I found out yesterday that Kemal died.
When I Google his name now, the first thing that comes up is a Gothamist headline: “6 Men Fatally Shot in Violent Start to Weekend.” I learned that “At 2:50 p.m., 28-year-old Kemal Haddock* was found at Spender Place and Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant with several gunshot wounds to his body; Haddock, who lived on Jefferson Avenue between Bedford and Nostrand Avenues, was taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.”
And, according to the New York Post, “An ex-con was gunned down in Bed-Stuy, authorities said yesterday. Kemal Haddock, 28, was hanging out at a building on Spencer Place near Fulton Street at 2:50 p.m. Friday when gunshots rang out, cops said. The victim was shot several times and rushed to Interfaith Hospital, where he died, police said. Haddock previously served a stint in state prison for selling drugs, records show. Police did not know what sparked the violence and no arrests have been made.”
Kemal was my client this past summer, when I worked as a legal intern in the Criminal Division of The Legal Aid Society in Queens. He was arrested in May and charged with felony criminal contempt. The mother of his child had an order of protection against him, and Kemal was arrested when she showed up at his doorstep, and an altercation ensued. Unable to make bail and without a resource in the world, Kemal was in jail until we could negotiate a deal for him. I worked on his case from beginning to end.
I met Kemal, or Mr. Haddock as I called him, on one of my first days of work. We first met in the Pens under the courthouse. As a petite 24-year-old woman, I’d often get catcalled as I walked through the Pens, looking for my client, but Kemal was very respectful. As we talked, our goal emerged, and it was simple: get him out as fast as possible, but make sure the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) agreed to maintain Kemal’s visitation rights for his son, La-El. During one court appearance, the ADA tried to place a two-year order of protection against Kemal on behalf of his son. Kemal broke down crying in the courtroom.
After some negotiation, the ADA agreed that Kemal could plead to a lessened misdemeanor charge, and be released if he agreed to participate in an anger management and batterer’s intervention program. She would also let him see his son.
We subpoenaed Kemal’s records from the NYC Board of Education. Reading them, I learned that Kemal’s mother had died of alcoholism when he was still in elementary school, and that his father had left him with a family friend one day when he went out of state for a funeral and never came back. Kemal had lost touch with all of his siblings, or they had passed away. He was declared “mentally retarded” in one of his psychological evaluations, and received consistent low marks for insight and judgment. He was in an out of Juvenile Detention homes as an adolescent. He had been out and clean for a couple of years now, with no criminal charges. He was extremely frustrated to find himself in this cycle again.
Throughout the summer, Kemal and I spoke face to face in the Pens or through a video conference while he was at Riker’s Island. One time, Kemal was having a particularly bad day.
The day before, he was supposed to have come to the Courthouse to take his plea, but he didn’t show up. I finally got in touch with him, and he told me that he had been on lockdown, because other prisoners had gotten into a fight, and prison authorities thought that he was involved. Through the video, I could see that he had new cuts on his face. I tried to talk him through it, telling him that he should to go his cell and read for the day and try not to talk to anyone, because he was now less than 24 hours from release.
He got out the next day. He didn’t have a phone, so I gave him my number at work so he could figure out when and how to come to the Legal Aid office to meet with his social worker so he could start on his programs. He called later that week to coordinate and thank me. “Thank you,” he said, “I can tell you’re going to be a real good lawyer one day”.
And for the Kemals of the world, I really hope I can be a real good lawyer one day. I struggled with whether to go into public interest or corporate work after I graduate. It’s not just the financial incentives that draw me to the corporate world. I’ll admit it: it’s the easy way out. It’s easy to be adversarial when you’re fighting over huge amounts of money. It’s less easy to be adversarial when you’re fighting about someone’s life. And once you’ve seen a grown man and stranger cry over seeing his kid, it’s not just about some criminal’s life. The accused has a face and a story. He has feelings and goals. And struggling to defend someone like that, who has the world stacked against him, is emotionally draining and painful.
After Kemal was released, my supervisor, who has been a devoted Legal Aid Criminal Defense staff attorney for almost thirty years now, told me that our work was done. After the case is settled, the attorney steps away. There’s nothing else that we can do, and we just have to hope that the client makes the right choices. But it’s almost impossible for someone like Kemal to make those choices. And that’s where the work gets tough. Some people think that the hardest part about public defense work is the clients. But I’m sure that the clients I had this summer will be some of the most grateful I’ll have in my career. The most difficult thing for me about public defense work is the helplessness that I felt as a legal advocate trying to help Kemal It’s always too late. And now La-El Haddock, less than a year old, will be raised fatherless as well. It’s a never-ending cycle that we as a society have to do something to break. I’m not sure what that is, but I hope I’m strong enough to help. And for Kemal, I’m going to do my best and try to be “real good”.
Note: Names have been changed as attorney-client privilege extends even after the death of a client.
The author is a young professional living in New York City.
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