Sixteen year old Miguel Martinez, full of nervous energy, sat at the defense table in Courtroom 2 of Washington DC’s Family Court, on trial as a juvenile for a house burglary. Seated beside him was his young lawyer, Harry Janer, tapping his pen, nervous about starting his first criminal trial. Savvy prosecutor, Janell Brown was seated stiff-backed at the other table and had every detail of her case in place, as always. Both lawyers had prepared carefully, but today they were in for a surprise. Neither knew that fourteen-year-old Jimmy Brannick, the prosecution’s key witness, was also on trial today, possibly for his life.
“Judge Amy Eagleton has been delayed fifteen minutes,” the court crier announced.
Ms. Brown checked her phone for messages. Harry checked his racing pulse with his hands hidden beneath the table. Miguel closed his eyes, deep in thought.
Once Harry was convinced he wasn’t having a heart attack, his mind drifted back to the day he met Miguel. It was three months earlier, when Miguel and his mother, Roberta Martinez, walked into Café Exquisito, a cozy coffee shop in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington DC. The café’s customers were a mix of the neighborhood’s long-standing, Hispanic residents and it’s growing young, diverse population. The café was owned by Roberta’s cousin Rosa, and her husband, Jose Ortega. Rosa had referred Roberta to Harry; a smart, young lawyer who would work cheaply, she said. She knew this because Harry rented space from the Ortegas behind the café, and they had an arrangement. Harry spotted Roberta, wearing a red and black silk scarf just as she had described to Harry when they had spoken on the phone. Behind her was Miguel. a thin teen boy just shy of Harry’s six-foot height, with wavy brown hair, his eyes fixed on his cell phone.
“Hi, I’m Harry Janer,” Harry said, extending his hand to Roberta and smiling broadly, displaying his white, orthodontia-perfect teeth. Usually, his expensive smile along with his casual, relaxed manner helped him make a good first impression.
“Hello Mr. Janer. I’m Roberta Martinez and this is my son, Miguel. Thank you for seeing us so quickly,” she replied, as they lightly shook hands.
Harry turned to Miguel, offering his hand, but Miguel, busily texting on his phone, muttered, “Hey,” never looking up.
Harry roled his eyes and dropped his hand awkwardly. He invited them to follow him to his office, turned, and walked toward the rear of the café. He led them down the short hallway past the restroom and opened an old, wooden door displaying a simple blue sign with gold lettering announcing “Janer Law Offices.” Once inside the reception area, the group was charged by a big, black dog with rust colored snout and chest, wagging his tail into a blur. “This is Dozer. He loves people,” said Harry.
Dozer lumbered closer to Roberta who scratched his head gently. Miguel glanced down at the dog but made no move to pet him, so Dozer, never to be ignored, nuzzled his snout between Miguel’s legs and bulled forward so that Miguel was straddling him facing his wagging tail, Dozer’s invitation to have his back end scratched. Miguel cracked a smile and gave Dozer a brisk rub on his back as he walked forward to untangle the large, short-haired body from between his legs.
Harry grabbed Dozer’s collar and led him, tail still wagging quick-time, into his office, inviting his visitors to follow and have a seat on the two black-padded conference chairs facing his wooden desk and black fabric swivel chair. Harry told Dozer to lay down and the dog slowly walked to his black, bean bag bed in the corner, circled it once, plopped down, and fixed his gaze on the visitors.
As Harry sat, Roberta anxiously blurted “My son’s in trouble. He hangs out with matones — sorry — hoodlums and got himself arrested and charged with burglary.”
Miguel, acting detached, looked toward Dozer whose head was on his bed watching Miguel, and as they made eye contact, Dozer’s tail began thumping his eager-dog tempo on the bed. Another small smile appeared on Miguel’s serious face. Roberta told Harry about Miguel’s arrest and handed him the Petition for Juvenile Adjudication with the list of charges and fact summary.
When Harry finished reading the petition, he looked at Miguel and asked, “Miguel, can you tell me the story?”
Miguel raised his face toward Harry and said, dismissively, “Nothin’ to tell, cause I didn’t do anything”
For the next thirty minutes Miguel answered Harry’s questions with terse, evasive answers. Once finished with his questions, Harry mustered his most confident, authoritative voice and explained the DC judicial process for accused juvenile offenders, almost word for word from the notes in front of him, which he had made by reading the court’s website.
When they finished, Harry had a new client for a modest fee – the deal Rosa had made with Harry. She promised more referrals from her large family and friends if he reduced his fees. For a young lawyer with more time than money, it was a good deal.
