Songs for the Indigent Accused

As I was walking my dog during an unseasonably warm November afternoon, a song came on my iPod that brought me back in time for about two years. It was a song that was introduced to me by a smartass tattooed felon who thought he was far more badass than he actually was. I started thinking about my previous job and the people I encountered, which then led me to think of songs that reminded me of them. With a long story before the songs, here it is:

After I graduated from law school and passed the bar exam, I started my professional career in the same cowboy town in the desert of western Colorado where I did a summer internship between my second and third years of law school.

I was both happy and frustrated to be returning to this place–the only semi-civilized area between Denver and Salt Lake City (each 4 hours away in opposite directions.) I knew my then-boyfriend (now-husband) wouldn’t be able to be successful employment-wise in the area, so I was hesitant to return. This was a place where if people were lucky, they had a GED. However, I knew I could get some great experience and I was heading back to a place I was semi-familiar with having spent 3 months there. I convinced the guy that it was a great career move for me, he agreed and away we went. When I arrived, I joined a group of attorneys who lived to fight the Man and spent countless hours representing the (wrongly) accused poor folks of the dusty, deserty town, for nothing but a mere pittance.

The thing that surprised me the most when I dove headfirst into my representation of these people is the heavy gang presence. I was shocked—the town’s population is probably around 50,000 people, the highlight of people’s weekends is a trip to the local Walmart, and the best part of the summer is a free rodeo every Tuesday night in June, July and August.

How can a town like this have people so involved with gangs? Maybe due to the lack of activity? Men covered in tattoos, children running around performing initiation tasks hoping to be welcomed into the family. I won’t name the gangs by name, as I don’t want to put the readers or writers of this blog at risk. Some of my clients had traveled west from Denver and Colorado Springs, presumably on their way to California, and were members of prominent cultural gangs—others were hardcore members of a gang depicting the local area code—these guys were also the ones who worshiped the Insane Clown Posse and sometimes referred to themselves as “juggalos”–a term I had never heard in my life until I started representing teenagers—teenagers!!!!

One client in particular, whom I will never forget as long as I live, was a real-live skinhead—he was a gang banger and was one of the head honchos of a very violent, very racist prison gang formed in the prison system of Colorado. This guy had at least 6 visible swastika tattoos and tried very hard to be as badass as humanly possible. He thought he was so badass that he’d insert the letters “M.F.” between his first and last names whenever he signed it—even on court documents. (and if you don’t know what the M.F. stands for, just take a second to think about it) However, to me he was nothing but a scared, young kid (2 years younger than me) with a shitty childhood and no support system aside from his fellow gang members.

During my visits to the jail, he and I had several discussions about him doing well in prison to get out early, then being successful on parole, then looking into gaining his GED and then maybe even some college credits, and then he would look for a decent girl and stay away from the methhead chick he’d knocked up the previous year. I grew to know this particular guy quite well, I got a lot of phone calls from the jail from him and I visited him often.

As my very first felony client, he will always be someone I remember. He knew far more than I did about the system and certainly kept me in check, which was certainly intimidating to me. I was so afraid of screwing up with this guy and his case—I knew the kind of people he had connections to, although he assured me he’d never go after anyone unless they had a bag of dope and a wad of cash on them, even if it were a little kid or an old lady, he wouldn’t care.

Anyway, this guy in particular (and his favorite song, which came onto my iPod during my walk) inspired me to write this entry, because he used to call me at my office from the county jail and beg me to play songs for him over the phone. More often than not, I was too busy to oblige, but every once in a while I’d crank up the requested song on Youtube, put the phone on speaker and go on with my business. Some of the songs that come to mind from my 2 years representing the indigent accused are as follows:

“Bartender Song” (Sittin’ at a Bar)—Rehab

This is the song my client from the jail would most often request when he called the office. When we got him a deal for his current case for 15 months in prison (when he should’ve gotten 6 years), he sang over and over in his cell, “I’m going back again, back to the pen to see my friends”. This was a guy who had been to prison, and all he knew was prison. He considered the other guys there his family—his friends. And he was going back there again. And instead of talking to the bartender about his problems, he talked to me—the lawyer who had been appointed to represent him at no cost, thanks to that wonderful Sixth Amendment.

“Straight Outta Compton”—N.W.A.

This song stems not only from my time representing my clients in Colorado, but also from a hilarious work study position I held during my third year of law school. An African-American friend of mine from Brooklyn felt the need to tell a professor (also an African-American) that I, the whitest girl in the school, (or maybe in the world!) was a big fan of rap (not true). The professor was doing a research project on the representation of the criminal justice system in music, particularly in rap. I spent hours on end glued to my laptop, reading through rap lyrics and listening to songs, trying to understand the words, and keeping track of negativity about judges, cops, criminals, and the like. I started with N.W.A. and went through every song on every single album, and seriously, at least 90% of their repertoire bashed this so-called “justice system.” They slammed cops, judges, lawyers, even fellow criminals. After N.W.A. I worked on the big ones—I moved on to Snoop Dogg, then to Dr. Dre, then Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac, and then finally, on to several other rappers I can no longer remember. I found the same theme with most of these rappers’ tunes—at least one song per album had some shit to say about cops and other players in the legal world.

