Twilight – the magical moment betwixt and between day and night. The stars are just beginning to visibly twinkle across the blue swath of sky. That life-giving star we know as our sun appears to set, as we on earth turn away from it. The earth is a circle, a spinning globe and so any step in any direction on this sphere can just as easily be considered a beginning as an end. In some way, it is all one. But it doesn’t feel that way at a murder sentencing hearing.
A fairy tale with a typical sad ending, the ancient kind that were mostly warning tales. A man leaves his home to find work, and ends up under a bridge at twilight. He is dozing off, perhaps with the help of something that can take the edge off the cold, the stress, the ongoing battle for life, work and dignity. He may be thinking of his motherless children at home, who are waiting for the money they think he can earn so easily. He may be feeling that the cement underneath him is hard on his bad hip. But the workday is over, so at least he has that. Right now, it is twilight with its permission to sink into rest and know that there is nothing else to be done to better your lot today.
In writing literature, a very central aspect is point of view. From whose point of view is the tale being told? Older literature usually used god’s, the all-knowing. The invisible writer would move in and out of rooms and minds, telling the reader things that only an omniscient being could know. Modern tellers often choose one or two points of view and the story might go back and forth between two characters telling, or narrated by a detective who slowly solves a crime. The problem with using several points of view is that they differ. It is like the story of the twelve blind people each touching one spot of the elephant, and making conflicting claims about what an elephant looks like. They were each right, and they were each wrong, and only by putting it together do we come to some sense of the elephant, perhaps. This parable is often used to explain jury trial with its twelve members.
The story I was told in court was narrated by a defense attorney, a detective reading a child’s letter, a homeless friend, the defendant and prosecutor, and the judge. Each story was told in one language and then I had to render it into another one, with no breaks and hardly time to breathe. It was a “simple sentencing hearing” so I was not given a team interpreter to switch me out every fifteen minutes. When emotions are high, I try my best not to interrupt, but to just keep up and let people have their say. It is hard to keep up without a break, but it is also very hard for people to testify at a murder sentencing. Many people in the room cried. Even a visiting judge took off her glasses and wiped her tears, but I am not allowed to. I am a court-certified interpreter sworn to superhuman feats of strength.
According to the defense attorney, this story is a tragedy all the way around. Two hopeful, healthy men migrate to the land of opportunity only to find there is no steady work. They have mouths to feed, but the economy is not set up for them to feed those mouths. They fall through the cracks and end up using some of their pay as day laborers to drink away part of their sorrows. This defendant, a good family man, turns to drugs after struggling on the streets. This isn’t how he wanted to spend his money, but his housing keeps slipping away from him as the economy tanks. Life on the street does not make it easy to maintain sobriety. One evening, there is an unfortunate altercation between him and two other men. He admits he started it but then as it progressed he tried to get between the other two and stop it. One of them dies. The defendant feels so bad about it that after a short while he turns himself in. The police had no real leads so in effect this defendant solves the crime by admitting to it. He wasn’t going to get caught – they never found the other guy – the other guy took off – but the defendant here chose to turn himself in and confess and plead guilty. He wishes it hadn’t happened. He is here to take responsibility for it. That is one story.
Then one of the detectives reads a letter written by the dead victim’s oldest child. According to this child, her murdered father was a good man, a family man, and more than a father. I am writing this letter, the detective reads, because I want my Dad’s killer to know that when he killed our Dad he also killed our Mom because Dad was a widower and so he was both mother and father to us – the only parent we had left. I want the killer to know that he has left a set of orphans, defenseless in the world, with no hopes of getting money, and no protection. This is a consequence of what you have done. We are to be cast upon the world. Our Dad left us to work in a foreign country so we could have shoes, and go to school. He paid for our little house so we could stay together and now this stranger kills him for no reason. Why?
As the words flow out of me, I imagine this child struggling over the paper, trying to formulate these sentences, and I wonder how she got it sent to the court. The detective said it just arrived via fax today. She lives in a place without electricity or phones. Where did she go, how many miles did she walk, what bus did she take, to get to a fax machine? Who helped her? Did all the children go, or did she go alone, as the new head of the household? Was she wearing the typical plastic flip-flops on her dusty feet, and a thin, faded cotton dress that has been hand-scrubbed too many times? These thoughts bubble up and disappear in split seconds and all the while I am consciously listening, thinking about words and meaning, phrases and speech patterns, sentence constructions and word order. At the same time, I am formulating the new sentences, this time into Spanish, and talking simultaneously as the detective. He never looks at me or slows down, except at one point where I have to interrupt and ask him to go back a sentence and repeat. He looks up like a man in a dream and it takes him a moment to find where he was in his reading. He was the main one who investigated the crime, and surely his mind and heart are filled with all kinds of memories of this and other crimes.
