I sit today in one of my favorite bars in Iowa City. Back in a corner table of an older establishment (very old!), one of the “graduate student” type of bars I have frequented around here ever since I hit my 30’s. It has been steadfast and true over all these years. I’m here on my 59th birthday enjoying a cold beverage and writing this blog. Seemed appropriate, all of it: the bar, the beer, and the writing, all on my birthday. So here’s to me today (and all of you!), may you enjoy a very happy birthday, or whatever it is you choose to celebrate this day. May you find time with good friends and the ones you love.
For those of you who read this blog, you know I spend time thinking about life and all. And on my birthday you would think I would be doing more of that, being my last year before turning 60. But surprisingly I am not. Mostly just standing tall, with clear vision, looking ahead, and just so grateful for all of it.
This week in my law practice it was a severe grind (I do all criminal defense work). There were many, many, many, jail issues, revocations, contested hearings, depositions, and even the wrongful/ unnecessary arrest of a client thrown in just to top it all off (for a missing form that had been lost in e-file space). That is the worst call in the world, one from a client in jail when they shouldn’t be there, and this was a young college student who was just walking to class and campus security picked her up. That is the worst, and then of course there was the call from her mom (ugly)! But gratefully I knew the right judge to call and the jail worked with us and all got worked out pretty quickly.
But in the midst of the grind, and the writing of motions, and the oral arguments, and the negotiations, and all of the phone calls and emails, and all of it, I found moments of grace. And there was one in particular this week that just struck me side the head and when it had passed I just sat in utter amazement of this wonderful world and this life. But before I get to that a word on grace.
I called this piece “Stolen Grace” but that seems a bit misleading. Mostly because grace by its nature is not something that you can earn, it is something that is always a gift. But even though grace itself is a gift and freely given, it is not always freely received or found when you feel you need it. There are times in life when no matter where you look, or how hard you try to get your hands on it, sometimes it feels like you just can’t find grace, for yourself or others. Those are painful times because in truth the grace you need and want is all around you but on certain days it escapes us and we are forced to stay stuck in the midst of the pain, and difficulty, and just the hardness of life.
I have now worked the criminal justice field for over 20 years and in many different roles. I have spent more than my fair share of time in jails and prisons and have spent time with people on the edge of those institutions or coming and going. And there is something about the reality of the system, the cost, and the pain that to me is always sacred. It is a hard truth but in the midst of the pain and struggles of life we also have opportunities to experience its beauty and its wonder. In those moments I have found glimpses of the ways in which people find to survive, to heal, to grow, and to just keep going even though the journey is hard.
This week I had hearings for a client charged with an OWI 3rd, his 5th lifetime. I won’t in any way try to justify that or explain it. Shit happens and it shouldn’t but it is what it is, and it is what I do. I represent people in the criminal justice system when they have done things they should not have done and they have nowhere else to go.
This gentleman, my client, is in the trades and has been a union Ironworker his entire adult life. He is a tough, hard working, dependable, no nonsense guy. If there were still cowboys out on the open plains he would be one of them. He met me at the court house for a motion to suppress we had filed alleging that the officer who stopped him did not have probable cause to make the stop. This would be (if proven) a violation of the 4th Amendment US constitution and Article 8, Section 1 of the Iowa constitution.
If we would have won on the motion the entire case gets thrown out. I won’t spend time justifying this either for those of you who believe all of this kind of thing is a “technicality” and that we should not let people walk that might otherwise be guilty. But for the record I believe the constitution matters and it matters that we hold everyone in the system accountable for following the rules.
I had already met with the assistant county attorney responsible for the case to review the video and discuss options before we went in for the hearing before the judge. When I filed the motion I thought it was very strong, but by the time we got all of the evidence it was a 50/50 motion at best. We discussed the case and even though it was not a great motion I was able to negotiate a very favorable plea offer. Partly because of the motion to suppress (always a chance the state could lose), but also because it had been 7 years since my client’s last offense. The plea would result in avoiding a felony conviction, avoiding 6 months in a halfway house, and some other difficult consequences.
