Thick walnut doors pronounced the entrance to the already majestic chambers of the Honorable Leonard Harvey IV. Stepping through the open doorway, the grandeur of the room engulfed us—the temperature taking our breaths away. Bookcases reached from the floor to the ceiling on opposing walls, crammed with extraordinarily thick black and brown legal books, stamped in gold and silver foil. In the middle of the room stretched a regal mahogany table spanning almost the entire length of the room. Plush, high-back leather chairs lined its sides—as if standing at attention. The setting felt straight out of the movies.
A shiver ran up my spine, a surreal feeling washing over my senses. This is happening, I mused, staring at my surroundings. We’re meeting with a real-life judge. The fate of my future happens here. Tugging on my navy blue sweater, I closed it around my neck, shivering a second time. I then rubbed at my biceps, warding off the cold that had begun to penetrate my bones.
“Miss Blythe, this way, please.” Mr. Warren Peters, our attorney, ushered me to a seat at the end of the long table, opposite of where the judge would be seated. Dad sat to my left and Mom just beyond him.
A tall man in his late thirties, Mr. Peters wore a three-piece, jet-black business suit and matching dress shoes. It enhanced his dark brown, slicked-back hair and rich Aspen cologne. Placing a dark Italian leather briefcase on the table to the right of me, he unlatched its contents and pulled out a fat manila folder. Securely closing the case, he slid it under the table next to his chair and sat down. Leaning across me, he handed a multi-page document to Dad.
“This is what I was talking to you about earlier today during our phone conversation,” Mr. Peters referenced the papers in front of Dad. “You’ll find everything is in there, just like we discussed.” I searched Dad’s face for an explanation, but his emotions remained as impenetrable as Fort Knox.
Visually scanning what appeared to be an eight-page document, Dad nodded slowly. Clearing his throat, he shifted his attention to me. “Hope, Mr. Peters, here, has been working on a proposition to present to the courts this afternoon. He’s been researching an alternative to going to trial, and I think this might work—at least it will if the judge agrees to it.”
I tugged on my white blouse, suddenly aware of the loose wrinkles down the front. “I don’t understand,” I answered, squirming under perceived scrutiny. “What is this?” I touched the edge of the paper then shoved my hands under my legs to keep them from shaking.
“It’s like this…,” Mr. Peters began.
A loud creaking at the opposite end of the room brought an abrupt end to our conversation. The door swung open, and the court bailiff stepped inside. “Announcing the Honorable Leonard Harvey IV. All rise,” his deep voice boomed. Chairs scraped the floor, and everyone popped to their feet.
A large, stocky Caucasian man in a black flowing robe appeared from around the corner. His round face turned into rolls of fat under his chin, and perspiration covered his brow and dampened his sparse head of hair. He slid one of his chubby fingers around the neckline of his shirt, adjusting the collar and clearing his throat as he made his way to his chair. Giving a sweeping glance around the room, he pulled out the chair at the far end of the table and stoically sat down. “You may be seated.” Looking at the bailiff, he motioned for the door to be closed. The bailiff promptly obliged while the rest of us took our seats.
The judge shifted his weight, tugging at his robe until it fell loosely around him. He then reached for a file being held by the court clerk and grunted some miscellaneous acknowledgements while perusing the pages through his bifocals. “Mmhmm. OK. I see.” Finally, looking up from the paperwork, he made eye contact with Mr. Peters and announced, “It looks like we have a situation here.”
Mr. Peters wetted his lips and nodded. “Yes, Sir. That’s why we’re here. Attorney Warren Peters on behalf of the Blythe family,” he added.
“Thank you, Mr. Peters,” the judge acknowledged. “Let me start by seeing if I understand things correctly.” He took a handkerchief and dabbed at the beads of sweat on his forehead and under his chin before continuing. Looking at Mom and Dad, he returned to his notes, scooting his glasses to the tip of his nose. “I’m guessing that Mr. Peters has already notified you that Mrs. Davis appeared in front of me a few days ago.” He peered over his lenses. Mom and Dad nodded. I didn’t move.
“My staff and I still aren’t sure how she manipulated her way into my personal chambers,” he admitted, “but, the fact is, she did; and since she’s had personal time with me outside of a normal hearing, the court deems it only fair that you have equal time, as well.” He glanced over at Mr. Peters, securing a reply.
