It’s well past midnight and the verdict on Jerry Sandusky is in. Following it closely for weeks has affected me in old ways that seem remarkably new again. So with fatigue and vodka-loosened fingers, I write.
St. Mary’s is a beautiful, 200 year-old stone church on a quaint block in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, the tobacco and slave port city I came of age in as a trial lawyer. It stands on Royal Street, about a five minute walk from the red brick courthouse where I first prosecuted child abuse cases.
I prayed to her, at that church, after every child abuse case I litigated successfully. After, not before. And for the cases I won, not those I lost.
There is no feeling like winning a trial; any lawyer will tell you that. But in criminal trials, especially special victims cases, the misery that’s been endured by literally everyone in earshot of the proceedings does and should mute whatever joy there is in “winning.”
I was good at what I did, and I won some. I also lost some. But when I lost, as long as I felt I’d been true, protective and faithful to the victims, and forthright and honest with the defense and the court, I was okay. It was painful sometimes; deeply so. But when I knew I had done my job right, for my office, my community and the lives I touched in the process, I felt fine.
The victories, believe it or not, were harder. In them, I had gotten what I wanted, and I spoke for the government. I can honestly and happily say I never prosecuted a person I was not satisfied was guilty.
Regardless, it was after the victories that I felt most in need of whatever prayer might yield. So after I won, there were three that I offered.
The first was for the fact that, indeed, I was correct about the guilt of the person I had just hammered home to a jury with every skill I could bring forth. No prosecutor with a conscience fears anything the way he or she fears convicting an innocent person.
The second was for the survivors I had worked with, their families, and their futures. Lives are broken by crime and they are not put back together by criminal litigation. Another great sadness for me was the moment I realized there was nothing more I could do for them. I graciously accepted their thanks. I thanked them for their courage. I was assisted by wonderful victim-witness staff in both offices I worked. They picked up the ball where I had to leave it, and began the much harder work of repairing the lives I had merely brushed.
The third was for the guy I’d just worked to convict. And I prosecuted some truly frightening and utterly evil people. But if there is a God who makes a difference, and if I was going to call myself Christian in any way, then denying prayers to those souls made little sense to me. I wanted them in jail and I was happy I’d helped put them there. But in Virginia especially- and shamefully- I fed defendants convicted of sex crimes into a correctional system that virtually guaranteed they’d be brutalized and mistreated. It’s considered poetic justice. It’s considered just desserts. It’s also not legal and therefore, to someone in my line of work, it’s anathema. Incarceration should be monastic and unpleasant. It shouldn’t involve the horrors it’s known for because of our unwillingness or inability to put our money where our mouths are with regard to the most important thing we do as a society- put people in cages.
I don’t know where the prayers went. I suppose the exercise is intended as much for the effort as it is for the request anyway. In any event, I sent them up, returned to my feet, and walked back to what was next. But a piece of me stayed behind, every time. So it is with everyone involved- everyone- in Happy Valley.
In the name of the father. And the son. And the holy spirit.