Credit where credit is due...

Dawn Turner Trice, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune has done a wonderful thing. She's allowed a chicago public defender to tell her own story. It's reprinted below for your holiday pondering. What may be astonishing to most of you who don't do the work is Trice's subjects decision, after what she'd been through to become a public defender rather than a prosecutor. Now obviously I do the work for somewhat different reasons and I don't take refuge in process arguments, but I do think it's important to understand that for many poor people of color, the system is so corrupt that defense work really is community work and that some of the most important changes come from escaping that system not perpetuating it.

Dawn Turner Trice

This is the season for giving and, as Brunell Donald has come to understand, one especially invaluable gift is the gift of forgiveness.

Donald is a 30-year-old Cook County public defender. When she was a toddler, her father was carted off to the penitentiary for selling drugs. At 10, she watched helplessly as her mother was brutally murdered.

By the time Donald went to college, she'd been a ward of the state for 8 years, living in foster and group homes.

If you follow child welfare statistics, you'd see the unmistakable pattern that suggests wards don't often fair too well. But, as you'll see, Donald is a woman of uncompromising faith and determination. She isn't one to cower in the face of great odds.

I started talking to Donald a couple of months ago. When I finally sat down to write, my words didn't seem to do justice to her remarkable journey. So, I decided to step out of the way and allow her to tell her own story. This is the first of two parts, in Donald's own voice--with minor editing from me.

My mother was a drug addict. My father was involved in the sale of narcotics. He went to college but dropped out and decided to pick up a street trade.

My mother was from a small town outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and my father was from Chicago. They met when she was in her late teens; he was in his late 20s. My parents never married but they lived together.

I can remember being a little girl and everything seeming normal for a while.

But when I was 3 or 4 years old, the feds raided our apartment on the West Side. My father was later convicted for selling drugs and sentenced to 10 years in the penitentiary. My mother and I would visit him there, and I remember eating vending machine hamburgers and playing cards with my dad. That was my joy.

Then, one day, my mother stopped taking me to visit him. She never told me why.

After my father left, we lost our provider and my mother had to fend for herself. She started prostituting and using drugs. I remember her being on welfare. Two years after my father went away, my mother had my sister. I remember all of us standing in the church line for cheese and canned goods.

By then, we were living on the North Side. It was so weird what went on in that house. I didn't realize how dysfunctional it was until I was an adult. I remember the prostitutes coming over. They would stop by to change their wigs, wash the makeup off their faces and wash their bodies, all in the bathroom sink.

They would also eat my Frankenberry cereal. I never could keep enough. They were prostituting all night and by morning they'd be so hungry.

My mom would press their hair and cook meals for them. My mother was a caretaker of people.

But bad things sometimes happen to good people. My father was violent and when he lived with us. She would call the police when he hit her. They would come but my mother never pressed charges. When he left, the beatings stopped, but the pain didn't.

The last year my mother was alive was 1985. In July, I threw her a birthday party. I was only 9 years old. I invited all of her friends and family. We had cake, spaghetti and chicken.

I turned 10 years old Aug. 5. By November she was dead.

A drug dealer wanted $250 dollars that she owed him. She couldn't pay him so my mother, sister and I went on the run to relatives' houses for a couple of weeks.

We came back on Nov. 4, 1985. The next day, the dealer knocked on our apartment door. I opened it.

He came in and said, "Hey, Vonne."

My mother sent me to my room. From the hall, I could hear him saying, "Where's my money?" In my room, I turned on the television to watch a cartoon. Then I heard her scream.

I ran out to the living room to see him stabbing her over and over.

I started to scream and he said if I didn't shut up, he'd kill me too. By the time it was over, he'd stabbed her 39 times.

When I was 5 years old, I told my mother that I was going to be a lawyer. I was watching an old "Perry Mason" rerun. My mother said, "Your momma ain't a lawyer; your daddy wasn't a lawyer, so how you gone be a lawyer?"

Over the next few years, all of my interactions with the police and court system during my childhood were pretty rough, but they prepared me for who I am today.

When my mom died, I didn't know death was permanent. I saw her stretched out on the floor that last time and I thought she was going to get up. She had gotten up before after she'd been beaten.

When I saw her in the casket, I kissed her forehead. It was freezing cold, but I still didn't know she wasn't coming back.

Though my father attended my mother's funeral, we lost touch afterward, and my sister and I became wards of the state.