The letter continues: We don’t have the money or any way to travel to the trial so we respectfully beg the judge to consider us even in our absence, and please for god’s sake see that justice is done. Please tell the killer that he has changed our lives profoundly and forever. I am just a child myself but now I have to fight to keep my siblings alive, and have no life of my own. I am the only one left to try and stop my family from flying apart. And so the killer has also killed a large part of me. He has killed my future. I pray that he thinks of my father, and of each of us, every day for the rest of his life, as we will never forget what he has done to our family. All that our father wanted to do was work for us. He never asked for anything for himself. He was a humble man. We keep thinking about it and we cannot make sense of it. Why? Why did the killer take our father from us?
I am standing next to and slightly behind the defendant and next to him are his two defense attorneys, then a prosecutor, and lastly farthest away from me, standing in a row facing the judge, is the detective. Like most people who are reading rather than talking normally, he is reading very fast and I have to keep up. I am looking at the defendant but trying not to read his face or get caught up on how he is feeling beyond whether he appears to understand. Although random thoughts will appear and disappear in the gray cells, I have to focus all my mind and soul on being true to the message, and getting that communication through. At times I crane my neck forward to see the mouth of the detective, and follow his words as he mumbles or his voice trembles a bit. The words flow out of me like a faucet.
What the child wrote in her letter must have been translated by some unknown person into English and now I am back-translating it into Spanish so the defendant hears it. I wonder who translated it. It is a good translation, one that carries the flavor of the child’s life. I wonder where these children live. Is their little house something their Dad built on their ancestral lands in their home village? Do they have a corrugated aluminum roof and wood walls with patches? Is the floor dirt, with a little fire pit and nails on the wall to hang any extra articles of clothing or towels? A few plastic dishes and one metal pot to cook in? Do they have enough hammocks to sleep in, or do some of the smaller children share? How far do they walk to get water, and how big a container do they have to keep it in? Do they have any kind neighbors? Is anyone going to help them? Will they soon be split up to work as servants or worse?
Mostly I just listen with my ears straining and extended like antennae to each word that comes out the mouth of the detective, catching and converting them into words, phrases, sentences and meaning. Spinning the English back into Spanish, sometimes catching a sentence by the tail like catching an escaping cat, hand over hand quickly but without hurting it until I can pick it up and hold it. My brain is on fire and I also feel for the family and the defendant and everyone in the room and all others in similar situations and I have compassion for humanity and wonder about the universe. I also feel a little bit sorry for myself, but how can I when someone is dead and others are orphaned and someone is about to go to prison for more than a decade and then be deported? And the room is filled with people who sleep outside and work to send money home in a global economy that is filled with ever-widening cracks?
A homeless friend is now invited up by the prosecutor to speak on behalf of the victim. I am here to talk because our friend is forever silenced, he tells the court. He and I took English classes together. I remember when I first met him, I was struck by the fact that he didn’t have any teeth, and I asked around and I found a place he could go and he was able to get teeth. He was so happy about it. He smiled already without teeth, because of the joy that was in him, but once he had teeth, he just glowed with infectious joy. He was a hard worker who was happy to work. He never wanted to leave his country, his children. He had moved from his village to the coast first, but the pay was so bad that he crossed into the US hoping for better. He didn’t ask for much. He was just like us, a day laborer, and whenever he had a little extra money, he would send it to his children. He wanted them to get the schooling he never had, to have a better future. He was a good man. He was a humble man. Excuse me for choking up, your honor. I have never spoken in court and it is – I don’t know, I guess it’s kind of intimidating. When they said one of us could talk and everyone was silent, I just said, okay, I will do it. Because he was my friend.
I am standing here because he was my friend, and he was a man and a worker and an immigrant just like me, your honor, and if you are going to say that it was okay to kill him, then that is telling me that my life means nothing, that I have no value, that I am not a human being like others. And that is how all the workers standing behind me and sitting in the benches feel. So we ask you that justice be served, and that his killer be punished. Please God show us that our lives matter, that we also are human beings, and that he didn’t deserve to be killed for no reason, thrown away like garbage. He will be missed!
Several dozen homeless men, the day laborers you see when you go to buy supplies to work on your house, are lined up on the benches behind us. They are listening closely. Some are crying. It is very emotional. They held a rally earlier in support of their dead comrade, and when someone called out his name, like a roll call at school, they all called back, “he is here!” as a way to claim that his memory will live on, that although he is dead he is not completely gone. In the paper, it was written that a few weeks later, when a reporter went to look at the site of the crime, some newly arrived homeless men were sleeping on the spot, and they didn’t even know that there had been a crime there. The men in the courtroom, the ones who ate meals with the victim, who took English classes with him, who stood outside Home Depot with him and worked alongside him, they want to show that his life mattered. And they are asking the judge to show them that their lives matter.
