The Home Stretch

I’m two weeks into the final year of law school. So far so good. Over the past several semesters I’ve made a practice of cramming all of my classes into just 2 days per week. This time it’s 4 classes on one day, and 5 on the other. It’s a long haul that usually involves zoning out at least a little during one of the lectures.

Unlike the past two years, I’ll have quite a bit of writing to do this semester as I take care of some requirements before graduation next spring. Nothing is due until December, but I’ll probably have it all about 95% done before October begins. I don’t like having things hanging over me. I never really quite understood why the majority of people tend to wait until the last minute to start working on a big paper you’ve known about for months.

When I was an undergrad we had a writing-period when papers were supposed to be worked on. The campus was always a ghost town during that week or two as everyone was hunkered down in their dorm rooms or at the solitary desks along the walls in the library, trying to hammer out their masterpiece. But we were all working on papers we had known about since the beginning of the semester. Mine was always finished and handed in well before the writing period began. It was kind of fun seeing everyone’s anguish with their work while I decided which novel to read or video game to play.

One of my classes is on the finer points of practicing criminal law in Massachusetts. – Real nitty gritty stuff. I had my head in the Massachusetts Sentencing Guidelines over the weekend while I was thinking about my 2nd cousin, my great aunt’s son. I’m fairly close to my grandmother and my great-aunts. My grandmother was the daughter of Irish immigrants. – Unimaginably poor. She likes to tell me about how hard her childhood was by recollecting to me the period of time she, her mom, and her sisters were forced to temporarily live in a tent. I always counter that I lived in a tent too, and liked it. Of course, I’m only kidding. I was there by my own accord, as a grown man, by myself. She was there out of necessity, as a child, with siblings and parent’s as well. They were two different things.

My great aunt is, or was, a wicked woman. Cruel, evil and full of hate. Like a one-dimensional protagonist in a children’s story.

She likes me though. She calls me her boyfriend. We’ve always gotten along. And it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties when I began to be exposed to her true nature. My grandmother related to me the time she and my aunt were warming by the fire when they were kids, before walking to school, when suddenly my aunt stealthily picked up the fire poker that had been resting in the hot coals, and with a callous laugh, branded my grandmother on the back of the neck. She was 6 or 7 at the time and my aunt 10 or 11.

My uncle told me of when he was a boy. He would go over to his aunt’s to play with his cousins. One of them had apparently miss-behaved in my great aunt’s eyes, though my uncle recalls they would be punished for the most minor of indiscretions. My uncle’s cousin was placed in the bath tub and she told my uncle to go get a switch from the woods. Scared, he went and got a stick for her. And then watched as she beat her son so badly, the blood pooled in the tub and dripped toward the drain. It was done in a way that you knew it was routine. My uncle, not seven years old at the time, walked home 4 miles after that, rather than wait for his mom to come pick him up. He didn’t want to be there for one more minute, and would wind up finishing his childhood without ever going back again by himself. As he told me about it, 50 years later, I could still see his anger. His demeanor was calm, but his face was red with rage. He still hates her. It makes my heart heavy.

Another family friend separately told me about the switches in the tub.

She also took care of a man with diminished mental capacity. He would give her the entirety of his social security checks of which he would get a small allowance, and the rest would go to her adult children, the majority of whom have drug problems.

I have no doubt the stories are true. Even today, when I’m visiting her for our monthly cup of coffee I can see the short fuse and disgust with others. It’s never, never directed at me. She’s been nothing but kind, gentle and generous to me my whole life. I try to love and forgive everyone. I make an effort of it. But when I look at her, I can’t help but to occasionally think of the monstrosity she was once capable of, and may still be.

She had thirteen kids, my second cousins, all with problems. Two have died from drug overdoses. Of the four I’ve met, all but one are drug addicts in various stages of recovery, even today as they get into their 50′s. One of her sons, as a teenager, decided to not yield to a police officer and instead initiated a high-speed chase through town, during which he ended up killing somebody recklessly with his car. He went to prison for four years. He was out for two years, had a good job with the public works department in his town, when he decided to take his lunch at the bar. He over drank and proceeded to drive a large commercial work truck into a car carrying a young teenage couple. They were both killed. Everyone was devastated. The anger of the world was directed at my cousin. The district attorney said there wasn’t a jail cell cold or dark enough to hold him.

He was sentenced to 18-21 years in prison. The Mass Sentencing Guidelines, given his past record and the nature of his crime, actually only called for a maximum of a 16 year sentence. In Massachusetts there is a special procedure by which one can appeal a sentence, and the sentence only, before a special appeals courts. The appeal doesn’t cover matters of law or procedure, but rather, simply looks at the original sentence and has an opportunity to adjust it based on the arguments of the defendant and the state. Of those appeals, in over 85% of cases, the sentence remains as it was originally given. In about 7-9% of cases the sentence is reduced. And in about 3% of cases the sentence is increased.

So it can be a bit of a risk to appeal your sentence. But since my cousin’s sentence was beyond the maximum recommended sentence, his lawyer thought it would be a good idea to test their luck. A good thought probably at the time. But at the review, the appellate judge found my cousin’s behavior so reprehensible, he opted to sentence him for the statutory maximum, 30 years in prison with no chance of parole.

My great aunt is distraught. She may be, or have been cruel. But she has now lived long enough to see two of her children die, four of them live through the misery of addiction, and one incarcerated for the majority of his life. She asks me if I’ll be able to help my incarcerated cousin. He’s been in prison for about 13 years now. I told her I’ll do whatever I can to help him reduce his sentence. And I will, by looking into every possible angle. But so far, it seems like there’s no way for him to serve anything less than the entire 30 years.

Perhaps it’s just. I don’t know. My initial reaction was that 18-21 was appropriate. But perhaps that’s just because his victims were strangers to me.

So I visit my great aunt about once a month or so, as I make my rounds with the elderly members of the family. Typically I light a cigar and drive from relative’s house to relative’s house, making a day of it, and getting so filled up with coffee, tea and sandwiches that I’m ready to burst by the end of it. So I’ll go visit my great aunt tomorrow. And drink her coffee. And offer her my company. And update her on my latest research about her son’s status. She’s in her mid-80′s now.

Sometimes I’m tempted to ask her about the blood baths and indiscretions. To see how she judges herself. Sometimes I think the pain she has gone through as a mother with the difficult adult lives of her children is her punishment. From good comes good, and from evil comes evil. She’s reaped the harvest from the rotten seeds she’s planted. But I try not to judge. Instead, I embrace the kindness she’s always shown towards me. And instead of criticism, I make an effort to move away from any anger I might have about her past. I forgive, and offer my love.


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