‘How Can You Work for Those People?’

Read this reflective narrative about what it's like to be a federal public defender.

In the nine years Neil served as a federal public defender for North and South Dakota, he was often asked why he invested his professional life serving people who had been accused of terrible things. He answers that question here with a story about the unique relationship he had with his clients — including a woman who killed her infant son. (Editor’s note: this story contains graphic language.)

I met Maya in jail — the same place I met most of my clients as a federal public defender. Unlike most of my clients, she was charged with first degree murder for killing her infant son. She is also at the heart of my answer to the question I often get asked: “How can you work for those people?”

Early in our consultations, it became clear that Maya had killed her son. She had, in fact, slammed his head against a piece of furniture which caused his brain to start bleeding and eventually caused him to die. This came after weeks of neglect and abuse. Maya was a tragically unfit parent and that cost her son his life. But it also quickly became clear that this was far from the entirety of her story.

Maya was barely out of her teens when we met. As a child, a series of men had passed through her mother’s life and at least two abused Maya mentally and physically. I strongly suspected that one abused her sexually, but those memories were too deeply repressed to confirm. Her mother was profoundly addicted to illicit drugs; she prostituted herself — and eventually Maya — to feed her addiction. It was a horrific upbringing that left Maya utterly unprepared to be a parent herself.

When Maya had her son — at that point her third child — she concluded that it was a challenge she might be unable to meet. As a result, she let another family take her son to raise him, although they never formalized adoption or foster parent status. Soon after, her boyfriend’s family began to bully Maya for being “a bad mother” who “didn’t care about her baby.” They pushed her to take her son back and Maya gave in to their pressure.

She soon became pregnant with another child, lived with a drug-addicted boyfriend, succumbed to addiction issues herself, and lived in poverty. These stresses, paired with three young children and a fourth on the way, put psychological and emotional stress on Maya that she lacked the resources to meet. Never having experienced appropriate parenting herself, when her son engaged in frustrating behavior (as children do), she responded violently — eventually so violently that she killed her son.

As I sat across a table from Maya, several profound challenges presented themselves:

First, simply earning enough of her trust to get her to share these facts of her life took a lot of patience. Little in Maya’s life had taught her that trusting other people was a good idea.

Second, the legal consequences of her actions were severe and complicated. The law of a federal murder prosecution, the potential penalties she faced, the options that she did and did not have, the probability of particular outcomes through trial or a plea agreement, and the prospect of admitting publicly that she killed her son were all complicated issues that we had to discuss until she understood them.

Lastly, as her advocate, my task was to obtain the most favorable outcome possible through plea negotiations and sentence mitigation. This involved a delicate dance of not minimizing what she had done while still telling the entirety of her story and how it drove her actions. In the end, she received a sentence of almost 20 years for an offense for which I remain convinced could not be sentenced “justly.” No sanction was enough for the death of her child, and any punishment was too much for a young woman whose lack of basic emotional support as a child made her actions almost inevitable.

Maya’s case was a tough one. It is at the heart of my answer to how I could represent “those people.” I did that work because it let me extend to another human being respect and dignity in the most challenging circumstances of their life. My role afforded me the opportunity to offer Maya things that no one else could.

First, I had the opportunity to listen to clients like Maya — truly listen, with compassion and interest in their story. Most clients had encountered very few people with genuine concern for them. Listening is such an undervalued and fundamental need.

Second, I could tell Maya the truth about the options she had. Even fewer of my clients had met people who gave them honest advice without ulterior motives.

Third, I could speak up for Maya without reservation or fear, telling her story in all its complexity. Even in the most ugly circumstances, there is an underlying story to be told about the defendant and the circumstances of the offense. Telling those stories helps judges determine just — not merely punitive — sentences. More importantly, it gave each of my clients the fundamental human dignity of having their story heard.

In my mind, I’ve always summarized this constellation of actions as offering basic human dignity to the client sitting across from me. And that was always a good reason to go to work in the morning and stay there a bit later into the evening.

My work as a federal public defender provided a unique opportunity to find and respect another’s dignity, but at some level this is the goal of all the work we do. Work worth doing is in service of others and our community in some fashion. It sustains others, recognizes our common humanity, and advances our collective good and collective dignity. Whether it is teaching, farming, supporting others through service industries, or any of the ways we work today — each of us is in some fashion working for “those people” around us.

Inevitably, our work involves compromises and trade-offs, and we may end up serving deeply flawed and broken people, but it is worth it in its service of the larger human good. In that way, our work advances the dignity possessed by every human, which cannot be surrendered.

That’s how I work for “those people.” It is how we all do.

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