Several years back I found myself as foreperson on a jury, standing before a judge to affirm a unanimous not-guilty verdict in a rape and kidnap case. Though we all felt the defendant was guilty of something, according to the very specific wording of his charges we could not convict beyond reasonable doubt.
As I thanked the attorneys involved, the prosecuting attorney informed me through tears that the man was on trial for another rape, but that fact was inadmissible pre-conviction. I left the whole situation shaken emotionally but also with less compassion for those charged with crimes.
That began to shift three years later, when our church planted the Kulture—a ministry to unreached urban culture youth. Since then, I have ministered to many students with legal issues, some stemming from their fault but almost all tinged with injustice.
One such legal issue brought me along a journey with a young man I will call Fred, who faced an accusation of first-degree robbery. Assigned a public defender (because he had no money), Fred sat in county jail for 15 months while the courts bumped his trials and the defender ignored messages from Fred’s mom and me.
Finally, four days before the trial, I met with the defender. This led nowhere, and soon we were sitting in the courtroom, jury waiting in the wings. The defender informed Fred that the prosecuting attorney would pursue only a 10-year sentence if Fred pled guilty, but 20 years if it went to trial. He told Fred that he thought he had little chance of winning, leaving us to discuss things with Fred from our seats 20 feet away, while the prosecution loudly “tested” the audio of their 911 recording.
The implication was clear: “Here you go, young man. Pick: Ten years of your life or 20. But hurry up, we don’t want to waste too much of people’s time.”
Fred took the 10 years, though he never once claimed anything but innocence in our conversations. His mother was allowed one handcuffed hug before they shipped Fred to a penitentiary with no visitors for up to a year.