Being a criminal lawyer is a unique and privileged existence. You don’t just meet people, you experience them. It is true that, often, you experience them during some of their darkest and most troubled times. But you also see men and women as they really are. Criminal practice isn’t all doom and gloom; it is rich with humour, wonder, and even joy. The people you experience, your clients and witnesses, bring the practice of law to life. And sometimes, only sometimes, a person seeps into you. Their story breaks free and touches down in your mind. It is not washed away with the waves of humanity crashing through your life. Some stories stick.
Recently, one of those stories rushed back to the forefront of my mind. I had parked my car on St. Mary and was wandering slowly through downtown on my way to lunch with friends. As I crossed the street I was approached by a man looking for money. Though a few years had passed, it wasn’t hard to recognize Joey. His life was etched painfully on his face. The years of giving and receiving abuse had exacted their toll. Joey is probably forty-five, but he wears the mask of the elderly.
There was no doubt Joey was drunk, or high, or both. The intoxicant might have been bought in the liquor store or on the street. Worse still, it may have come from the hardware store. It didn’t matter. Whatever Joey had taken that day served its purpose. It quieted the voices in his head. The drug of choice had taken effect and the day’s work of panhandling was well under way.
It didn’t take long for Joey to make the connection. Even with the gears well oiled, Joey knew one of his lawyers. I wondered how many lawyers Joey had since his first flirtation with the justice system thirty years ago? A dozen? Maybe more. Joey still lived up north back then. He was raised in a fly-in community a long way from Winnipeg. The name of the community was all too familiar in the courts. Its footprint in the justice system far greater than its size or population should warrant. The usual cadre of words were paraded in its description: damaged, forgotten, colonization, lack of opportunity, suicide, despair. Every time a lawyer stood up for Joey, these words fell like rain.
Joey became a man in that community. Like many before him, he drank. He drank a lot. Parties were measured in days not hours. People damaged themselves and others. One night, a teenage Joey spent some time chatting to a young woman at a house party. For whatever reason, another man at the party took exception and wanted to teach Joey a lesson. Soaked in drink, the jealous man pointed a shotgun at Joey’s head and pulled the trigger. Joey didn’t remember much after that. The nursing station, the med-evac, the operating theatre and the hospital stay melted into a lost era. Joey survived his teenage years on the reserve. Just.
With a brain injury and congenital mental health problems, good decision making presents a challenge many of us simply cannot comprehend. Like so many before him, he made Winnipeg his home. It was more a function of inevitability than choice. The path from the north of the province to the north end of Winnipeg was well travelled. Like all of us, Joey carried his life experience with him. It was heavy with addictions, abuse and childhood horrors. The voices of his past became the soundtrack of his future.
Through this tangle of troubles, Joey lived. He made a home and fell in love. I knew the story of his wife’s life and death the first time Joey and I met. I was an anxious articling student sitting in the visiting room at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, waiting for my next client to be brought down. He wasn’t my first that day and he certainly wouldn’t be my last. The conveyer belt was always full. Joey wanted bail. Everyone wanted bail.
Joey told me about his charges. He was accused of beating up a woman, his current partner. He didn’t want to talk about her though. He wanted to talk about his wife. The love of his life; a woman from his past. Joey had beaten her too. Not once or twice. He related to her in the way he had been taught. Violence was part of the package. Joey knew it was wrong, the court had told him so, time and time again. But hurting others was part of the web now. Inseparable from the alcohol and feelings of pain.
His wife was dead. He told me how he had come home, years before, and found her. She was in the closet, hanging. Joey cut her down and held her. She was still alive and he called for help. He desperately tried to support her head, holding it up in a way her crushed neck no longer could. The love of his life died in Joey’s arms. I wondered if he thought about his role in her suicide. If he wanted to take back the abuse and the pain. I didn’t ask him. I didn’t need to; the answer was carved into his face.
Despite his criminal record and his seeming inability to abide by court orders, Joey was released on bail. The judge had rolled the dice but Joey wasn’t good for it. Within a couple of weeks, he was back in custody and we went to work preparing for his trial. Joey was emphatic in his denials of wrongdoing. He didn’t hit women; she was a liar. Each time we would meet, Joey would add layers to his incredible story. His damaged family, the devastation of suicide and the dreadfulness of abuse. He was a survivor of Canada’s shame.
The day of trial came and went. The victim testified and Joey was convicted. He was nice enough after the verdict to admit his factual guilt to me. This wasn’t a wrongful conviction. He had hit his partner, like the many before her. Joey was looking at a significant sentence, possibly a few years in jail because of his horrible record of similar behaviour. He was disappointed but far from devastated. He knew the rules in jail. He got to see the doctor and it was easier to stay on his meds. Joey was doing life on the installment plan.
Joey drew and he painted. His art allowed him to speak in ways his upbringing never allowed. He could love freely and be secure. His work was nothing short of exquisite. It honoured his indigenous heritage and ignited his love of culture and people. His artwork spoke of the power inherent in his community. A power suppressed and wounded by generations of systemic racism and abuse, yet still alive and real.
These stories raced through my mind as Joey and I stood on the street corner catching up. He gave me a hug, pulling me close and mumbling about whatever was on his mind. I didn’t understand everything he said but it didn’t matter. I gave him what little change I had and we hugged again. I wanted to ask him so much. How was he doing? Where was he living and with whom? Was he still seeing the community mental health team? Had he been back to jail? Talk got in the way of business though and Joey had already moved on to his next prospective client.
There was something about Joey that mattered. It is the same thing that matters in all of us. Our stories, our experiences, our highs and lows. Lawyers get to see these things up close. They are invited into people’s lives and they stay for a while. They experience their clients in order to advocate for them. It is a position of immense privilege that binds the profession together. My life is richer for knowing Joey and learning about his story. It is the story of this region and of this country. We have all contributed to Joey’s path. I try to remember that when strangers ask me for money downtown.