Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Story Up at City Arts(!) and Other Musings

First things first, a short story of mine, Mitigation Report 1, is now up on the City Arts magazine website. It has also been published as an excerpt in the print version of the magazine. For those unfamiliar with City Arts, it is a monthly arts magazine devoted to covering Seattle, Tacoma, and the Eastside. It's free for the taking, and widely distributed around the Seattle metropolitan area. I am pretty excited to be published in its pages. As I like to say, it has all the quality (free!) arts coverage of a publication like The Stranger, but without the snark. Last month, their cover story focused on letterpressing and the mad, brilliant folks who still painstakingly set type on vintage machines in order to craft something more personal in our digital age. Good stuff. This month's cover story focuses on the Seattle International Film Festival. Give it a gander, and click on the link above to check out my story.

Speaking of my story, a link on the right side of this page can take you to an audio file of me reading Mitigation Report 1 last year at Castalia, a UW-sponsored reading series at local literary center, Richard Hugo House. As I explain in my preamble to the story, I was inspired to write this particular short short by the work I have been doing this past year as a legal assistant for a criminal defense attorney. Legal work requires the (oftentimes tedious) organization of reams and reams of documents. This often includes mitigation documents.

I was unfamiliar with the idea of "mitigation" in the legal sense until taking my current position, but the presentation of mitigation evidence in a criminal trial often forms a crucial aspect of what is called the "sentencing phase." At this point, the jury has already returned a guilty verdict, but the presentation of evidence is not over for the prosecutor, or the defense attorney. Now, evidence is presented that mitigates against the seriousness of the crime and attempts to elicit some mercy from the jury or judge before a sentence is returned. In a capital case, this element of the trial proves especially important, as garnering sympathy or understanding from the jury can quite literally be a matter of life or death.

In these high-profile capital trials, a mitigation expert will often be retained by defense counsel. This expert completes the work of obtaining voluminous documents from all stages of a client's past -- from childhood to adulthood. These social history records comprise everything from birth certificates, to records of child abuse and institutionalization, to adult correctional facility records. The mitigation expert then crafts a kind of story from these records and attempts to ask, and answer, the question: Who is this person who sits before you for judgment? How might he/she have arrived here, in this courtroom?

Although it would be inappropriate of me to comment on the mitigation records I have reviewed for specific clients, I will say that as a writer, I find them extremely compelling. In these photocopies are the stories of children running away from home, being abused, lashing out, begging for help. In short, they are the story of a life. Reading them puts me, and I would imagine a jury member, in the interesting position of seeing two people: a person who has been found guilty of a heinous crime, and that person as a child; an innocent who will be formed by the experience he or she encounters -- formed, and perhaps hardened and twisted beyond repair. It was with these two people in mind that I composed this story, interspersing the "official" language of state and legal agencies to add an institutional flavor to the collage piece.

This is what I find amazing about legal work: at its base, it is the messy stuff of life itself. Children growing up; parents making mistakes; the state often tragically late in coming to the aid of those in need. Since taking this job, I have thought a lot more about what it means to be merciful, what it means to "condemn" a person, and the conflict inherent in despising someone's acts, while understanding (partially at least) how they came to the juncture where the act was committed. In short, I have had to negotiate my relationship to that child, and to that child as an adult.

Oh, and speaking of archives and records, I have now begun sorting through a collection of beautiful old letters and photographs and postcards, most pre-dating 1930, that belong to my mother's family. I hope to blog about this in the future, and perhaps write some flash fiction about the experience of cataloging these family records...


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