Letters from Berkeley

BY ALLISON MARGOLIN

This morning, at Piedmont Alternative School, Berkeley, Calif.; I teach my high school senior class a little bit about child abuse and neglect and then assign them an exercise in which they have to consider whether a mother is neglecting her child. The mother is going through rehab for an unnamed substance, along with her boyfriend, but her boyfriend’s friends still come over to the apartment — moonlighting as a shooting gallery — where the child lives. Should the mother be found to be neglecting her child? If so, what should the consequences be?

Most people I know haven’t thought about this. I get to make these 17-year-olds think about it, before they even graduate high school. They are already more evolved than I am in many ways, but now I get to make them evolve a little more. Of course, I wonder how I’m going to get them to go beyond considering discrete situations and radically change the way they formulate their opinions.

The juniors and seniors are mulling over this one. There are many who are confident that the mother is neglecting the child. But then I ask them if they would feel the same way if the substance named were alcohol or cigarettes. I ask them if it is a quality of the drug that helps them so easily find neglect, or if it is the social consequences that surround the drug’s use. They actually question their beliefs.

This is not the first time that many of them find themselves completely reversing positions in a day, and I am excited that I’ve made them challenge themselves, using a version of the Socratic method that more consciously motivates self-challenge without the intimidation factor that buries learning in so many law school classes.

1:30 p.m.: Superior Court, Oakland, Calif.: As I leave an aggravating circumstances hearing, I overhear a conversation between a retired court watcher and a witness I just saw testify.

I had the unfortunate horror of seeing the witness testify about a fight the convict got in with a guy who apparently thought his insults wouldn’t be overheard. It seemed like the prosecutor was presenting this testimony, of a fight that occurred because on an “unheard” comment, to show that the convict is too aggressive to be kept among others. As I sat there dismayed by the absurdity of the whole proceeding, I wondered how much of it the jurors even heard.

Coming out of the courtroom, I am greeted by these men, the court watcher and witness, and listen to them discuss how the convict’s sentence — death or life without parole — should be based on whether his appearance suggests he knows he did something wrong. The witness is saying how the convict looks angry sitting there. He’s not crying.

I ask the witness how old the convict is. From what I gathered while talking to his defense lawyer, and by watching him during the proceeding, I thought he might be around my age, 24. The witness, who for some reason had the convict’s stats, said, “I don’t know. Thirties? He was born in September 1974.”

I realized just how important it might be to have a jury of your peers. Not because this man did not commit a heinous immoral act … but because his life hung in the balance of people who are probably like the witness and his side-kick: They can’t listen to all the evidence, so they’ll project their own feelings about what the defendant is thinking.

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