After the meeting, they walked into the café where Rosa and Roberta chatted for a few moments. When Roberta and Miguel left, Rosa waved Harry over and said, “I think he might belong to a local gang called the Jaguars. They’re very bad men, like a cancer in our neighborhood. Roberta’s worried sick about him.”
Miguel’s decision to “train,” as the gang called it, under the Jaguars was not one he liked, but he decided to join them rather than become the victim of a fate that several of their members described graphically. He made the choice just like many other teens from his neighborhood who chose these “so-called” friends for protection. Kids from safe neighborhoods were free to choose friends based on common interests, like shared love of sports or music. Miguel wanted to hang out with kids who liked what he liked, computers and computer games, not the gang. He dreamed of creating virtual games someday, but his dreams were crowded out by rule one – stay safe. He resented the gang for that, and wanted to be free of it.
Waiting for the trial to begin, Miguel wondered if, during their encounter a few weeks ago, he had convinced Jimmy Brannick to lie in court. Jimmy was at the burglary scene and was arrested, then later released to his mother until his court date. One day while Jimmy walked home from school, Miguel followed from a distance until they reached a quiet street. Miguel caught up to him, grabbed his arm, and said, “I hear you were standing lookout while some guys broke into a house.”
Jimmy, about four inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter than Miguel, didn’t pull away. He just looked at Miguel with eyese open wide with fear and said, “You know I was, Miguel. I…I saw you there.”
Miguel knew a whole lot more. He was the one who gave directions to the other two kids who carried the heavy safe out of the house that night. As he stepped outside that house, he spotted flashing police lights lighting the sky, and he heard the sirens coming down the alley behind the house and also up the street out front. He ran, climbed the wooden fence surrounding the rear yard, and vanished through the neighbors’ yards. Miguel and the other teens had carried out the burglary under the supervision of a member of the Jaguars. Committing crimes for the Jaguars was the gang’s price for safety. Miguel knew Jimmy was the lookout recruited by the Jaguars at the last-minute. The Jaguar leader was supposed to position Jimmy where he could spot trouble early enough to warn everyone with a whistle but not see the guys doing the burglary.
“Kid, what did you tell the cops?” Miguel demanded.
Jimmy’s eyes began to fill with tears. “I was scared. I’ve never been arrested before. I told them what happened; that I saw you all there. I’m sorry.”
A Jaguar might have beaten the kid half to death on the spot, but Miguel was smart, a problem solver. It was Miguel’s brains that made him important to the Jaguars; someone who might make them lots of money in the digital age. The old ways were filled with too many street gangs already. Miguel had different ideas; he planned to eventually outwit the gang leaders and get out of this neighborhood, but it would take time.
Miguel shook his head and said calmly, “Kid, listen up. First, I wasn’t there. Second, if you rat out anyone, the Jaguars will hurt you bad. You gotta’ get your head straight about this. If you end up in detention marked a chivato, you may never come out alive.”
“I’m sorry, Miguel. I was scared. The cops told me that if I didn’t tell them everything, they’d have my mom sent back to Guatemala. She doesn’t have a card yet.”
“Again, I’m tellin’ you, I wasn’t there. You got it wrong. And the cops are messin’ with you about your mom. DC don’t work with ICE. You can still save your ass; tell the prosecutor you think you made a mistake, that it was dark, and everyone had hoodies up.”
“But, if I change my story now they’re gonna’ tell the judge that I lied. That’ll get me more time. And, I can’t take a chance on my mom being sent back.”
“Listen to me. I’m tellin’ you the best way out of the pile of mierda you’re stuck in. You made a mistake. Just tell ‘em. They won’t do anything to your mom. If you get a few more months in jail, it’s better than being dead. I’ll put in a good word for you with the Jaguars and they’ll leave you alone. This is your chance to pick friends who can protect you, something you don’t have right now. Add it up kid; it makes sense.”
“Can you help me out, Miguel? I haven’t had a friend who I could count on since Tommy Pacitta moved. You make it sound so easy. I heard you were smart and a great gamer. I love messin’ with computers, programming, and stuff. Someday I’m gonna’ get a programming job and get rich,” Jimmy jabbered nervously.
“Focus, dammit! Listen to me; be smart. If you want to live long enough to become a programmer, do what I’m telling you.” With that, Miguel walked away, and told no one about the conversation. Tampering with a witness was a crime so there was no reason to give anyone information they could use against him.
While the others waited in the courtroom for Miguel’s trial to start, Jimmy sat in a separate small room with a court deputy. His hands fidgeted with a paper clip while beads of sweat formed on his freckled forehead. Sweating made his curly red hair frizzy, which he thought made him look even more like a geek, given his one blue eye and one brown magnified by his strong glasses. Kids as school called him “Eyeballs.”
