It was an ordinary Tuesday night. I glanced at my cell phone and noticed my former supervisor had forwarded an email to me about one of my former juvenile clients. His email message to me contained just two words: Sad news.
My former 18-year old juvenile client, C.D., passed away over Thanksgiving weekend.
I replied to my former supervisor back to see if he knew what happened and he replied he didn’t have any information.
I sat there in shock, unable to believe that C.D., who to me was nothing more than a goofy kid, was dead. How was that possible?
I understand losing clients is a grim reality as a long-time public defender representing clients in capital cases. I remember visiting with a client on his last day here on earth and witnessed his state-sanctioned murder even as his mother and family members cried. As painful as that was, I was also comforted in remembering my client spent his childhood summers with his grandparents in Alabama fishing and eating his grandmother’s homemade blueberry pie; the mother of his victim did not want him to be executed; his ex-wife loved and forgave him for nearly killing her; and his two adult sons were good men who loved him dearly.
But an 18 year-old? What chance had he had to live?
Despite his youth, C.D. was a beloved grandson, son, brother, nephew, and cousin. He was also an expectant father whose child will never know his love for his family, his infectious grin, and his fun-loving personality. He loved doing construction work and dreamed of being a builder and a real estate agent someday.
C.D. struggled mightily with abandonment and anger issues. His father was incarcerated in federal prison for bank robbery. His mother moved the family from Memphis to Houston, hoping to get a fresh start. Unfortunately, the change in scenery did not help C.D. deal with his problems. He began hanging out with a rough crowd and ended up in juvenile detention.
C.D. was incarcerated during the height of the pandemic. Juvenile detention was hardly an ideal setting for an active teenager, yet somehow he managed to stay out of trouble. We spoke regularly on the phone and I visited him when I was allowed to visit in person. More than anything, C.D. wanted people to understand he was not a bad person and he wanted and needed a chance to prove himself.
C.D. showed he could succeed when he had the right kind of structure and support in place. Tragically his ability to continue making progress on his own was limited and the bad habits he had worked so hard to correct soon resurfaced.
As public defenders, we sometimes tend to believe that once a case has been resolved, the matter has concluded. Sadly, however, the challenges our clients faced before we met them do not just magically disappear once their legal issues have been resolved. We must always be mindful life goes on for our clients with or without us and that many of our former clients need ongoing assistance and support to turn their lives around.
As their advocates, we must continue fighting for them.
C.D. deserved better. He deserved a chance to hold his newborn baby, to laugh with his family and friends, and to tell his mother that he loved her.
Hopefully, his unborn child will be able to do all of that and much more.