October 18, 2016 (Fault Lines) — There are days when lawyers must remind themselves why they stay in this profession. It can be any number of reasons. For me, it’s the story of my high school friend Jonathan* and the injustice he suffered that keeps me going. I wasn’t a lawyer when the case went down, but it’s one I’ll never forget.
Jonathan was a good kid, shy and nerdy growing up. He was into professional wrestling, and we became friends who would regularly bond over watching WWE pay per views at a local pizzeria. We kept close ties until high school graduation, when I left for college and he stayed to work whatever job he could find.
In addition to pro wrestling, Jonathan loved riding a four wheeler around dirt paths. One year, he wiped out pretty bad and ended up in the hospital. Jonathan left the hospital with brain damage. His short term memory was completely out of whack. Jonathan could be sitting in the living room watching television, get an order from his mother Shirley to close the window in his room, and by the time he’d taken the twenty steps to get inside his room, he’d forgotten what he was doing there, what he was supposed to do, and who asked him to do something.
None of this bode well when one of Jonathan’s nephews was found sexually assaulting another kid at the local middle school. When asked why he would commit such a heinous attack on one of his fellow students, the boy replied “I thought this was what people did all the time. Uncle Jonathan does this to me regularly.” That was all the cops needed to fit Uncle Jonathan with a set of metal bracelets and a bright orange jumpsuit. After all, it had to be learned behavior.
The infuriating thing for the cops, by all accounts, was the interrogation. Most Fault Lines readers know the way police interrogations work. If you’ve seen “Making a Murderer” or the name Brendan Dassey means anything to you, you know what a nasty interrogation looks like. With Jonathan, things were different. The cops kept trying to get him to confess at every turn, but he wouldn’t do it. Every time they’d ask if he raped his nephew, Jonathan would respond “I don’t remember. I want to tell you yes or no, but I honestly don’t remember.”
Jonathan got the public defender for his case since his family just managed to get by on the draw.** Once I got my own law license, I tracked down the PD assigned to his case and started asking questions. This was an “unusual” case, the PD told me. He tried to get Jonathan to plead, but every time they’d discuss the specifics of a plea deal Jonathan had to ask him to repeat what was discussed two minutes prior. Eventually the pair had to converse by writing everything down as they spoke, so Jonathan could understand everything about the case, the nature of his charges, and the potential sentence Jonathan faced versus the one he was offered. It was one of his first cases, and one he wanted off the books fast, but he continued, “I just don’t remember if I did it or not” was infuriating.
The same held true for the prosecutor, a newly-minted Assistant DA with one charge from his boss. Make sure our quiet little town knew child rapists had no place here. The ADA saw the interrogation reports, did a little bit of investigating and knew he had a mess on his hands. The case essentially revolved around the nephew’s word against his brain-damaged uncle, who swore up and down he just couldn’t remember whether he’d done it or not. If this case went to trial, he just wasn’t sure a jury would come back with a guilty verdict.
Meanwhile, the family kept telling Jonathan to plead. It didn’t matter if he did it or not, what mattered most was closure for the family. He had to plead so his nephew could get on with his life. Jonathan was sick of being in a “pod” with inmates that didn’t take nicely to kiddie rapists, but they also knew something wasn’t right with his head. Since he loved his family, he took the DA’s offered plea for time served. Jonathan went home, but his misery was just beginning.
The first stop was the sex offender registry. Jonathan couldn’t move out of his parents’ home because that might put him near a school or playground. According to the terms of the plea, everyone in his neighborhood had to know they lived on the same street as a child rapist. Jonathan had a hard time finding jobs because of his new felony record. He started working repossession gigs for banks when people wouldn’t pay their car note. Eventually he landed a job as a host for a local chain restaurant. Apparently the manager was able to look past the scarlet marks on a website marking Jonathan an
OFFENDER AGAINST CHILDREN
No, the owner of this restaurant got Jonathan’s friendly nature. He knew Jonathan was a kind heart who held no violence in his soul against anyone. He gave Jonathan a second chance when no one else would. And for that, Jonathan was thankful.
His parents were thankful when they found out I’d gotten a law license. The first words out of their mouths once I got sworn in were, “Please, is there anything you can do to help him?” I hadn’t the slightest clue as to where to go. I was green as goat shit when I got that call, running a practice by myself with no mentors to consult. So I called the guy who mentored me during my second and third years of law school and asked him what to do.
“The guy’s screwed,” he said. “You’ve got no remedy to pursue.”
Jonathan buried his last parent today. I wasn’t able to be there for the service. I don’t know what his future holds, now that he’s got to make the annual property taxes and utilities in the one home he’s ever known. If I had the ability to get in touch with him somehow, if I could even say one thing to him right now in this moment of grief, it would be this.
Jonathan, I’m sorry I couldn’t help you when your family called. Every day your story is why I fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. And no matter what, I hope you’re doing okay.
*Not his real name. In fact, all names of people related to Jonathan are changed to protect him.
**”The Draw” is the local nickname for government assistance programs. Think “Drawing a check.”
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Chris, your post is both important and moving. It is beautifully written. Thanks.
All the best.
Thank you for the kind words. Jonathan’s story still keeps me up at night from time to time.
It’s why I wear the mantle of “Voice of the Voiceless” proudly, and still serves as a sick spot in my stomach where I wish I could have done better.
[…] has registries designed to protect the public from sex offenders. There’s registries informing law-abiding citizens of potential child abusers. Our society even […]