Why did he say yes to the lousy fifty bucks he was offered that night by the tattooed man who stopped him outside the mini-market? The guy said, “Just watch out for cops.” Nothing would go wrong. Jimmy did it because cute Arianna Lopez said “Yes” when he asked her to the ninth grade dance, and he needed money for nice clothes and the wrist bouquet of red carnations he wanted to give her. What a stupid, stupid decision. If only his old friend Tommy would have been around that night to talk him out of it. Now, his dreams of slow dancing with Arianna were gone, replaced by nightmares about juvenile detention.
He didn’t know how he should testify today. Maybe Miguel was right. If Jimmy protected him, maybe they’d be friends someday. What he said made sense and scared the crap out of him. But he just couldn’t convince himself that if he screwed with the prosecutor, his mom wouldn’t be investigated, picked up, and deported. If his worthless, American father had married his mom like he promised instead of disappearing, she wouldn’t need to live in the shadows. What do you say to a father who gives you U.S. citizenship and these great looks, “Thanks for the birithday present dad; sorry you can’t stay for the rest of my life.”
In the courtroom, the court crier commanded, “All rise. All persons having business before this court, come forward and be heard. Washington DC Family Court is now in session; the Honorable Judge Amy Eagleton presiding.”
Judge Eagleton stepped up to her bench as everyone in the courtroom stood. She sat and said, “Have a seat everyone. First on the list today is the adjudication hearing for Miguel Martinez. Counsel are you both ready to proceed?”
“Ready, Your Honor,” both attorneys said in unison.
“Since there is no jury in a juvenile trial, will both counsel agree to dispense with opening statements?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” Ms. Brown offered first.
“May I reserve the opening statement for the defense until the beginning of our case your Honor?” asked Harry.
“Good morning, Mr. Janer, is it? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure before. What I am asking, actually suggesting, is that we not take up time with any opening statements, either now or later. How does that sound to you Mr. Janer?”
Janell Brown looked down as a small smile formed on her lips, remembering how nervous she was for her first trial.
“Uh, I understand; I mean Counsel for the Defendant agrees your Honor,” stuttered Harry, his face flushing.
“Thank you, Counsellor. Let’s proceed. Ms. Brown, call your first witness.”
Ms. Brown’s pointed, rapid questions were answered by veteran police witnesses who described the crime, the arrests and verified the authenticity and chain of custody for the video from a neighborhood market two blocks from the crime scene that captured Miguel talking with Renaldo Cortez outside at 8:13 PM on the night of the burglary. Renaldo was one of the kids arrested at the scene. There was no audio of their conversation but it did put Miguel near the scene close to the time the police arrived and made the arrests, 9:28PM. Next she called Jimmy Brannick, her key witness, to the stand.
Jimmy’s voice cracked as he swore he would tell the truth. Ms. Brown, questioned and guided Jimmy, step by step, through his observations of the events of the night of February 14. He was standing outside the house. Yes, the house on Maple Street. “Yes ma’am, I was outside the house watching for police. No ma’am, I never went inside the house. I do not know how many people were in the house. I saw three.” With each answer Jimmy’s voice grew a little softer until Judge Eagleton reminded him to keep his voice up.
Miguel and Harry straightened in their chairs, senses wired. Any minute Jimmy would be asked if he could place Miguel at the burglary, and they didn’t have to wait long.
“Did you recognize any of the three people you saw enter the house ?” Ms. Brown asked.
It was a long six seconds until Jimmy answered, “Yes, ma’am I think I might have, uh… recognized, maybe recognized, uh, a person who was there.”
Ms. Brown paused to look carefully at Jimmy, who was fidgeting like the witness chair was catching fire. He wouldn’t make eye contact with her; keeping his gaze on the microphone attached to the witness stand. This time she phrased her question more directly, “Is anyone who entered the house that night in this courtroom today?”
The courtroom grew so quiet that Jimmy wondered if anyone could hear his foot tapping nervously or his hands rubbing their skin hot. After another long pause, Ms. Brown asked Jimmy if he heard the question. “Yes Ma’am,” he softly replied,
Judge Eagleton sternly interjected, “You must answer the question, young man.”
Jimmy looked painfully at the judge and muttered, “I don’t think I can Your Honor.”
“You understand the question but you’re saying you don’t think you can answer the question?” quizzed the judge.
“Yes, Your Honor.”
