Law & Disorder

The burly blond with the gold chains nestled in his chest hairs sits in the stuffy conference room across the wood table, mulling his options. His wife, short, pert, neatly coiffed and crisply dressed, sits beside him, supportive, argumentative, loyal to a fault.He has been charged with disorderly conduct stemming from a violent evening a month ago when, according to her three-page hand-written statement to police, he scared the living daylights out of her and roughed her up, making her—at least temporarily—regret the presence of his many guns in their house. She sits in front of me now to explain it away, to put the incident in context, to describe their solid marriage, and to express her dismay that the State of Wisconsin would think of holding this wonderful man accountable for his actions that terrifying night.

We are engaged in what’s called a “pretrial conference.” At this point in a criminal case, the accused or an attorney sits down with a prosecutor to discuss the case and see if it can be settled short of a trial. The options are pretty simple: either accept the state’s offer—here a guilty plea in exchange for a recommendation of probation as a first-offender, no gun possession during the probationary period, and counseling—or roll the dice and take the case to trial. In this case, a conviction could potentially trigger a federal law barring him from owning guns in the future.

Faced with the possible gun ban, he decides to take his chances with a jury. When all is said and done, he feels that nothing that he did that night violated any law. His wife is equally obstinate. She will not testify against him, period. Women, she states passionately, should become more educated about what unfair consequences could befall their mates if they call 911 during a domestic incident. I walk them to the conference room door, promise them copies of the police reports, wish them luck. I hope he doesn’t kill her when he reads her statement to the police, written when the incident was still fresh. I feel like I’ve gone through the looking glass. But there’s no time to think more deeply about it, because it’s time to call the next defendant in for a chat.

I am an assistant district attorney for the State of Wisconsin. Welcome to my world. I love my job. 

This is my second career. With twenty-five years in as a soccer mom and fifteen years spent as a journalist, I am tough to impress. Between this job and a few months before that handling cases in the crucible of Milwaukee’s domestic violence misdemeanor court as a law student, I’ve spent ten years in criminal court. The penalties generally don’t change much from year to year, the range of crimes charged is pretty standard, and often the defenses (“I wasn’t really that drunk.” “I never touched her.” “It must have been someone else.”) sound depressingly familiar.

And yet I am still awestruck, profoundly and repeatedly, by the inherent power of the criminal justice system to alter and affect people’s lives, to hold bad folks accountable for their actions, to give others a second chance, to tear families apart to ensure the safety of the entire community or a single child, to shed grace on the repentant.

I remember what I felt when I first saw the Milwaukee County courthouse. The building was enormous, on the scale and style of a Greek temple, a soaring monument of granite and marble, with words like “law” and “justice” chiseled above the entrances. The language of the law was formal and difficult for the casual observer to grasp, the courtrooms guarded by armed bailiffs, the pace of the misdemeanor courts at times blinding. All in all it was majestic, monolithic, imposing, not a little terrifying. It was a lot to take in.

But later, little by little, once I’d absorbed the formalities of the process, the human costs and victories began to surface. Forget about what you see on TV law shows. By the time a criminal case reaches the courtroom, there are no clear-cut “winners,” no matter who prevails at the end. Something bad has been done and no matter what the verdict, the crime victim will not be made whole, nor the crime undone, nor any of the participants left untarnished by the experience.

And yet, small victories still flourish like wildflowers in sidewalk cracks, reminders that the human spirit is never static. The young woman, shoved into a plate glass store window by the father of her handicapped son as she pushed him in a stroller, who came to court on the day of trial, despite the defendant’s cocky predictions that she wouldn’t show. When he saw her, he took the deal. The repeat domestic abuser who, after his attorney pled for leniency at sentencing, told the judge, “Your Honor, I was eleven years old the first time I hit a woman. Do what you think you have to, because this has to stop.” The twenty-year-old man seeking to have his juvenile felony conviction and firearm ban amended to misdemeanor status so that he—now a new father—could join the military, straighten up, and fly right. The list of the lives we touch is endless as we wield the discretion our positions demand, and make the arguments we believe the ends of justice require.

Another Monday is just around the corner, and the DA’s office will be open for business at 8:00 a.m. The only thing I’ll know for certain as I flip the lights on in my office when I get there is that whatever the new day brings, this job will never end . . . and I will never be bored.

Mary T. Wagner is an assistant district attorney in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  This piece is contained in her first award-winning collection of essays, “Running with Stilettos: Living a Balanced Life in Dangerous Shoes.”

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