Monday, April 22, 2013

It Takes Forever and Nothing Happens: Criminal Court from a Victim’s Perspective – Part II (DUI Loss Entry No. 20)

In 2007, an intoxicated driver hit my parents as they were crossing the street. The criminal court proceedings against the driver lasted a year.  This post continues my guide for victims to the court process.  (1) and (2) in my July 12, 2012 entry explain why the process takes time, and why it often appears little or nothing is happening.  

(3)  The criminal court process – whether or not a trial occurs – is emotionally painful for victims.  This seems obvious, and I certainly ought to have known it, as in my law practice I’ve seen how upset and angry people get over business-related disputes even though no one has been physically hurt and no one has died.  Yet somehow until I went through it, I didn’t connect that with how awful I’d feel at court.  Each month, I saw the man who’d stopped for drinks after work, then got in an SUV to drive home and hit and killed my parents.  The whole time I waited for the court clerk to call the case, which often took an hour or more, I remembered my dad’s surgeries and how hard he struggled to recover.  I imagined how alone my mom must have felt in the icy street where she died.  Sitting in the hard wooden court benches, watching lawyers go in and out, seeing the driver in his prison jumpsuit, I couldn’t seem to think about anything else.   

A couple months after the man was sentenced, I finally was able to let go just a little and focus on the wonderful things I remembered about my mom and dad, as well as on my own life and future.  The best advice I can offer if you are attending court proceedings is to try to plan before court what you might do or think about if you are stuck waiting.  You can't read or use cell phones when court is in session, but you may be able to during breaks.  As for your thoughts, focusing on something pleasant or even something that just occupies your mind -- remembering a weekend away, planning your week’s work, redecorating your living room in your head -- can help.  Anything that draws your mind away from thoughts that make you feel even worse than you already do.  It also helps, if you can, to bring a friend with you, someone who can distract you or just hold your hand.  Also, try to be especially kind to yourself on a court day.  Plan some activity you like, or at least used to like before this happened, as a reward for getting through the hearing.  It might be getting a fancy cup of coffee on your way back to work, taking a walk on a particularly pretty block, calling someone you’ve been meaning to talk to, or taking extra time to play with your pet.  

(4)  The defendant doesn’t say he or she is sorry.  Week after week, month after month, the person responsible for your loved ones’ deaths or injuries – or your own injuries – stands there and never apologizes.  Until the sentencing hearing, if one happens.  And then you wonder how sincere the apology is, because it could be the defendant is just trying to impress the judge.  Or the defendant may seem truly sorry – but only for himself or herself now that the prospect of prison seems real.  Some defendants apologize for “what happened” or “for the loss” without truly accepting fault.  While someone apologizing couldn’t bring back your loved one or erase the pain, most of us feel a sincere apology would help us a little, but we rarely hear anything that sounds like real regret or acceptance of responsibility.  

In the course of speaking for and working with the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM), I’ve met and talked with many people who killed someone while driving drunk.  Many are remorseful and express genuine sorrow, but none I’ve spoken to apologized until after they pled guilty.  That’s because their lawyers told them not to.  It’s part of our judicial system – perhaps an unfortunate part – that if someone apologizes for a crime, that statement can be used against him or her in a trial.  Because of that, lawyers advise their clients that they absolutely cannot apologize unless/until they plead guilty.  At that point, they’ve admitted the crime, so they can apologize.  Some defendants don’t apologize anyway, as they don’t feel remorseful and they think that driving drunk and killing someone is “just an accident.”  This attitude infuriates me, but it unfortunately is not an uncommon view in our culture, which is why AAIM works so hard to try to change public opinion.  An acquaintance, despite knowing how my parents died, once commented resentfully to me that she had to stop after 3 drinks at a wedding because otherwise she might get a DUI ticket and lose her license.  When I said, “Or you might kill someone because you were drinking,” she said something along the lines of that accidents happen all the time, even when people aren’t intoxicated.  A friend’s husband (who also knew about my parents’ deaths) once asked me if I was involved in one of those organizations of “ladies with pitchforks who say ‘don’t drink and drive.’” 

Even those who feel real regret about their actions often find it hard to truly accept responsibility. I’ve met genuinely caring people who are appalled at what they did and who have done everything possible – serving their prison sentences, engaging in community service, speaking publicly about their crimes in the hope that others will change their behavior– who still emphasize “I never meant it to happen” over “I chose to drink and drive, and I killed someone.”  It’s hard for caring people to admit to themselves that their deliberate choice to drink and drive caused someone else’s death or serious injuries. 

These reasons do not make it all right that the DUI driver doesn’t apologize or may do so only in a way that leaves the victim feeling even worse.  At the same time, understanding that the defendant may have real remorse but be unable to communicate it for different reasons can help a little as you sit through hearing after hearing.  I always tried to remember that I could not know what was in the defendant’s heart, and so I might as well assume he had some real regret. 

(5) There are people to help you.  The prosecutor should explain to you what’s happening with the case, including what charges she or he is bringing, what you can do to help, when the next court date is, and what will likely happen.  Many courtrooms also have a victim witness advocate, who is there to help victims through the process.  If that person has not found you, ask the prosecutor or call the prosecutor’s office.  You can also explore the prosecutor’s website to see what resources are available.  Finally, in Northern Illinois, AAIM, an Illinois non-profit, provides advocates to help victims of DUI drivers through the court process.  Twyla, who was the court advocate for my parents’ case, attended every court hearing.  If I was there, she sat with me, answered questions, and offered emotional support.  She also explained exactly what was going on and when the next court date would be.  Afterwards, she took me to a local coffee shop overlooking a river, and we talked and unwound before I went back to work.  If I couldn’t be at court, she called me afterwards and told me exactly what happened. 

There's a link to AAIM on the top left corner of this page that you can click for more information.  In addition, AAIM runs a grief group, as do many hospitals, churches and communities.  Talking with others who’ve been through the same experience can be extremely helpful.  If one group doesn’t work for you, try another. 

In future posts, I’ll talk a little about why it is that sometimes a defendant is not convicted, or the person accused of DUI is not prosecuted at all.  In the meantime, please feel free to post questions or comments below.   

Lisa M. Lilly is an attorney and author of Amazon occult bestseller THE AWAKENING, short story collection THE TOWER FORMERLY SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR, and numerous poems, short stories, and articles.  She is currently working on the sequel to THE AWAKENING.

Follow her on Twitter:  @lisamlilly