The judge invites the defendant to speak now before she imposes a sentence. According to the defendant, he had been avoiding the man who was killed for some time. People had warned him that the guy was out to get him. The guy said offensive things and said he was going to get a chain, yes, and a knife and get him, the defendant, while he was asleep. He just heard people tell the judge that the deceased was a simple man, a man of god, a hard-working man, a family man, a humble man. “As god is my witness, god knows my heart and mind and god knows that I am not a bad man. He had children to support; so do I. He took classes to try and learn English; so do I. He ate at soup kitchens and slept under bridges; so do I. I am sorry for what happened. That’s why I went to the police and told them. The night it happened, I was walking along with my friend who had warned me and we came upon him and he was lying down. He was not sleeping! In fact he threw off his blanket and he jumped up! Yeah, and he slashed at me with a knife! I was so scared! So frightened! I was just jumping back to avoid the knife and then I just struck out with my fist. I punched the guy, I punched him in the head a couple times, and then my friend started beating him, and then I tried to get between them and stop it. I was telling my friend to stop, that it was enough! Finally, my friend stopped and then he covered the guy with the blanket. He was alive then … He was alive…”
The defense attorney whispers something into the ear of the defendant, apparently in Spanish as he does not say it so the interpreter can hear. The usual defendant statement at sentencing goes along the lines of I am very sorry, very remorseful, take full responsibility, want to pay for what I have done, have learned my lesson, etc. But how would this defendant know what is expected? I have no idea how much prep time he has had with his defense team, or what he can understand about the system. I wonder if he had been carefully coached to say something else and then in the heat of the moment he got carried away into another tale, the tale in which he is the victim of fate, an unwilling participant in an unwanted death, a good man who just didn’t want to get beat up or stabbed while he slept. In any case after the whispered words, he winds up by repeating that he was scared and he was trying to protect himself and then falls silent.
The judge is shaking her head and reminds both counsel that there is nothing in the record or in any report to indicate that the defendant intended to raise self defense, in fact, the defendant has already some time ago pled guilty to manslaughter as part of a plea agreement in exchange for having the original charge of murder dropped down to the lesser charge of manslaughter. His plea was found to have been made knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily and it was accepted by the court. This is simply a sentencing hearing and there was never an intention to go back and try the facts of the case.
According to the prosecutor, the parties had agreed in fact to not bring up the facts of the case at this sentencing hearing, as they had reached a global resolution of the case, including the recommended length of sentence, and the fact that it would be an exceptional sentence for manslaughter, while within the range of the standard sentence for murder. But now that the defendant has chosen to bring up a completely new story about a knife, she feels compelled to delve somewhat into the facts of the case.
According to the prosecutor, it is true that the defendant turned himself in to the police and confessed to the crime. His original confession interview lasted several hours and he volunteered information about every minute detail of the crime. He freely admitted that he and his friend came upon the sleeping victim and he himself threw the first punches. He freely admitted that he punched the victim in the head and face many times. Over and over. At no point did the defendant mention any knife or any claim to self-defense, in the whole course of the case. In fact, when asked by the police why he quit hitting the victim, he freely admitted that it was because he was worried that he might have fractured the bones of his own hand from the force of the blows. While he claimed that his friend, who has never been found, is the one who caused the worst damage, he freely admitted to participating in the killing. She doesn’t believe he has ever claimed that the victim was alive when they left him. She posits that the defendant during his time in jail has simple fabricated a story in his own mind to try to make sense of what was in effect a brutal and senseless crime perpetrated by him, the defendant. She offers to delve further into the details of the crime, but the judge reminds her that they have a joint sentencing recommendation, and this is not necessary.
The judge directs herself to the defendant who is being sentenced. She acknowledges the sadness of the case, and the injustice of many things. But in spite of all of that, he has voluntarily pled guilty to manslaughter because he acknowledges that he caused the death of another human being. And because of what is in the police report and other documents pertaining to the case, she is going to follow the joint recommendation and give him a sentence that is higher than the standard range for manslaughter. “You may not have wanted to do what you did, and you may regret it now, but as you yourself have admitted, you did it. And as you have heard today, your actions have had far-reaching consequences in the community, in the victim’s family, and for yourself.”
And so we have one tragic tale told from many points of view and none of them can make it right. It is never going to make sense to any of us and each of us will keep wondering if there is something we should be doing differently or better so that this kind of thing will not happen again and each of us, if we are honest, will admit in the saddest most grieving corner of our heart that we already know that there isn’t anything we as individuals can do differently or better to magically change the whole world and transform people’s lives into our vision of what is good. And yet with no power or control to remedy or alleviate any of it, except in the tiniest measure, the most miniscule acts of kindness, I still feel guilty before the people I see standing outside, waiting for a hand, and I still want with all my heart to do something that will matter.