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Practice Justice

Going to Court

Churches can show up to support defendants
by Faith+Lead | July 14, 2021

By Lisa Kloster

Kevin was in court on serious felony drug charges. I was his appointed lawyer. The charges he faced meant that he would be subject to a mandatory minimum prison sentence. Not local jail time but years in the Minnesota State Department of Corrections. We had a bad case and worked out the best deal we could, limiting the prison time.  

On the day of the sentencing hearing, I took a deep breath walking into the courthouse knowing that my client would have the sad goodbye—being handcuffed in the courtroom and taken into custody from the table sitting next to me. I was hoping his family would show up, but I was not counting on it. When I got to my client in the hallway, he stood with 12 people around him. His family and members from his church all came to support him. He asked me about not going to prison, and I told him he knew the agreement, he was going today. He smiled, put his arm around me and told me to “have faith” and ask for the departure. This denial of the circumstances did not help improve my weighted heart.  

The prosecutor then stopped me outside of the courtroom doors and asked who all the people were with my client, and I told him and offered him the chance to meet them. He then asked to talk privately with me. He asked if we could talk to the judge before the hearing. The prosecutor asked the judge to consider not sending my client to prison. The judge agreed to “bend the rules” if we could figure out a way to do it.  

The prosecutor got to speak first. He pointed out all the people that were there to support my client and that church members were in court that day. As I sat befuddled, the prosecutor went on to argue the positive attributes of my client! What was happening? I had little left to say when it was my turn but pointed out that my client wanted to go to Minnesota Teen Challenge treatment, a faith-based inpatient treatment program and that this courtroom full of group support would carry him toward the right path. The judge departed and my client, despite the high unlikelihood of this outcome, did not go to prison. I felt that there was a miracle happening, and I was only along for the ride. Maybe like a daydream or a memory of childhood, it washed over me. Kevin turned to me and said, “See. I told you. We all prayed on it.”

Someone cares

I have been working in the criminal court system as an attorney for over 25 years. I have done private criminal work where people hire and pay me to defend them, but most of my time is spent on public defender cases. I do believe that it is my faith calling. The court will appoint attorneys from the public defender’s office to represent “indigent” people in criminal court. We get a set salary, and the system continues to bury us in case after case, racking up many unpaid hours. We do not refuse to take cases. We do not choose our clients, and they do not choose us. It can be an overwhelming job, both legally and emotionally. My clients struggle with mental illness, addiction, abusive backgrounds, lack of income, homelessness, PTSD and lack of family support. Many clients have no support system at all.

I was shocked the first time, and still am amazed now, when I go to trial on a murder case and my client has no one in the courtroom with them. Not one auntie or brother will show up? Not for even one day of trial? Or an hour of trial? I want the jury to know that this person matters and that they are not just what the allegations say they are. It is a legal strategy for sure, but it is also a point of humanity. Does really no one care what is happening here? That this human is going to possibly be caged for the rest of their life? Colleagues have felt the same, and we routinely drop into courtrooms (while we are literally running from courtroom to courtroom handling our own calendars) during trial and prominently sit behind the defense table—choosing our side. By our presence, it’s as if we are wielding a sign that says someone cares. I have always wished we had funds to hire people to sit with us in court.  

Faith in a secular space

Although I am a very spiritual person and believe that my work is a calling to speak for those who do not have a voice and to speak up when the truth needs a hand, the court is generally a very secular place. It is part of the separation of church and state doctrines that we all learned in high school government class. I do not bring my faith into the courthouse in any viewable manner. And, for example, the court does not order conditions requiring a person to participate in faith-based programs.  

However, if a defendant broaches the subject of their own spirituality or interest in, say, faith-based treatment, nearly every time the court stops to listen. This pauses the rush of file over file, over file. They make note—this case is different. Without acknowledging it out loud, the court recognizes that religious people are more likely to change their bad ways, to make amends, and to follow court conditions.  

What can we do?

Anyone could be a support person in court—family, friends, co-workers—but many times my clients have none of these. Acting on your faith in the courthouse as a support person means more than you know. Even if you say nothing. When a church leader takes the time to just show up in court, they not only give the court a reason to rethink before imposing their punishment, but they also give that defendant something that most people in court do not have— someone to hold their hand, to chat with while waiting, to make it feel like they are not alone.  Whatever wrongs they may have done to bring them to this place, someone cares about them.  They are strengthened in dealing with what awaits them and they have a friend, not just a lawyer, who can hold the sign, “someone cares.”

How might your congregation mobilize to show up in court? Here are some first steps:

  • Consult any members of your congregation or partner congregations who work with the local courts to gain their input.
  • Take the stigma out of letting church members know when someone has a court date by talking about how we support one another in even these struggles, openly and often. Like taking a meal when a family has a member in the hospital, this can be how we support those going to court. 
  • Does your church have a mission to support “strangers” in court? What organizations do this work, who might connect you appropriately? 
  • Connect with a public defender’s office. Offices in MN, where I am located, now have Dispositional Advisors (one or two for all the attorneys to use) or law students that could assist in making connections when needed for their defendants

About the Author
Lisa Kloster is a practicing attorney in MN. She attended the University of MN Law School and graduated with Honors. She started working as a criminal defense lawyer in 1995 and is Certified by the Minnesota State Bar Association as a Criminal Law Specialist. She spends most of her work days in the courtroom and has defended adults and juveniles in everything from school bus-arm violations to murder charges.

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