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Why Homicide Court Accompaniment?
Seriously, why? We all ask myself.
It will surprise zero of you to know that I ponder the “why” of homicide court accompaniment, a practice I talked about in a previous Unruly Quaker post, a lot.
And, cards on the table: there was a (double) homicide trial last week. The victims and the defendant were all from Durham. I helped coordinate the accompaniment schedule. But I did NOT sit in court. I couldn’t.
Was it super hard for me not to be there? To admit I needed to step back?
Was it important that I did?
My tender little heart just couldn’t take it this time around. I’ll be back. But it’s … it’s just a hard, hard practice. Maybe we all need a break sometimes.
Why Court Accompaniment at all?
It’s got major strikes against it.
I’m going to be really, really real here. Cards are still on the table. (I’m terrible at poker anyway, open book that I am.)
And please remember I am speaking for myself here. Bear in mind I’m an outlier on many of the things I’m about to list. These are NOT statements on behalf of anyone else.
Sitting in court with a victim’s family does not change anything. It does not address injustice in a larger way. It does not touch the roots of oppression.
This ain’t great for me, your lil unruly Quaker pal.
Me, I’m pretty much an abolitionist.
I am fully on board with radical Catholic Worker activist Dorothy Day, who said,
“Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
I believe our criminal punishment (and economic and healthcare and other biggies) system is filthy rotten.
On especially sad and/or enraging days in court, I’ve been known to hightail it to my car, cry hot tears, and whisper menacingly to no one in particular, “We’ve got to burn this motherfucker down. Burn it all down. Start again.”
So why the everloving fuckittyhoo would I go to the courthouse and ride the elevator to the seventh floor and sit inside the very machinations of a system that I find both inhuman and inhumane?
Court companionship is strange and gruelingly heartbreaking. It’s also time-consuming, and, not to be too crass, but also let’s stay real — I’m not getting paid for this work.
It’s a strange practice because it’s not done a lot, or in a lot of places.
We sit with folks whose loved one was murdered. Probably two, three, or four years ago.
They have to show up to hear strangers talk about the death of their loved one. They must listen to lawyers paint contrasting versions of their loved one.
They are reliving the worst days of their lives. And we, I, show up to, what? Just … be with them?
You try just sidling on up to someone going through the worst thing imaginable, the nadir of their existence. Say hello and introduce yourself in a respectful yet hopeful yet somber yet supportive tone. It’s … not easy. At least not for me it isn’t.
Plus, again this sounds crass, but court is time-consuming. It eats up hours like Pacman eats snack pellets. Trials, especially, but any court hearing can run long, or be rough, or both. The narrative facts of a case are repeated aloud every time. Victim impact statements, too.
Oof. Victim impact statements. Hard to write, hard to read, hard to listen to.
I’m taking a “side.”
I’m siding with the victims. Against the defendant(s). This default side-taking is emotionally and morally devastating for me.
Indeed, families of victims need our love and support. They are in despair, rage, mourning, shame, isolation, confusion … all of the above and more. I want to be there for them. And.
You know who else is going through all that?
Families of defendants. And defendants themselves.
Don’t tell me that Jesus or the Great Cosmic Echidna chooses sides. They don’t. They love everyone, wholly, all the time, no matter what.
Defendants and their families are human, and in my view, that means they need and deserve love and mercy.
My God. You wouldn’t believe some of their life stories or circumstances.
Hurt people hurt people.
Wait a second. Mercy? For defendants?
So … am I saying I condone homicide?
You know me better than that by now. Surely you do.
Instead of swatting houseflies, I gently shoo them towards a window and encourage them to go outside.
Am I kidding? Of course not. Ask my family. They’ll tell you.
And they’ll add that I talk to the flies to comfort them and tell them not to be scared.
That’s flies. Extrapolate that, then, to how I feel about human lives taken violently.
Still and so, if I had my druthers, courtrooms would be packed at every trial, every plea, every bond hearing.
There would be family and volunteers and neighbors and community members sitting on both “sides” of every case.
I’ve been in trials where no one — no one — sat on the defendants “side.”
It breaks my heart.
I mean, are we a community or aren’t we?
Do we show mercy for “the least of us” or not?
Love and belonging is how we repair harm. It’s how we prevent harm. It’s the cure for violence. Or at least one of the cures.
(Sensible gun control laws would help a lot, too.)
So— why court specifically?
Because I got tired of looking away. And then a specific thing happened.
We all look away from things. We have to, to survive.
But about the time my son was in middle school, 2017 or so, it dawned on me, to my great horror, that my “activism” had become “meh”-ivism.
Things I was doing a lot of: online petition-signing, postcard writing, reading, social-media posting. Apart from large marches, I wasn’t showing up anywhere, which meant I wasn’t connecting with actual people in actual real life.
I had some decent excuses — an intense and high maintenance child. Work. An ongoing, prolonged health issue.
If I dig deeper, though, there was another big reason I was an armchair activist: fear.
Oooooh doggy, I was scared.
Specifically I was scared of being in spaces I felt uncomfortable.
I was scared to make mistakes in those spaces.
I was terrified of being a, the, white woman who made an —inadvertently— racist mistake in a racially diverse activist space.
I have issues and I have clinical anxiety. It’s a mess, I’m a mess, that’s a given.
But not showing up for things out of fear of messing up is bullshit and helps no one, including me.
(Also fucking up is not the end of the world. You mess up, you apologize. I’ve gotten good at apologies, as I wrote here.)
So during a meditation sesh, I asked my God Squad to show me a way (not the way, because there is never just one) back.
Back into coalition, relationship, community, diverse spaces, meaningful practices.
I asked for a way to engage was invited (not imposing) and meaningful and came alongside those most affected by violence in our community.
Oh, and please: something with a spiritual component. Secular activism is great, but I knew I needed me some Great Cosmic Echidna for anything to stick.
The next day, behold!
Somehow, without signing up for the list, I got an email from Religious Coalition for Nonviolent Durham. It included an invitation to their monthly community luncheon.
I went. The person sitting next to me (we’ll call her Ethyl, not to protect her identity but because I don’t remember her name) said she did “court accompaniment at homicide trails” with RCND.
She sat with families during their loved ones’ homicide trials?
That was something people did?
A zap went through my spine.
I’ve learned to listen to the zap.
Sure sounded like it might be - to the families and to me.
Coming alongside those most affected?
Isn’t it sad though?
Oh my God, yes.
It is so fucking sad.
So… um… ?
I will not lie.
It takes a toll on me. I won’t speak for other court companions, but you can guess. We’re all human.
I have another story that is formative in the ways I, and we, do this practice.
But you know what? This is getting long and y’all have your Mondays (or Tuesdays, in Australia) to attend to.
So I’ll save that story for next week.
Until then - thank you for reading.
Thank you for your trustworthy hearts. Thank you for being part of this community that is making a place for me to share my heart.
May the Great Cosmic Echidna bless you, share tons of yummy nummies with you, and play all your favorite songs.
P.S. Paid subscribers - you get first DJ requests and first dibs on the GCE’s yummiest of nums. You all truly make this possible. Thank you.