Sunday, January 14, 2007

Free at last?

Mercifully, the law prevailed and Leo is out of jail. Case closed, so the docket reflects. Like many criminal cases, this one has been a minuet of law and emotion. Usually it’s the defense lawyer making the emotional plea that the law is too harsh and unfair. Here, the law had to tame the court’s emotions. The trial judge was frustrated with Leo because, in his view, Leo had not satisfied his probationary bargain. Thus, he tried to keep Leo in jail despite lacking the legal basis. The court of appeals, however, confirmed that Leo’s probationary term had expired, thus extinguishing the courts’ dominion over Leo. The trial judge nevertheless defiantly threatened to keep Leo in jail. The judge relented as we prepared another emergency appeal. Leo is free, at least legally speaking.

Leo patiently waited for justice to run its course, emotions in check, despite having spent four months in jail for no good reason, and then another week in jail while we wrestled with the trial judge over the limits to his authority. Leo has not complained, at least not publicly, and he has carried himself with quiet dignity throughout this process. Yet, his equanimity does not dampen the emotions percolating beneath.

Leo describes his tangle with the law like reciting facts from a textbook. The emotions take charge, however, when he recounts his arrest for a phantom probation violation. The court issued a warrant for Leo’s arrest for failing to appear at a status hearing in January 2006, just a few months after Hurricane Katrina stampeded through New Orleans. Leo was arrested in September 2006, but he is at pains describe the rest, not for loss of words, but lack of comprehension. Leo, like just about everyone else, had evacuated from New Orleans and was busy concentrating on his emotional and physical survival after Katrina. In January 2006, he was living in Houston, trying to rebuild his life and planning his return while the City of New Orleans hobbled toward its own recovery. The court, which was barely operating out of borrowed space at that time, nevertheless faulted Leo for missing a status hearing. Leo’s supposed dereliction – at a time when the City could hardly offer electricity, clean water, mail service, shelter, or police protection – would lead to an arrest warrant. How is it that a man can lose everything – his home, his friends, possessions, familiar surroundings – and yet the State tries to take more?

Evidently perspective vanished with Katrina and vanquished our priorities. People here, especially those who are poor and black, were literally abandoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The levees failed. The government failed. Civilization failed as people had to fend for themselves in the newfound Hobbesian state of nature. Emotions run high in post-Katrina New Orleans, and only those who have lived through it all can really begin to understand the magnitude of pain visited upon the people here. But even then it is hard to comprehend the indignity of Leo’s fate. He is free at last, but he will carry a burden of painful emotions. It will take time to heal the wounds and restore perspective. For now, the law may have to mediate as all sides struggle with emotions and wrestle for the City’s soul.

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