Judges, especially in the criminal courts, see folks and experiences that would be incomprehensible to the average everyday person. In the course of a term of office, you can see hundreds of defendants with an astonishing and sometimes disturbing array of backgrounds and situations that ultimately bring them into your courtroom. Some easily retreat into the back of your mind once the case is done and some just linger with you for years. Not always so much for their criminality, although that can be a factor, but rather, for the human connection that can unexpedtedly occur in the unexpected setting of criminal proceedings.
Dionne was one of those people. I met her again recently, at an awards banquet for my Soroptimist Club in Honolulu. Our Oahu Soroptimist Clubs hold an annual banquet each March to celebrate the winners of our Live Your Dream Awards. These are monetary awards given to female heads of households who are returning to school, usually in the midst of challenging circumstances. We held it in March this year, but one of the winners, Dionne, could not attend because her mother had just passed away. I attended the event, as I always do and saw the picture of the woman in the program, but it was one of those dark random pictures people don’t expect to have to use for a photo shoot but then it is too late to find another. Plus, the last name was not the same either, or I would have surely remembered.
Instead, our club president, Denise, invited her and another winner to come to our club meeting to receive their awards ($7,000.00) I arrived a bit late so when I entered the meeting room at the Pacific Club, the tables were arranged so that the attendees could see each other, but I only saw their backs as I entered. So, I just quickly took a seat and began chatting with my table mate, Miranda, as the waiter brought out my lunch. I was munching away on my salad as the program began while Denise, our president, introduced the first speaker. I did not fully hear the introduction as I was still chatting and munching away, but my attention turned when she began to speak.
She had a strong,deeply resonant voice, and was incredibly poised and comfortable in her own skin as shared her literal lifetime of sexual violence directed at her by her own family members. She paused, just to say she would begin at the beginning, and occasionally took a deep breath as we sat in shock, forks paused in disbelief at some of the horrific events she shared. She did not whimper or tear up,but spoke in such a forceful manner that the tone of her voice triggered a memory for me. I had heard that strength and resolve before. I asked another club member, Sue, what was her name and she said “Dionne”. She looked familiar to me but the last name was different. The more she spoke about her experiences and her decision to continue the criminality that led to her imprisonment — it hit me! I remembered the details of her abuse…I know this woman! I whispered to Miranda “I know her.” I was the judge who had sentenced her to prison for five years.
She then shared where she is now. She brought her 14 year old daughter with her, who is an excellent student and clearly familiar with her mom’s path. Her daughter was born while she was incarcerated and she had given birth in shackles. Still, her fierce sense of determination (even to committ “survival crime” not sex, mind you, but real scheming stuff) had impressed me then, too.
I made eye contact with her again, just to assure myself that it was indeed her — she glanced at me with just a hint of recognition but she did not stop making her presentation. At one point she wanted to pursue becoming a doctor, but was deterred by the fact that her drug use and convictions would have prevented her from getting a license to prescribe drugs (true), so she chose veterinary school (another trait I remembered about her). But the voice, strong and deep and forceful and with a slight hint of self-deprecation and wicked humor. That’s what I remembered about her. At the time of her court appearances, she was about the same age as my oldest daughter, who was then in college. Dionne had the same fire and spunk my own daughter had, but had just not had the same advantages, and had lived in a vastly different environment.
She looked at me again and the spark of recognition hit — I knew her, she knew me! I had sent her to the prison she talked about and here she was getting ready to graduate from UH-Manoa! In the fourteen years since I left the bench she had done an amazing turnaround with her life. We hugged as she called me her “Favorite Judge!” But, I said, “Dionne, I sent you to prison!” We were all in tears cheering her on.
She had chosen a life of criminality as if to demand society’s atonment for the sins it had committed upon her early life. I readily recalled her several court appearances before me — she was always direct, articulate and outspoken, yet respectful. The reasons she gave for her numerous laxes in following the probation requirements were frank and honest. She was required to keep an address-she left because she was being molested. She could get, but could not keep a job because ofher criminal record. She was homeless, hungry and had no income or place to stay, so she stole. Her attorney, Val Vargo, since deceased, made strong representations for her but Dionne, quite frankly, could hold her own. In the end, after several probation revocations hearings, I had to sentence her to the term . She knew it was coming and accepted it as her responsibility. I remembered that,too. In retrospect, prison,in her case, saved rather than destroyed her life. I did not know that she was pregnant at the time and she shared with us that she gave birth to her daughter as an inmate shackled to the hospital bed surrounded by guards. As though she could have escaped.
After the meeting, we laughed and chatted for a bit. She introduced me to her daughter, a delightful and engaging 8th grader. Going to prison,she said, saved her life, literally. Living the tough street life which she had to create, can kill the soul, and ultimately, the person. While our system had torn her youth to shreds, there were still key individualts who were willing to make the repairs necessary to mend her life. A prison guard who steered her to an educational program, Salvation Army’s excellent Women’s Way program. Even her “attorney friends” as she referred to them, who advised her that her dream of being a physicial might be stifled by her drug convicions, and thus suggested veterinarian school instead. And now, there was this group of Soroptimist members, willing to pony up real money so she could complete her studies and “live her dream”.
I plan to attend her graduation in December from the University of Hawai’i. She is working with a program that engages Native Hawaiian youth in STEM programs,and wants to someday create a program to help young people from underprivileged backgrounds. She gives motivational talks with drug treatment programs. She thinks we might make a good team, she laughed. “The judge and the inmate.” Yeah, that might just work