- - -

We wound up in the foster home of a close friend of the family. She believed wholeheartedly in corporal punishment--beating with broomsticks, belts, and pots and pans. I'm not saying we were perfect, but getting beaten was the last thing we needed.

My sister and I were in that house for five years. After that, we went to live in Evanston with my great aunt, who had a doctorate. She had a beautiful home. But by then, I couldn't appreciate it. I was so hurt and angry. I was rebellious.

For years I was an insomniac because I was afraid of being awakened in the middle of the night to be beaten for some transgression that happened earlier in the day.

After a year, my aunt was like, "You have to go." I left but my sister stayed.

I ended up in a group home in Aurora at 16. I was there for a year and a half. I would sneak out at night while there, too.

But, through it all, I never missed a day of school. I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was 5. Even when I was doing wrong, I was still going to school.

- - -

When I was 16, I met my mentor. He was my pediatrician. He told me years later that he'd never met anyone who was so smart and articulate who'd come through the child welfare system.

I've always known about college and I knew that was the path I was on. My mentor said that if I ever needed anything, I could call him for a letter of recommendation, advice or just to talk. He never expected anything in return. He helped me find financial aid. School would let out and I wouldn't have a home to go to, so he helped me find places to stay.

- - -

I went to undergraduate school at Northern Illinois University and then to law school at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. I passed the bar the first time.

He told me that just because people had more money than me, that didn't make me inferior. Before I met him, I rarely felt good enough. I was a fat kid and never had the right clothes. He was a big self-esteem booster for me.

An elementary teacher was another mentor. She was the first person who helped me realize my voice had power. She would enter me into oratory contests and spelling bees. When I told her I was going to be a lawyer, she believed me. She believed in me.

- - -

Still, my life had a big hole in it. I didn't know my father. On the outside, I was working hard and striving, but I was depressed and angry with the world.

My father and I were reunited in 1996. I was about to graduate from college. We started slowly, meeting during holiday get-togethers with other family members I didn't know. We cried together. We're still building, moving forward.

I love my father very dearly. I'm a strong believer in the Bible. It says honor thy mother and father. It doesn't say honor them only if they have led perfect lives.

In his 61 years of life, my father has made mistakes. So have I. So who am I to judge? I knew I had to forgive him for not being there for my mother and me, and for the path he chose.

I had to forgive the woman who beat my sister and me for five long years. I had to forgive the man who murdered my mother. He's now serving a life sentence in prison.

- - -

At the beginning of the year, I'll begin work in the felony trial division in the courthouse at 26th and California. My father had been incarcerated there many times. Now I'll be standing up there as a defense attorney.

Yes, I'll be defending murderers. And those who have wronged people in other ways. But I am there to defend the Constitution. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

As a Cook County public defender, I tell my clients I can relate to them. I know what murder is like firsthand. I know what misery is like firsthand.

In my office, I give away `U-Turn Permitted' fliers. I tell my clients that I'm a witness they can change their lives.


karl said...

Wowser!!! Thanks.

Public Defense said...

FYI: In Cook County, Illinois, Ms. Donald would have had another option for her career choice besides prosecutor or PD: Assistant Public Guardian, representing children in abuse, neglect, and dependency cases.

Instead, in the same spirit of forgiveness she displays in her personal relationships, she chose to work for the office that represents the parents in those same cases.

Anonymous said...

I don't quite understand your denigration of holding the entitlement of all citizens to due process as a reason to be a PD.

Certainly there are as many differing reasons for wanting to be a public defender as there are defenders themselves.

Is there no nobility in desiring that indigents charged with crimes receive the fullest extent of the process available, as much as the wealthiest defendant? That the person condemned by newspapers or the community receive the fairest trial possible, and the best legal counsel you can offer?

Sorry, but I don't understand your condemnation of process as a "refuge." It's as valid and noble as any other reason.

Indefensible said...

Gosh, I certainly didn't mean to denigrate any PD ever. I'm deeply happy when committed people do the work regardless of what motivates them. I will say, though, that process arguments often feel to me like a way to avoid the more charged arguments about actually finding the humanity and decency in clients. For that reason, I describe it as a "refuge." That's not to invalidate it or give it short shrift, but I do think that the harder and frankly, more important argument to make is one that validates the essential humanity and dignity of our clients.

Thanks for bringing my attention to the phrase. I hope that this clarifies my position just a bit.

Anonymous said...

The photograph above this post is of author Martha Southgate, not Dawn Turner Trice. You can check out my work at www.marthasouthgate.com