The Death of a Client

I just found out one of my clients died.

He stopped answering my calls and got a warrant for not showing up to court. As is expected practice, I filed a notice of withdrawal from his case after not hearing from him for a while. Unbeknownst to me until many months later, the prosecutor filed a motion to dismiss the charges the day before I withdrew from the case, citing his death. My notice to withdraw must've been seen as especially pointless and petty given those circumstances. I didn't know about any of this until today.

My job requires me to watch hours and hours of bodycam footage, and over time I've gained an appreciation for the kind of work that police officers have to undertake. I think perhaps the general public has a severe under-appreciation for how much a cop's job resembles a janitor's. They're both summoned to handle extremely unpleasant situations by people who would rather just not deal with any of it, and often with the aim and purpose of cleaning up the trash (figuratively and literally). This person just bled all over my front door/is sleeping in my parking garage/set fire to all their belongings; please come here and fix it right now.

In the course of these duties, they encounter people like my client.

He was an elderly man with a heavy accent. He was homeless and perpetually unemployed. He loved meth.

He was arrested numerous times for simple drug possession and the petty mischief typically associated. In one instance, he was told by police that he either lets them search his RV or they'll tow it. He resisted at first, then relented and allowed the search, then he was arrested for meth possession, and then his RV was towed anyway.

Months later, he was exchanging messages with an attractive young woman who seemed to be particularly drawn to his purportedly unique ability to acquire methamphetamine. She was promising sex in exchange for meth, and he couldn't contain himself from describing how amazing sex feels when you're obliterated on stimulants. After weeks of build-up and logistics wrangling, he showed up giddy to her apartment and was promptly arrested by a squad of cops literally waiting in the bushes. The hot nymphomaniac meth head was a catfish. I had the privilege of seeing the disappointment on his face through the bodycam video.

The number of police officers involved in his arrest implicated an ungodly amount of overtime compensation and other resources sacrificed towards the task. My client brought along a friend higher up the chain in drug dealing to the meth sex party too, and the dealer friend decided taking his chances was better than risking a possession with intent felony, so he swallowed the entirety of his drug inventory in one fell swoop. I got to see his agony as he writhed while handcuffed on the precinct cell floor through the bodycam video.

If I was to highlight a strength of mine, it would be my empathy. It's profoundly advantageous to have this ability when navigating social situations. I can sense when people are nervous, anxious, confused, etc. and I can act accordingly. I believe this has been a tremendous boon when considering friends and romantic partners as the currency, but it has collateral positive effects in allowing me to connect with my clients. It's also, no questions, the most physically painful part of my job.

Maybe it's myopia saying this, but it's difficult for me to imagine a profession similarly as consequential as a public defender. Or at least, a public defender who cares. What I mean by this is that I've literally been in situations where the 11 words that came out of my mouth changed a client's sentence from 6 months in jail, to two days in jail. Most of my job is rote and I'm more or less a fungible gear in the machine but anytime I have a consequential hearing coming up all I can think about is the sinking feeling in my stomach. The reminder to make sure not to fuck up, or else a human being might spend weeks/months/years in a cage. No big deal.

By necessity, I have to put up artificial reefs and intentionally handicap my ability to feel empathy. Still, a lot of this already happens without any effort. Despite my marinated involvement in the field, there are still concepts that I remain completely unable to wrap my mind around. For example, I often have to talk about prison sentences in terms of months. "If we do X, then you're only looking at 63 months in prison" is a sentence that I had to speak out loud. What in fucking tarnation does that shit even mean to anyone? I can whip out a calculator and divide 63 by 12 and I have a bit over 5 years. Ok, what does that mean? Well I can try and think back to 2016, and then embark on a mental exercise where I erase every kiss I had since then, every piece of chocolate I ate, every bike ride I went on, every hug I gave to my mom, every hot bath I took, every fucking stupid tweet I laughed at. Et cetera. It won't come close to simulating the effect, but at least it's a start. So my defense mechanism is to read weeks/months/years as merely ink stains arranged in a peculiar fashion on a piece of paper, rather than the evocative concepts they embody. My mind can't handle the weight of their meaning beyond that.

There's also an unstated and unsavory principle at play. No matter how much I tell myself otherwise, deep down I know that my client's lives don't matter as much as "real" people. Especially the frequent flyers. I assume, maybe for my own sake and sanity more than anything else, that being in jail gets progressively easier the more times you do it. I need a few months to work on your case. What's the big deal with waiting that long in jail? I mean, you've already spent 6 years in prison not too long ago. Besides, what would you be doing out of jail anyways?

I admit to operating under the rubric of Main Character Syndrome at times. If past performance is any indication, I can expect to continue along a predictable and ever-improving life trajectory, while continuing to accumulate achievements and upgrading skills along the way. My client, and the large swathes of people just like him, are afforded nothing close to this luxury. Like I said before, my empathy can only go so far, and I have no idea how existentially agonizing such a reality must be. This realization was put into stark and horrifying focus when I read 'Two Arms and a Head', a 200 page suicide note written by a paraplegic thoroughly tortured by the concept of his continued survival. It's the most disturbing piece of writing I ever have experienced, and likely ever will. Set aside about 4-5 hours if you want to experience it, as there is a chance it will happen in one sitting.

The author expresses pure bewilderment when contemplating the fact that there are people currently serving lifetime imprisonment sentences and for whatever reason they have not killed themselves. I share this bewilderment, and more, with registered sex offenders being a prime example. My job obliterates my curated and manicured bubble. In my personal life, I walk away from unpleasant individuals without thinking, and I can barely name any friends who have a criminal record of any kind.

But I'm afforded no such allowance at work. Obviously. If we're being somewhat uncharitable, I am functionally and essentially a social worker on any given day, but one who is highly-paid and highly-respected by the powers that be. A life coach infinitely more than a legal scholar. Clients tell me all sorts of deeply personal shit, and they get me embroiled in a breathtaking array of random issues they're facing. It's a startlingly intimate relationship. But even then it has its limits, as I outlined above.

Today I found out my client died unceremoniously. His life mostly sucked as far as I can tell, but he loved sex and methamphetamine, especially when combined. I made him laugh once. I wish I had more than that to say about him.