By Christopher Zoukis
Sitting in the old wooden chair, I felt cold. I had been in this small, stark room inside the McDowell County Jail for twenty minutes, waiting for my attorney. To many the room wouldn’t be cold, but to someone wearing only a pair of orange scrubs it was. Today would include yet another visit with my attorney, a routine repeated so many times it was . . . well . . . routine. So when he entered I was unimpressed.
He extended his hand and I clasped it. Staring into his eyes I knew this was a formality not extended to all of his clients. I knew this because I knew some of his clients were neither pleasant nor hygienic. After sitting down, he divulged the reason for his visit. I was to sign the plea bargain that had been offered by the U.S. Attorney. A vice squeezed my chest. I couldn’t breathe. My left eyelid twitched wildly as my attorney looked at me with a tender, knowing gaze. A 22-year-old kid who was in way over his head.
He laid out the deal starting with the good news. The U.S. Attorney had agreed to drop a charge. This charge was a bogus one they knew they couldn’t prove. So far, they were only retracting a lie that couldn’t add any time to my sentence. I was less than thrilled but still hopeful.
I felt momentary optimism. If the U.S. Attorney was willing to negotiate, maybe he would see that I had acted like an idiot, not like a criminal. But I worried about the fact that my attorney hadn’t led with information on the amount of time, but with a charge that, even if retained, wouldn’t affect my sentencing.
His next statement crushed me. I looked into his eyes and barely dared to ask the question which had haunted me for 11 months: “How much?”
His brow furrowed and his eyes lowered as he mumbled, “Twenty years.”
My heart began a Fandango in my chest: thud, thud, thud. My stomach fell. Tears welled up in my eyes as I stared at him dumbfounded. How could someone who hadn’t harmed anyone receive so much time? What could I do?
“No better? Is there nothing to be done?” I pleaded.
He responded there was nothing more he could do.
“Maybe we should take it to trial?” I offered.
He said they would kill us. We had no real case. I asked for a moment to decide. I stepped out of the booth and into a holding cell to think. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Standing nearby, Cathy, the goodhearted sergeant, looked as if she wanted to help but didn’t know what to do.
Once in the cell, my body revolted and I threw up in a cold, metal toilet. Struggling to comprehend what had just taken place. I felt overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed. Twenty years to a twenty-two-year-old was a lifetime. How could I agree to go to prison until I was 42? My thoughts swirled crazily. It came down to two choices. I could sign the plea and go away for twenty years or go to trial and be crucified. Neither choice thrilled me. Neither felt real.
A third option existed, of course. It was always there but no one ever mentioned it. One so desperate and despicable that if I were a Catholic I would certainly go to hell: to snuff out my own light. But in crazy times, crazy solutions seem perfectly logical.
Back in the attorney’s booth, I read over the plea agreement; my mind struggled to comprehend the dense, callous language. Somehow I managed to rationalize the irrational. I managed to convince myself that this was only for today, that I wouldn’t make it to prison. Not that my mind would snap or that I’d have a heart attack, but that I wouldn’t allow it.
As my pen scrawled over the agreement, I felt as if I were signing my life away. A pain so deep gripped me that upon wiping the tears from my eyes I could only think of Christ with tears of blood. At that moment, I knew hurt, I knew hopelessness, and I knew despair. At age 22, I knew the Devil.
For what seemed like weeks, I lay there on my cold, hard bunk and willed myself to die. I felt like a disaster victim who couldn’t bear to pick up the pieces and rebuild. But the body has a way of fixing itself and the mind has a way of adjusting. After a time, life went on. In federal prison.
* * *
Looking back, I see that I made the right decision signing that plea agreement. In the end, I was sentenced to 151 months, not the full 20 years. With good behavior and enrolling in a program or two, I’m going to be out at 32, not 42.
When I survey the damage of my former life, I feel an odd sort of detachment. To me, that was then and this is now. Then I was a confused boy. Now I’m an accomplished writer, teacher, and legal commentator. Back then I was a high school dropout, a failure. Now I’m a college student with a 4.0 GPA. I suppose that it’s hard for those who have not gone through this to understand. But for me, life goes on and it goes on well. To tell you the truth, I haven’t been this content in years. I only hope I stay this way for a long time. Not in prison, but contented.
The moment I signed my plea bargain, I felt as if my life was over. But instead, I began a new life.