Monday, October 5, 2009


I was working at the dining-room table this morning when the doorbell rang; it was the mail carrier, who needed me to sign for a package. He handed me the rest of the mail and I flipped casually through it--the usual bills, junk mail, magazine-subscription renewal forms, and thin white envelope, addressed by hand.

I had a fleeting moment of sheer pleasure--a real hand-written letter!--until I saw the return address: the Colorado Department of Corrections.

It was from a former student of mine--one of my favorite students from the university I used to teach at, actually--with whom I'd kept in touch for over a decade. I'll call him M.

M. had been in the very first folklore class I taught at my previous job, and was one of those people who develops an instant passion for the subject. At that point, he was a naive enough undergrad to ask me quite seriously as we were about to start on the folklore collection project whether one needed a license to do fieldwork. He was so earnest I couldn't even laugh. But it endeared him to me forever.

Over the years and long after he graduated, we kept up a steady e-mail correspondence. M. is one of those people who seems to get every joke, urban legend, and chain letter sent to him, and he faithfully forwarded them on to me, since--ironically--I'm not one of those people. We'd often write back and forth about the context in which he'd heard a joke, or the differences between one variant of a legend and another.

About four years ago, M. decided to go back to school to get his master's degree in education and get certificated to teach high-school English. I wrote him a gushing recommendation letter, and our correspondence widened to include discussions about English education. Always tech-savvy, M. was interested in the remarkable facility students had for code-switching back and forth between text language and standard English, and we had lots of interesting discussions about ways that might be incorporated into the classroom.

We lost touch for a year or two around the end of my time in Colorado and my move to West Virginia. Then a year or so ago a student here e-mailed me a legend that reminded me of one M. had sent me years ago, but with an interesting twist. I dug out M.'s e-mail address and forwarded it to him. I figured by this time, he'd have settled into a full-time teaching job somewhere, so I asked him how things were going and said that I had no doubt he was doing well, since he had so much promise as a teacher.

The message I got back left me stunned. The previous spring, a student on the cross-country team he coached accused him of sexual assault. He'd been summarily fired and brought up on criminal charges. It didn't look good, he told me.

I had no doubt then, and no doubt now, that M. did not commit the crime he was accused of. I know him well, and it is just out of the question. I wrote a letter to the judge in his case to vouch for M.'s charaacter, and to plead for leniency.

Over the last few months, I've heard from M. occasionally, and he steadfastly skirted the issue of how things were going. I know he was trying to protect others from his misery, but I felt anxious for him.

So. The letter today was from him. In it, he explained that his lawyer told him he'd be better off making a plea agreement than going to trial. Instead of granting leniency, the judge handed down the maximum sentence: 12 years in prison. Though he's eligible to be in a minimum-security facility, overcrowding in those places got him sent to a medium-security institution over three hours from Denver, so he has very few visitors. He's hoping his case will be reconsidered. He told me he plans to study prison lore as a way to stay focused.

I wanted to throw up when I finished reading. But I had to go in to work in the advising office, where a mopey-looking student told me he was sad because his favorite NFL team lost yesterday. I wanted to slap him upside the head. At least he could walk out the door into the blue brightness of a beautiful October afternoon. At least he'd been rejected from WVU's teacher-education program, so he'll never have to worry about his life being derailed, and his freedoms taken away, for something he didn't do.

Since the letter was addressed to Tom, too, I left it on the table. When I got home, Tom greeted me with the same look of shock and horror I'm sure was on my face after I read M.'s letter. We talked about how scary it is that everything can be taken away from you so suddenly, how quickly life can devolve into a total nightmare, and a lot of other things that will all sound too banal if I try to put them into words.

But I'll tell you: I feel sobered and cynical in a way I never thought possible--and I'm here on the outside.


Jane said...

Rosemary, I was riveted.
My heart sunk when I got to the information about the plea bargain and his sentence.
Oh my god.

I told my office mates about it.

Catherine Zoerb said...

I don't know what to say. That's just horrifying. Sadly, I lost faith in the justice system ages ago. I hope I never have to stand before it.

Rosemary said...

Thanks so much, Jane and Catherine. As you both know, this is not the kind of post I usually put on the blog, but this was one of those situations where I felt like if I didn't write about it and tell others the story, I'd go crazy.

I was so worried people would respond with snarky comments, like "What if he's guilty?" I can't even entertain that possibility at the moment, and I don't think it's because I'm in denial. In my gut, I know he couldn't be. End of story.

It's also made me think in a broader sense about all the other folks who are wrongly imprisoned--or detained. All those people at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and all those damn "secret facilities" located god-knows-where.

And I think about how relieved I used to be when I'd get called for jury duty and then didn't have to serve because there'd been a plea agreement before the case could go to trial. If the foundation of our justice system is the right to a trial by a jury of one's peers, that sure seems to happen in only a small minority of cases.


The one continuity I *have* thought about in terms of the blog's content is that this IS another blog about letters, and the power of correspondence, which has been a recurring theme here.

So, I figure the best I can do is to put my pen where my mouth is and be a faithful correspondent to M., even though I know I'll dread seeing those envelopes in my mailbox. And at least he's a smart, articulate guy--I suppose that writing in and of itself might be a way to hold on to one's sanity in that situation.

Still: cold comfort. But I thank you both for your empathy and your good karma!

Pam said...

Sigh, so much for our system of innocent until proven guilty. My closer relationship to the legal system is that those who got the money to get the best lawyer win. I'm so sorry... This it the kind of situation that sometimes makes me wonder why we do what we do and how quickly it can be snatched away.

Rosemary said...

Pam, that was my thought exactly--that if he could've hired a high-power attorney, the story might be very different. So much for equal justice under the law. But we all knew that was a charade, anyway.

Off to take my anti-cynicism meds now...