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Our Hardest Trials; Our Saving Graces

by | Mar 30, 2022 | Families, Family Law

In my prior experience (I used to be a criminal defense attorney) I had a unique opportunity to witness variety of responses to being accused of a crime (or crimes). There were times that those clients were calm and accepting; they understood how they’d participated in collecting criminal charges. Other times, these clients felt singled out or victimized. And, maybe most surprisingly, there were times when clients felt that what had happened to them and what they were facing because of it, was their saving grace.
I vividly remember sitting in a county jail visitation room with a client – facing a minimum of 15-year sentence in federal prison – when she said something that I will never forget. We’d just finished discussing the circumstances of her arrest and reviewing documents on an inpatient rehabilitation facility she’d be attending while pending trial, there was a mountain of paper between us.
Suddenly, she looked up at me to quietly asked, “Ms. Justus do you remember those arcade games with the claw that dropped down and picked up toys that you never think you’re going get?” Genuinely puzzled, I answered, “of course, they are impossible, why?” In that moment, she had insight and said, “I feel like I was one of those toys and being arrested was like the claw was finally getting me out.”
Throughout the year I spent working her case, I was able to get to know her. This particular client had been a daily drug user for roughly six years and her dependence eventually led her to participate in conduct that resulted in hefty federal charges: drug trafficking and organized crime.
Getting to know your clients as a lawyer can be difficult – especially in a county jail visitation room – and particularly when you are constantly combating the picture of them being drawn by the opposing side. If I were to take her at face-value, the way she was described by the prosecution, I would see her as a habitual drug user committing crimes to feed her selfish habit.
However, that is not the person I got to know. I got to know a woman who, as a child, was abused by family friends but never felt safe enough to tell her parents; a woman who, as an adolescent, was removed from her home for two years to escape her parents’ drug use; a woman who, all her life and despite her hardships, loved her family very much. I got to know a woman who worked hard since the age of 16, who eventually became an area manager for her company despite never finishing the 10th grade. I got to know a woman who had suppressed years of trauma, trauma that finally reared its ugly head at the unexpected passing of her mother. This woman’s inability to cope, a skill never taught or modeled, brought her to drug use, a habit taught and modeled by her loved ones. Once I got to know this person, her conduct made sense – her errors were human and not just criminal. There is never an excuse for wrongdoings, but there can be an explanation.
And this client, she was that special type of person who understood she was about to face her saving grace. She was plucked from her trauma and circumstances and given a challenge, and strangely, a new chance.
By the end of her case she had been sober for almost a year. She had come to terms with her actions and with what she was facing. She was able to show the court what she showed me in the county jail visitation room: she is more than the crimes she had committed. She took her arrest and transformed it into an opportunity for self-growth and success. She was proof that our hardest trials are often times our saving graces.
Criminal law taught me more about listening and understanding people than I could have ever anticipated. It is an exceptionally humbling experience to work with these individuals and humanize their circumstances, particularly their mistakes. Now, I am transferring that skill to family law and it makes me excited to assist my new clients – and their families – through just as trying times.
While you may not be dealing with the loss of liberty or facing years in prison, you are challenged with your ex’s accusations and exceedingly difficult life changes. Through it all, it can be hard to maintain focus on the real issue at hand: the person you are advocating for and, importantly, their future.
I pride myself on doing just that.
Maria Justus

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