the empty spot on the wall. 

“Hey. Good work on that trial,” I say, and mean it. Charlie is one of our best. His arguments were firm but fair, his demeanor professionally detached but personally engaged. The practice of law is a prolonged balancing act, and Charlie has learned how to nail it. 

“Thanks. I think we got the fair outcome.” He jiggles the change in his pocket. “That’s actually what I’m here about. The PD approached me after the courtroom cleared out. Said Lucy had a message for you.” 

“Really?” I hadn’t realized she had noticed me there. She never surveyed the courtroom when she was escorted in and out on each day of the trial. Even when she took the stand, she locked eyes only with the jurors and her attorney.

“Yeah. She must have recognized you at some point. Apparently she pointed you out to Bill and said ‘tell her that I know she tried’.”

I squeeze the pencil in my hand, trying to suppress the twisted knot of emotions that suddenly rises in my throat. “I’m surprised she remembered me.”

Charlie shrugs. “People are funny. I guess she didn’t want you to feel like you let her down.” He makes a point of not looking at me. 

“Yeah.” My throat tightens. I begin pointedly shuffling papers on my desk. 

Charlie takes the hint. “Well, just wanted to pass that along.” He closes the door behind him. 

I stare out the window for a long time, picturing Lucy’s face when the jury returned its verdict. Wondering when she recognized me. How she knew how much I needed those four words. 

I know she tried.

The practice of law is a balancing act, and both sides of the scale are always heavy. But sometimes the smallest, gentlest acts tip the weight to one side or the other. I couldn’t tip the scales for Lucy. But she did for me. 

Because of her words echoing in my mind, I am able to swallow the lump in my throat and turn back to the new cases stacked on my desk. A new energy, calm and clear, washes over me as I pick up the next file and try again. 

FREYA CARTWRIGHT is a rising 3L at Belmont University College of Law. She lives in Nashville and works with the firm of David Randolph Smith & Associates. Ms. Cartwright is passionate about criminal law and plans to pursue a career as a trial advocate after graduation. She gives her warmest thanks to Professors Kristi Arth and Victor Johnson of Belmont University College of Law, as well as General Chris Buford of the Nashville District Attorney Office, for their influence on this story.