A Changed Man in Military Justice

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Yesterday, I helped a young man navigate a guilty plea to sexually assaulting two women.

Our firm was successful in reversing his convictions, and the family hired me to represent him on the retrial.  Ordinarily I do not take on cases with clients that want to plead guilty. This isn’t a matter of judgment on my part, but rather a choice in where I choose to place my energy.  This young man wanted me to help me, and I am glad that I did.

In his opportunity to address the Court during sentencing, he wrote an unsworn statement that moved me. He gave me permission to share a sanitized version of what he wrote and read to the military judge:

“On (date) I spent my first night in jail.  I have been in jail ever since.  Taking away a person’s freedom through confinement is the repeal of his choices. Everything from what to eat, where to sleep, what to wear – those are just a few of the choices that are taken from you.  The choices that are taken from you are a reflection of the poorest of choices that led you to jail.

The path that I have walked, or not as it were, since (date) was not one without bumps, and the day I set foot into jail was not a moment of instant change within me.  My lawyer has been asking me for months what is it about my experiences over the last 955 days that have changed me.  She read the record of trial and told me she expected to meet a different man than the one she met in the Regional Confinement Facility. I didn’t have a very good answer for her the first time she asked, or the second, or even the third.  I hope today to explain the answers I have come to in thinking about it and considering what it is she senses has changed, even though she did not know me before.

I think what it boils down to is connectedness.  The man that did not bother to care what Victim #1 or Victim #2 wanted was a man that did not feel connected to anything or anyone.  Not even my mother.  When I think back I see a boy that felt alone.  The only thought I had was about what I wanted.  I saw my mom as doing things for me out of obligation.  I did not see her as someone that acted out of love, but did things because she felt compelled and because she had to.  It is hard to imagine feeling that way, but I did. I have joked with Ms. Stewart that in addition to her legal help she has given me help through psychotherapy. Each time after we talk about the why, she pushes me to dig deeper past the surface feelings of anger that I seemed so consumed by before.  I am not sure that I knew what it felt like to be loved.  I am not sure that I knew what it was to love.  I think to love and to be loved you have to feel like you are connected to something.  I did not feel tethered to anything.  I was the very definition of selfish.  I cared only about myself because I didn’t see or feel that anyone cared about me.  Mind you, I was not having these thoughts when I was in it; I was too deep in it.  If you had asked the (Client Name) of (date) if felt like anyone cared about me, I probably would have looked at you like you were crazy.  I was not about trying to understand what I was doing; I was just doing it.

I don’t have all the answers.  I think for a very long time I have told myself that I forgave my dad for what he put me and my mom through.  It sounds like the right way to feel and definitely like the right thing to say. I told Ms. Stewart in one of our last meetings that I think I have dad issues.  It was an easy way to deflect.  But she pressed me to try to explain the why.  I told her a story that I will share with you.  When I was at the USDB at Fort Leavenworth, I came to know a man named (Inmate Name).  His mother brought his three year-old son to visit him in confinement.  My initial thought was, that was what people do when you are in jail, they visit you.  They visit you because they are supposed to do; that’s what you see on TV.  But this particular day, when I watched that three year-old boy asking his grandmother where is daddy going, I felt something. And it wasn’t the anger I had been carrying with me.  I felt a profound weight of unimaginable sadness.  How do you tell a three year-old that his father is not going to be coming home?  How as a father do you tell your son that you are serving decades for murder?

I am not sure I fully understand it, but after seeing that I tried to make connections.  In the USDB I found a surrogate family.  We certainly weren’t perfect and we weren’t a perfect fit, but in looking back I see that I was at least allowing myself to try and feel something for other people.  Again, it was not a perfect path to enlightenment.  I still had a lot of growing up to do.  I threw an orange at another inmate and ended up in this pointless fight because of it.  I ended up in the CHU.  That was the loneliest I have ever felt in all of my life.  I think that experience made me see and know the stark contrast between being connected to something, even our imperfect little USDB family and being 100% isolated.  I never want to feel that way again.  And I have not since.

Confinement means different things for different people.  I have seen first hand that some people can go through months or even years and never change a bit.  They go out the door the same as when they walked in.  And maybe you’re questioning the sincerity of the change I am trying to describe for you.  I mean, that’s what everyone says, right?  “I am a changed man.”  It does not take a genius to figure out that saying you have changed is what parole board wants to hear.  It wasn’t what I had planned to tell you, sir, when I addressed the court.  But here I am.  It has been 955 days since I first set foot in jail.  And as isolating as anyone could imagine that the experience of being locked up could be, I am here to tell you that where you are matters little to what you are or what you can become.

And I believe this is true, even when it comes to your freedom.  Buddha said, “No one outside ourselves can rule us inwardly. When we know this, we become free.”  I say this not to mean any disrespect to this court or to this process. I only hope to explain the answers I believe I have found to the ultimate question of what is it that the Court needs to give me as punishment to ensure that I will never repeat my crimes, to make sure that I am not a danger to anyone in the world. Confinement is our justice system’s way of isolating a person for both punishment but hopefully to encourage reflection and to make that person change.  But confinement cannot make a person change.  Reflection can.  Making a choice to understand the behavior that made you end up in confinement.  I believe feeling remorse for the behavior goes hand in hand with change too.  I am so very sorry for the choices I made. I am sincerely sorry to Victim#1 and Victim#2.

I am not the man I was the day I entered confinement.  And I am not the man I was when I was on the outside taking what I wanted in the moments that I wanted them.  I hope you’ll see some of that change Ms. Stewart sees in me.  Thank you for letting me tell you about some of the last 955 days.  I hope I have been able to answer part of what that time has changed in me.  I am ready to face your judgment.”

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