Dave was one of my two best friends. He lit a wooden kitchen match by striking the match head across the zipper of his pants. That, in itself, was a bold act for the schoolyard. We were in fourth grade and it was forbidden to have matches at school.
He said, looking at the flame, "See, it's burning once. Right?"
"Yup," I replied, acting bored.
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Dave asked, "Do you want to see me make it burn again?"
"Sure, but I bet you can't do it," came my reply.
"Are you really sure you want to see it burn again?"
"C'mon, show me," I said impatiently.
"Just remember, you asked me to do this. That was once." He blew out the match. "This is twice." He then ground the still hot match head into the back of my hand. "See, I made the match burn twice," he said with an evil-looking grin.
I thought that it had burned three times, actually. The third, and most painful, was the burning confusion in my mind as I tried to figure out how a friend of mine, that I trusted and liked a lot, could trick me, burn me, then smile about it. Nonetheless, I loved David until the day he died.
Earlier this week, I went to court with a friend of mine; we will call her Stella. I was there for moral support and transportation. She was there because her live-in boyfriend of several years had used her as a punching bag. Unlike the several previous times that he had beat her, that day she pressed charges against him. We went to court so that she could testify about being assaulted.
She hoped he would go to jail. He had done this before to her and others. He had been arrested a number of times for other offenses. In fact, he was already on probation for one of those crimes. Surely, she thought, with that history and the intensity of the beating that she had suffered, he would go to jail.
She had shown me the smashed toilet in her apartment. A big chunk of porcelain lay on the floor. Matter of factly, she told me he broke it when he tried to punch her as she lay curled up on the floor. Or maybe it happened when he was kicking her. She couldn't be sure. In any case, his swing was wild and he missed his mark, hitting the toilet bowl instead. The landlord was going to take the cost of replacing the toilet out of her security deposit, she said blankly.
After the assault, fearing that she had broken ribs and a punctured lung, she went to the hospital. Fortunately, there were no severe injuries. She was badly bruised and in a lot of pain.
Then, torn between the love she had for this man, the sadness that came from knowing the relationship was over, the pain that coursed throughout her injured body, the anger she felt at being abused, and fear that he might hurt her again, she filed charges against him. The police duly arrested him. She eventually went home alone.
Nobody from the police or the court contacted her after she reported that crime. She learned through the man's family that he would be in court last Monday. She wanted to make sure that she could feel safe again, that he would learn from this episode and not beat her or anybody else in the future. She wanted to testify, in both the legal and religious sense, to all that.
She asked if I could take her to the courthouse. Her car wasn't running. I asked what time and she said she didn't know. It was Sunday and there was nobody we could call to find out when the court would be open. I looked on the internet but couldn't seem to find the information. I suggested we drive by and see if there were hours posted on the door.
"8 - 4:30" was stenciled on the courthouse door. Back in my car, we agreed that I'd pick her up at 7:30 the next morning. That would get us there when the court opened. If his case was one of the first to be heard, we'd be on time. I drove her home, watched her unlock the front door of the apartment building and then I left.
We got to the parking lot near the court about 15 minutes early on Monday morning. It was cold and windy outside. We waited in the car with the heat running on high. With the windows cracked slightly open, we smoked cigarettes in silence till a few minutes before 8:00. Then we headed to the courthouse.
As the alarm bell sounded, the officer at the metal detector barked at the woman in front of me. "You're not listening real good this morning." He had her walk through the machine a second time after she removed her silver bracelets. When she made it through successfully, he turned and said to me, "Keep moving." Showing him that I am a good listener, I walked into the court building.
I am not a novice when it comes to courthouses. When I was much younger, I wanted to be a lawyer. I volunteered with the RI Public Defenders Office when I was in high school. I worked my way through two graduate school degrees as a litigation assistant at one of the world's biggest and best-known law firms. I have a good sense of direction and I speak English fluently. I figured that finding the right courtroom would be a breeze.
I was mistaken.
We went to the Information Desk. No one was there. We waited anxiously for five minutes. Still nobody came. One of us suggested that we should look elsewhere.
We roamed the different floors of the building looking for someone or something to show us the way to the right courtroom. On the second floor, there were several rooms with workers behind the counter. They were encased by what I guessed was bulletproof glass. Stella went to the window and waved timidly at some women who were talking to each other at the back of the room. She tried this several times. The women gave no indication that they saw us. Eventually, we moved away.