Judge Eagleton looked over her glasses at Ms. Brown, and half-asked, half-suggested, “Counsellor, would you like a brief recess to speak with the witness?”
“Yes, I would. Thank you, Your Honor,” she replied, casting an icy stare toward toward Jimmy.
“Court is recessed for fifteen minutes. We’ll reconvene at 11:30,” the judge announced.
Judge Eagleton stood and the court crier stepped forward and loudly demanded, “All rise.”
Everyone dutifully complied, as the judge exited the courtroom through the plain wooden door to her chambers. Harry, eyes wide open in surprise, looked at Miguel and said, “This looks promising.”
Miguel looked toward Harry through narrowed eyes under a wrinkled brow, very deep in thought and said, “Maybe.” His mind was working hard to figure the possible outcomes given the variables Jimmy just threw into the situation, but for some reason his thinking process was out of whack. Something was bothering him, but he couldn’t get a handle on it.
Harry, full of nervous energy, decided to take a walk so he could collect his thoughts. He told Miguel he would be right back, but Miguel was not paying attention; he was deep in thought, As he walked out of the courtroom, Harry ran his right hand’s fingers through his short, dark hair as he began thinking about how he might cross-examine Jimmy. What was going through Miguel’s mind right now? What decision was Jimmy going to make? If Jimmy did identify Miguel now, his hesitancy presented an opening for cross-examination. Harry started mentally forming a new series of questions to ask.
He reached the end of the corridor, so he turned and headed back to the courtroom. As he approached the courtroom a petite Hispanic woman, who sat on a bench outside the courtroom, stood and asked, in broken English, “Excuse me, are you one of the lawyers in this trial?”
“Ah, yes. I represent the defendant.”
“I am Jimmy Brannick’s mother. He is supposed to testify today, but they will not let me in to watch. “Is he in there? Has he testified yet? Will the trial be over soon?” she asked in quick succession, barely breathing in between.
Jimmy and Ms. Brown sat in the tiny conference room on two hard oak chairs; a scratched oak table between them. “Look, Jimmy what’s going on? You told me that Miguel went into the house that night. Why won’t you tell the judge that?”
“I keep thinking back to that night and I’m trying to be sure it was him. We didn’t talk and it was dark. It wasn’t like we were face to face.” His first lie; how far would he slide down the slope?
“You didn’t have these doubts before. What happened? Did somebody say something to you about testifying? Did someone threaten you?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Are you sure no one threatened you or promised you anything?”
“No, Ma’am.” He wasn’t good at this. He never was good at lying. His mom always knew; like she was tapped into his brain.
“Well, are you going to identify him when we go back in there or not?”
“Is it a problem if I don’t?”
“Yes, it’s a problem. It’s a problem for me and that will make it a problem for you. So, you better think about it carefully and tell the truth. Come on, it’s time to go back in.”
After Jimmy sat back down in the witness chair, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He wanted to tell Ms. Brown he was sorry for causing her so much trouble. Sorry was a word he used a lot, mainly because it got people to leave him alone. When kids picked on him in school, he said he was sorry, which usually avoided another bloody nose. He told his mom he was sorry all the time, but she knew when he really meant it. He was sorry for the second-hand, out-of-style clothes he wore, for being a computer nerd, for his mom being an “illegal,” for being different. He owned sorry; he might change his name to Sorry someday; it was better than Eyeballs. He wondered, once he was in a juvenile detention center, whether saying sorry would help keep him or his mother safe.
Miguel watched Jimmy, head bowed. What was he thinking? Yeah, the kid was in a tough spot – risk his life or risk having his mother deported. Would the prosecutor report her? Miguel looked back at his own mother and father sitting in the second row of seats behind him. His mother saw him look and whispered, “I love you.”
He smiled, a worried kind of smile, then turned his head away, ashamed of the pain he was causing them.
Harry walked back into the courtroom, sat and told Miguel about the surprise meeting he just had with Jimmy’s mother in the hall. Harry noticed that, for the first time, Miguel seemed to be really listening. “Are you still considering testifying in your own behalf if need be?” Harry whispered.
Miguel’s eyes closed, and nodded twice. Strange, Harry thought. Things were going well, but Miguel seemed troubled. Harry couldn’t figure the kid out.
The court crier stepped into the courtroom and announced, “All rise.”
Judge Eagleton sat at her raised, judicial bench, and reconvened the trial, “Please be seated. Ms. Brown, do you have more questions for this witness?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Jimmy, can you identify any of the boys who went into the house that night?”