I met with my client outside the courtroom where we were to have held the hearing. Me in my dress pants with tie and coat, and he in his steel-toed work boots, Carhart weathered and torn jacket, and insulted work jeans (because when you walk iron for a living outdoors up in the sky it is cold!). I explained to him the nuances of the motion and my concerns about the newly revealed evidence and how that might impact the motion. I explained the plea offer and the benefits over what he might face if he went forward with the motion and lost.
He sat quietly and thought over all I had said. This was not his world, motions, judges, oral arguments, legal briefs, plea offers, and constitutional decisions by the Supreme Court. His was a world of iron, of welding, of exhaustion, of blistered hands, tired bones, and just trying to make ends meet.
After some silence he told me he had hoped and prayed the motion would be successful so all of this would go away. But he added he cared not what happened to him. He was a divorced dad with a 12-year-old son he had joint custody of. There was nothing in the world that was more important to him. When he spoke of his son his eyes swelled with tears and he spoke of the shame he felt for being in this situation, for putting other people at risk by driving after drinking (again), how he had vowed he would never be in this place again but yet here he was. Worst of all was having to explain it all to his son.
He told me that he couldn’t take the chance of being placed in a halfway house for 6 months and losing joint custody. He just wanted some kind of outcome that would allow him to not miss his days and weekends when he had custody of his son. I answered some additional questions and after it all he agreed to withdraw the motion to suppress and accept the offer from the state so he would be assured of not having to do the halfway house or being sent to prison.
I went in chambers and met with the county attorney and judge so we could go over the plea agreement. The judge agreed with the resolution of the case and set the case out a month for a plea hearing, so that I could file the appropriate paperwork and take care of some issues with DOT. After that I went back out in the hallway to update my client. We then left the courthouse and got in my car, as I had agreed to give him a ride back to his work site (because his driver’s license had been revoked because of the case).
We drove mostly in silence, with some occasional chitchat. When I got to his work site I pulled over to the curb to let him out. He turned to look at me and reached out his hand. He said “thank you” and I shook his hand and said, “You are welcome.” I went to let go and leave but he held on to my hand. When he did I looked up at him again and he looked me dead in the eyes, and told me, “no, like I really mean thank you. I could not bare to lose custody of my son and throughout this entire process I felt like I was going to. Thank you.” Once again his eyes swelled with tears and I knew he was speaking, as best he could, from his heart. I told him again that he was welcome and glad it turned out well. He then opened the door and got out of my car.
I watched him in his steel-toed boots and weathered attire walk back out into the cold and get back to work. I sat in my car and thought of the love I felt for my kids and all I would do to protect my ability to be with them. I saw a tough hardened man who lives day-to-day in an exhausting and difficult world brought to tears over his kid and what he had done that had jeopardized what he loved most in this world.
In the moments we were together, and in that moment in my car, we shared a moment of stolen grace. Neither of us necessarily earned grace or even saw it coming, but both of us needed it desperately. When he held my hand and looked me in the eyes and said thank you, like really thank you, we were both washed in that grace. He had realized to the bones of his soul what really mattered to him and all that he would do to protect it, and how close he came to losing it. I had been privileged to walk with him as we tried to protect it. I had been able to see into my own life, to look over the edge of life into the abyss where we often lose what we love and even ourselves. And if we can at least see where the edge is, maybe we can avoid stepping over it.
So I am now 59. I am blessed regularly with the realities of life (as all of us are). Often hard and painful but yet, in the midst of it all, if we look closely, if we open our hearts, if we believe in the possibilities, grace is there. Love is there. Healing is there. I am grateful for my 59 years. I am grateful for the people in my life, and for all I have had the opportunity to experience.
Stay thirsty my friends, and may grace always meet you when you need it most.