On one of the other floors, papers were thumb tacked onto corkboard beside the courtroom doors. These were lists of the cases to be heard in each room that day. We scoured the pages. Neither Stella's name as plaintiff nor her ex-boyfriend's name as defendant could be found.
There was a column in the middle of the hall. I saw a paper scotch taped to the column. It was a list of the victim resource contact people for each of the counties in the state. I used my cell phone to call the number for Providence County. I asked for the woman named on the paper. I was told that she was probably in room 4F. Stella and I felt a ray of hope and went to 4F.
The room across from 4F had the words "Workers Compensation" in large letters above the door. People bustled in and out of that room. Attorneys negotiated their cases with each other in the hall outside of the Workers Compensation court. Another lawyer called his office and asked what medications so-and-so had been on from July to October.
There was no sign above 4F and nobody was inside that courtroom. We waited again until it was clear that we were wasting our time.
We went downstairs once more. This time, a woman was standing behind a window. Above her head, the sign read: "Domestic." Bingo, we thought. Stella went up and explained her situation. The woman said we needed to go to a different area; she had no information about that case.
We went back to the window where we had first started and waited. About five minutes later, another woman appeared behind the glass. Stella asked where the trial of her ex-boyfriend would be held. She was told we should go to room 4F and wait until 9 a.m. when that court would begin its session.
Into the elevator and back to the fourth floor we went. We sat outside the empty courtroom for a while as a small crowd began to build. At 9:00, one of the sheriffs unlocked the doors. We entered and took a seat.
Eventually, a man and a woman came in and sat at the prosecutor's table. A woman soon sat at the defense table. The public defender called out a few names. She then went into the hallway with the people she was to defend that morning. The prosecutors continued talking to each other. A woman seated behind me said, with a disgusted tone, "This judge is always late."
Around 9:15, the judge arrived. After taking her seat behind the bench, the judge began to take attendance. She called out the names of each of the defendants. The list was lengthy and it was not until the very end that she called out Stella's ex-boyfriend's name. The court clerk responded that he was "in lock-up." Finally, we had our first official notification that we were indeed in the right courtroom.
The judge began with a few cases that had "gone formal." After those were done, there was a break while the judge read off instructions to the defendants in the courtroom. The rest of us were released for the next twenty minutes. The two prosecutors started to walk out toward the hallway.
Stella rushed over to them and introduced herself. The female attorney said that she would talk with her in the hall for a few moments. During that three or four minute conference, Stella gave a brief history of the relationship, the beatings and the man's criminal history. My friend said that she wanted him incarcerated and was willing to testify. The attorney thanked her for the information and pointed her toward the victim's advocate, who was about to get on the elevator.
Stella jogged over to the advocate. Introductions were made again. The advocate interrupted Stella's description of the case and said that she did not need to know the facts. If Stella is called to testify, then the advocate would stand beside her as Stella gave her testimony. The advocate got into the elevator and had no further advice for my friend.
I asked Stella if the prosecutor gave her any idea about what sentence they would seek. Stella sighed and said no. Then she asked me why the advocate said "if" Stella had to testify. She said that was the whole point of being there. In a worried voice, she asked if I thought that they weren't going to have her testify? I told her I didn't know what to think. It was all very confusing to me.
We went back into the courtroom. We sat through a couple of hours of mind-numbing procedures. Most people pled nolo contendere to the charges against them. I did learn that the fine for the fourth offense of driving on a suspended license is $450 and a warning not to do it again. I also learned that a plea of guilty or nolo could negatively affect someone's immigration status. Many times, for no apparent reason, the process seemed to stop abruptly. The judge turned to her day planner. The public defender left the room. The prosecutor reorganized the files on his desk. And on and on it went.
Several times, I looked over at Stella. Sometimes, she was nervously looking at her shoes. Sometimes, she was napping.
Toward the end of the morning session, the sheriff spoke softly into his walkie-talkie and asked that the defendants in lock-up be brought to the courtroom. Some more time passed, slowly, and then four men in restraints entered into the room. The last one in line was Stella's assailant.
I glanced at Stella and saw tears stream down her face. I looked away quickly. She continued to cry silently. Once in a while, an involuntary sob escaped from her chest. I briefly put my hand on her knee as the only solace I could offer.
Meanwhile, the public defender crouched in front of the now seated prisoners. One by one, in a hushed voice, she talked to them about plea bargains. So much for attorney-client privilege, I thought. After each agreement to a plea, the public defender went back to the prosecutor's table and told them of the deal. When Stella's ex said yes to his bargain, the public defender informed the prosecutor. The female prosecutor then called out Stella's name.