I would report back to the professor every week with my findings and we worked on his article from there. More than once, he asked me what “N.W.A.” stood for and I turned beet red at the prospect of speaking the words out loud, so I remember giving him a print out of some of the lyrics with the name of the group on the sheet of paper. Several lyrics in this song, however, remind me of my clients in Colorado. “I’m a bad motherfucker and you know this”, “With a crime record like Charles Manson” and so on and so forth. A lot of my clients thought that the badder they were, the better they were. The longer their rap sheet, the tougher they were. All it really meant was more time in prison and more anger from the judge.

“Criminal”—the Roots

A particular line from this song “Crooked ass cops is the reason for my belligerence” hits the nail right on the head. So many of my clients refused to take responsibility—they blamed the cops for their actions, claiming those “pigs got it out for me.” We had an unusual amount of crooked cops in this sleepy town, so some of these guys were justified—others just refused to accept that they were the reason for their own demise.

“Rehab”—Amy Winehouse

This song brings to mind a most frustrating client. I had a female client with 8 felony convictions and a HUGE meth problem. She’d managed to stay out of prison but had never been to any sort of rehabilitation program for her addiction. One of the top prosecutors in our county firmly believed in alternative sentencing and getting people help with their addictions. With a lot of begging, I convinced the prosecutor on this woman’s case to let her go to a prestigious rehabilitation program for women. She promised me she’d go there and make the most of it, she told me how much she wanted and needed help. We got the judge to agree and she was on a van to the facility the next day. Sadly, we heard a couple of days later that she arrived at the facility, and walked out almost as soon as she got there, never to be heard from again. If she’s ever apprehended, she’s looking at 7-15 years in the pen. So frustrating—all that work for nothing.

“Juggalo Island”—Insane Clown Posse.

As said previously, I’d never heard of a juggalo until I became the juvenile defender. These kids would talk constantly about juggalos and about going to ICP parties. They would paint their faces and party long into the night, and without question, during these parties there would always be some sort of incident involving weapons, drugs or some kind of sexual assault, and they’d be my responsibility the following Monday. This “juggalo” thing was such a foreign concept to me, but these kids swore by this shit. Some of my older clients were involved in the group, but it was mostly comprised of the younger set. Again, very sad.

“I saw the Light”—Hank Williams

Probably 5 out of 10 clients were “born again” while in jail and would tell the judge at sentencing about how they found God, had been attending Bible study, and just knew they’d be successful on the outside now that Jesus was in their lives. Most of the time, the judges didn’t buy this explanation—they said they’d heard it all before, and that “jailhouse converts” rarely were successful on the outside. Judges don’t have a lot of patience for bullshit. The judges knew they only participated in these Bible studies because they’d heard from other inmates it was a sure way to get a shorter prison sentence. I was never too sure if these guys were for real—obviously questioning religion (along with their guilt or innocence) was never a good plan…

So there it is. Whenever I hear these songs, a few people from long ago pop into my head and I hope more than ever that they’ve gotten their act together and are no longer into drugs or wasting away in a jail cell. I can hope all I want, but the unfortunate truth is, I know it’s hopeless. The guy I thought would shape up blew it on parole the day he got out, the woman who convinced me she wanted to help herself with her drug problem walked out of rehab. I know the work I was doing was honorable, but there were certainly times when I asked myself, “Why do I even bother”?

8 comments on “Songs for the Indigent Accused

  1. theelderj says:

    Nice list, sister.

    But what I especially like is the way these songs are tied to a very different world and set of experiences.

    Why bother? What are the alternatives? To let the world stay the way it is?

    Nice blend too with the Hank Williams on the same list as the ICP.

  2. The sister says:

    It’s not often you can join Hank Williams and ICP in the same list. But in my old world, anything was possible!
    And when all is said and done, I really am glad I “bothered.” If you help one person out of 500, I’d say its worth it.

  3. londongigger says:

    Fascinating insight into one type of small town culture in the American west. We have a somewhat romanticized view of America in the UK and Europe with images of wide open spaces, road trips like Route 66 and clean wholesome rugged individuals greeting you with neighbourliless in every state as you pass through. In the end though, it’s just most places there are good and bad towns and neignbourhoods. We also have a gang problem in London which is related to postcode but most tourists thankfully rarely get to see or experience this.

    On the music side, like your list.
    One of favourites criminal/prisoner related albums is Johnny Cash’s Live at San Quentin.

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