I heard on the radio this morning that the temperature today is likely to set a local heat record. It's brutal to be anywhere, even without moving, and this building's so old the air conditioning barely works, but the wheels of justice grind slowly on. The only evidence of the climate's crime is the unusually empty gallery. Six rows of long wooden benches stretch on, empty.
The first crime I committed was so long ago I don't remember it. Probably shoplifting, since we all did that all the time. But the first crime I remember was in third grade, when TJ and I conned some fourth and fifth graders into buying fake lottery tickets off us. I remember that con because after it we were best friends. Getting beaten up is a bonding experience, I guess.
I shouldn't be surprised no one wanted to come roast in the courthouse, but most days there have been five or ten people here. I guess - it's not like your case is big news or anything - people go away all the time on drug trafficking and robbery charges. Still, I didn't expect that today it would just be me. I'm sitting right in front of you, but you won't meet my eyes. I don't blame you.
TJ and I spent junior high torn between laughter and despair at the so called "men" in our neighbourhood. When we started high school, we swore we'd be different. We swore we'd be the ones to break the cycle, the ones to say no to the violence and crime. We'd stay out of the gangs, stay clean, study hard. We even sometimes dreamed about going to college. It would have been a first for either of our families.
Today's the last day of your trial: the day the jury returns a verdict. I know you're guilty. You know you're guilty. The whole neighbourhood knows it. You're guilty of what they've charged you with and more.
I remember smoking weed for the first time, out behind the school parking lot, trying despite the high to keep watch for teachers or cops. I remember pushing weed for the first time, pressuring some skinny blonde freshman into buying overpriced 'merchandise', knowing I had to make my quota or lose my 'job.' I remember running from the cops late at night a few years later after a deal went bad and pissing my pants I was so scared. Those were four crazy years, but TJ was always right beside me.
It's a well known fact that you're guilty, but the verdict is still gonna be a close call. The prosecution's whole case rests on a single recording made by a nark. And nobody likes a nark - not even the cops.
After high school, a few years back, TJ and I drifted apart. He rose through the ranks of the local gang, started his own operation, became king of his own little world. I got out.
The whole neighbourhood knows you're a drug runner - including the cops. Only reason they never busted you before was they couldn't get hard evidence. All they needed was that nark.
I'd seen TJ around, since we still live so close, but we hadn't spoken in years. Until a few weeks back, I walked into his shop and asked for some 'product' like I'd never gone straight. TJ was too high to remember I'd been clean for years.
When they played the nark's audio file yesterday, it was crystal clear. I recognized your voice, no problem. I don't know if the jury did. The cops 'round here have been accused of fabricating evidence before. But the conversation has you dead to rights. If the jury believes it, you're going away for sure.
It was six weeks ago that I got picked up for lifting some produce from the local superstore. My custody hearing was coming up in a month. I couldn't have something like that on my record, not so close to the hearing, and they knew it. The clean-shaven smiling cops brought me coffee and offered to cut me a deal.
The jury files back into the room and all take their seats. If they convicted, you're not going home for a long time, but I can see they're already at home in their minds, done with this trial, and ready for life to go on. The foreman is an older guy, a solid citizen by the looks of him. He looks at you, disgust clear in his eyes.
That's the same way TJ's mom used to look at him, when he started staying out late at night, coming home reeking of the evening's work. I heard her tell her friend once that that's how TJ's dad used to act - before he got put away. He died in a prison riot when TJ was just a baby.
I want to scream at the jury, sitting there, feeling so good about themselves as they placidly condemn you. How can they judge you? Do they know what it's like to grow up where you grew up, to live where you lived, to face the choices you had to make? I do. I was right beside you.
It's hard to break the cycle, to forge a different path. TJ's mom knew that, but she still had high hopes for her youngest son. My mom just wanted me to get a job to feed my sister and myself, so all her money could go to feed her habit.
The prosecution made a big deal about you having had a choice, about you having decided to walk the road that brought you here. Every time he said something like that, I wanted to shake that smug lawyer bastard until his teeth fell out. He has no idea what you have to sacrifice if you want out! I do. I have a little sister, and she's not going to foster care if I can help it.
TJ had an older brother, ten years older, and a few sisters in between. All the girls but one married young, except for Maria, who went to live with an aunt in Michigan. Last I heard she was taking night classes at the community college, studying to be a teacher. But TJ's brother wasn't much of an example for him. He was in and out of juvie all the time until TJ was eight - and after that he was dead.
The judge calls the foreman to stand. I can feel your angry stare drilling into me, but I don't take my eyes off him. Maybe, just maybe, this can all work out. But the jury didn't deliberate for very long.
TJ was my best friend. Before I realized how dangerous it was to be a drug runner and how likely I was to die young or in jail. Before Missy got picked up by Children's Aid and they threatened to take her away from me. Before I got clean and sober and decided to stay that way.
I can't ignore you anymore. We were friends for too long. I turn my head to look at you, meet your eyes, your angry stare. I know you've figured it all out. You know what I did.
TJ kept playing his drug-kingpin games, pretending he was different than the boys we'd laughed at in junior high, pretending he'd somehow made it in the world. I grew up, looking after Missy. I did what I had to do, to give her options I never had.
I can't face your silent accusations any longer. I get up to leave, turn away from the heat of your gaze, feel it still on the back of my neck as I walk down the gallery aisle. I pass out of the courtroom doors, thanking God for the freedom to do so, thanking Him for the courage it took to make the choices I made. I hear the verdict announced behind me.
"How do you find?"
"Guilty on all counts, Your Honour."
Guilty on all counts. With that many counts, automatic sentencing kicks in: twenty-five years to life. Twenty-five years to life, for my twenty year old former best friend.
Because I wanted Missy to have fresh vegetables with dinner, so we could pretend to be a normal family, not two kids with a mom in jail on possession charges and a father whose name we don't even know.
Because one sharp-eyed clerk saw me pocket the broccoli, and was enough of a hardass that he wouldn't let me just put it back.
Because I needed the shoplifting kept off my record, so I could pass my custody hearing, and keep scrabbling to provide for Missy.
Because the prosecution ranted and raved about choices, and no one on the jury understood that in our neighbourhood, you don't really get any.
In the end, I did what I had to do, but I feel just as guilty as you are today.