Stella and the prosecutor went out into the hallway to discuss what had just happened. Stella left the court with an expectant smile. She returned to the room about a minute later and she was in tears.
"We don't have to stay here any longer, Mike. Let's go." She gathered her coat from the chair and hurriedly left the court, still crying.
Here is what she told me about the conversation with the prosecutor.
Stella begins explaining that she wants to feel safe, wants him to learn not to do this again and is willing to testify. The prosecutor cuts her off and tells her that he already agreed to a plea bargain. In return, two of the three charges he is facing will be dropped. He will plead guilty or nolo to domestic assault against Stella. The sentence will be one year of probation. If he violates his probation, he will serve a year in jail. The prosecutor informs her that he will behave himself now because he won't want to violate probation and return to jail.
Stella disagrees and interrupts. She says that this is only a slap on the wrist. He is already on probation with a year to serve. But that certainly did not stop him from beating her. She says that this deal today won't prevent him from hurting her yet again. Stella, for the last time, says that she is willing to testify.
The prosecutor smiles at Stella. She tells Stella that she is brave but the deal is already done. Stella will not be testifying today; she can leave now if she would like.
Stella says she cried and tried to get the prosecutor to change her mind. But it was useless. Soon the prosecutor turns to go back to the courtroom. As she passes Stella, the prosecutor says that she will be sure to tell the judge that Stella was very cooperative. Stella thinks this was a crazy thing to say. Cooperative? What? Stella says she is the victim, not the defendant. Why would the prosecutor tell the judge that Stella was very cooperative?
She had many other questions. She asked me why she could not talk to the judge. Why is he going to be released? How can she be safe now? Why don't they care that she was beaten? She was the victim, why didn't her vote about his sentence count? There were many questions. Not one of which I could answer.
The ex-boyfriend did not know that matches can burn more than once. I had met him once before. The subject of hitting Stella came up. He justified it because sometimes Stella acted like a fucking bitch and deserved it. He would stop hitting her when she stopped acting like a fucking bitch. It was just that simple.
I suggested that it was his duty to keep the woman whom he loved safe. He told me that he had been to war. Stella, he asserted, did not know shit about fear and not being safe. You only learned that in war.
I said that he still did not get it. War, the horror that it is, was not the same as what he did to Stella. It would only be the same if he had made love the night before with the people trying to kill him the next day.
He looked at me as if I was an ignorant, arrogant asshole.
Nope, matches burn once and only once for him.
As Stella continued to ask me questions, I wondered who taught that prosecutor how to make matches burn twice. The whole experience at court last Monday showed me that everybody there-from the officer at the metal detector to the missing worker at the information desk to the public defender and the prosecutors and the judge-knows that trick. They are experts, in fact.
The brutal assault was the first burn, the fact that it came from her lover was another burn, and the failure of the court to protect and serve her was yet one more burn. And that is how you make a victim suffer more than once from the same crime.
A couple of days after I wrote the above, I coincidentally learned a few things that might throw some light on the outcome in my friend's case. Rhode Island, like many other states, is facing a huge budget problem. One of the ways that RI is trying to cut costs is to decrease the number of inmates in the prisons. The Adult Correctional Institution for men had reduced its capacity by 100 and closed three units. In addition, recent changes in the law allow for reducing the time spent in jail. All prisoners who are able to go thirty days without incident get ten days off their sentence. In addition, evidently, there is a push to minimize the number of people sentenced to jail time.
The Providence Journal, it turns out, had a recent article on this. They reported that:
"It has alleviated the strain on our operational system caused by overcrowding, saved taxpayer money and makes good overall correctional sense," (corrections Director A.T.) Wall said of the earned-time changes in his introduction to the 2009 report. "As I write this, our inmate census is in the 3,500s, after hitting an all-time high of 4,000 just two years ago."
Whether or not this makes good social policy, I do not know. However, I am sure that it would have helped Stella to know some of the larger reasons behind the plea bargain, why it was unnecessary for her to testify and why her assailant was not given a jail sentence. The short shrift that she was given, instead, led to her to question the wisdom of pressing charges, how much society valued her, and other disturbing puzzles.
A few moments of explanation by the victim advocate or the prosecutor would have gone a long way to minimizing the re-injury she experienced in the court that day. Instead, they let the match burn.