Again, Jimmy hesitated, and then he looked at Miguel. At that moment, a calming clarity washed over Miguel’s mind and he realized his mistake. It was time he solved the problem he had been wrestling with, instead of leaving his fate in someone else’s hands. He stood up, looked at the judge and said, “I’m changing my plea to guilty, but I have one condition.”
No one fainted, but heads jerked up, mouths fell open and eyes widened. For a few seconds it was quiet enough to hear air blowing from a vent; no one moved or spoke. Then the courtroom exploded back to life.
Jimmy, who had barely looked at anyone through the whole trial, looked at Miguel, who was looking calmly at the judge. Ms. Brown dropped into her chair, looked at Miguel, then at Harry trying to tell if this was a planned stunt, or just the craziest moment in her career. Harry jumped up, grabbed Miguel’s arm, tempted to pull him back into his seat, and blurted, “What are you doing?” Judge Eagleton pounded her gavel three times, so hard it flew from her hand, almost hitting the court reporter, who dutifully captured every word, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her.
“Mr. Janer, control yourself and your client,” Judge Eagleton ordered as her bailiff retrieved the gavel.
“Yes, Your Honor, may we have a ten minute recess for my client and I to talk?”
“Court is recessed for ten minutes, then we are coming back to finish this case. Does counsel understand? And, that’s not really a question,“ directed Judge Eagleton, who then rose quickly and pushed her chamber door open hard.
Harry could barely contain his frustration as the two walked out of the courtroom into the hallway with Miguel’s parents following. In the hallway Miguel asked his parents to give them a few minutes alone.
Harry and Miguel stepped into a small window alcove nearby, and Harry exploded, “So Miguel, tell me what you think you’re doing? Things were going our way in there. Jimmy may never have identified you and even if he did, I think we had a good shot at creating enough reasonable doubt to get you off.”
Miguel was looking down at the floor, then slowly raised his head to look at Harry. “If the kid would have ratted on me, I know the Jaguars would have hurt him bad either inside or after he got out, and they might have messed with his mom. He was afraid for his mom if he didn’t talk ‘cause she’s not legal yet. I know the deal he made with the prosecutor so I had a pretty good idea what I’ll get. It just made more sense to me to give myself up, maybe get a little less time for coming clean, and letting the kid off the hook.”
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“So, what’s this condition we’re supposed to tell the prosecutor?”
“I want them to put us in the same detention hall. The kid and I can watch each other’s back.”
“You’re not planning to hurt him, are you?”
“Nah. Why would I plead guilty if that’s what I wanted, I could have just left it up to the Jaguars.”
“Ok, I’ll go talk to the prosecutor. Go talk with your folks and make sure you’re back in the courtroom in five minutes.”
A month later, both Jimmy and Miguel were sentenced. Jimmy was given six to twelve months. With good behavior, he would be eligible for release in four months. It was the same as his deal with the prosecutor. His mother was teary eyed at the sentencing but no one had contacted ICE to investigate her. Miguel got twelve to twenty-four months and would be eligible for release in eight months. Both were to serve their time in St. Anthony’s Hall, a juvenile detention center in Virginia. Miguel got his one condition.
Since the presentencing report for the two boys found no evidence that Jimmy was afraid of Miguel or that Miguel wanted to harm Jimmy, Judge Eagleton had no objection to both boys going to St. Anthony’s. It would have been her first choice in any event. Miguel made a deal with the Jaguar leaders that he would keep his mouth shut, and keep training with them when he got out if they let Jimmy alone. He had a year to figure out his next move.
One evening, about a month after the boys went to detention, as Harry and Dozer were leaving his office for the day, a heavy-set, young Latino lumbered up and said, “I got something for your dog.” He pulled heavy fabric dog collar colored with irregular black and gold stripes, out of his back pocket. “This is a gift from Miguel and the Jaguars for your dog, Dozer.” Dozer’s tail wagged and he sniffed the man’s leg, bare below his low-riding shorts.
Harry took a step back and stuttered, “Miguel’s in detention. How did he?”
But, before he could finish the sentence the man, with a Jaguar tattoo on his forearm, said, “Miguel’s got plenty of ways to communicate with us from detention. He asked us to keep an eye on your dog to make sure nothing happens to him. This collar means he’s under our protection; kind of like he’s an associate member of our little club. And so long as you take good care of him, you’re in too. We’re offerin’ a gift, you oughta take it.”
“Uh, sure, no problem,” Harry stuttered and quickly put the collar on Dozer. “Tell Miguel and whoever that I said thanks.” The man strode away. With Dozer still wagging his tail, they started walking home, much faster that night. Over time, Harry would come to understand that “being in” meant they now had some unusual, “so-called” friends.