Mr. Peters nodded. “That is the news as we heard it,” he confirmed.
“That being said,” the judge continued, “it’s my understanding after talking with Mrs. Davis that she and her husband believe Hope Blythe—your daughter—sexually abused their daughter, six-year-old Alicia Davis, while babysitting her a few months ago. Is that correct?” He looked over his bifocals a second time, eyeing the adults in front of him.
“Yes, Sir,” Mr. Peters answered on our behalf. “That is what we also understand Mrs. Davis to believe; but her belief is not factual, and it holds no truth. My client has in no way abused Alicia Davis. That is where the problem lies.” He straightened in his chair and adjusted his tie. “Mrs. Davis is acting on the presumption that my client is guilty of some sort of heinous crime, and she has made Miss Blythe a scapegoat for an issue that lies somewhere other than with this family.” He maintained a professional tone as he spoke.
The judge glanced my direction. “Continue,” he encouraged, looking back at Mr. Peters.
“Sir, the Blythe family has been persecuted by Mrs. Davis and her husband repeatedly over the past several weeks during Mrs. Davis’ vendetta for justice. Mrs. Davis has stalked the Blythe children at school—outside, inside, and on the playground; she’s spread lies about the family amongst mutual friends—slandering their reputation and defaming Hope’s character; and she has verbally threatened the family’s physical safety and security, as well.” Mr. Peters paused for dramatic effect. “Most recently, Mrs. Davis bombarded HRS with phone calls, attempting to have Julia, the Blythes’ youngest daughter, removed from their home. We are concerned to what lengths Mrs. Davis will go and fear what future harm she will bring this family. She has already proven that she will stop at nothing to get her way—with or without the court’s help.”
The judge remained intent on listening.
“Your Honor,” Mr. Peters continued, “the victims here are the Blythes, not Mrs. Davis and her family. We understand Mrs. Davis’ concern for her daughter, but any perceived or actual harm that has come to the child was not at the hands of my client.” He sighed deeply. “The families haven’t seen each other in weeks; and the children haven’t been alone together in months. There is no possible way my client is even remotely responsible for what Mrs. Davis is accusing her of.”
Mr. Peters watched for a reaction from the judge then proceeded. “We are here today to ask that the courts intervene and put an end to the Davis’ harassment of this fine, upstanding family. The only thing they can be found guilty of is befriending this mentally unstable woman.”
The judge nodded, absorbing Mr. Peter’s words. “Note taken.”
“May I?” Mr. Peters stood and extended a document to the bailiff, gesturing that the bailiff hand it to the judge.
“You may,” the judge answered. We all waited while the bailiff retrieved the document and walked it to the other end of the table. Mr. Peters then sat back down. Receiving the paperwork, the judge thumbed through the pages, skimming its content. “This looks like a proposal,” he replied, studying the front page closely.
“Yes, Sir. I have spoken with Hope and her family, and I believe Miss Blythe truly understands the seriousness of the matter at hand, but neither her family nor myself believe it is in the best interest of anyone involved that this case go to trial. The Blythe family is willing to work with the courts in aiding a quick end to a very big misunderstanding.”
The judge made eye contact with me before answering. “Miss Blythe, are you aware of the charges being brought against you by the Davis family?”
I sat straight in my seat, broadening my shoulders. “Yes, Sir.” My voice cracked. I cleared my throat and tried again. “I mean, yes, Sir.”
“You realize that child abuse in any form, on any level, is a criminal offense, and your situation is a very serious matter not to be taken lightly?” Exactness controlled his voice, his gaze equally unyielding.
“Yes, Sir,” I nodded.
“And do you still plead ‘not guilty’ to all these charges being brought against you today?” He looked down at the list of allegations in his file, then back at me.
“Yes, Sir. I have never abused Alicia Davis. She’s like a sister to me. I wish her no harm.” I swallowed hard, loosening the lump in my throat as the judge shifted his weight on his chair.
“Judge, if I may?” Mr. Peters interrupted, returning to his feet.
The judge eyed our eager attorney. “Yes, Mr. Peters?”
“I’d like to bring to your attention the fact that Hope does not have a criminal past. She also has never had any formal complaints against her, prior to the Davis family’s accusations; and, she is an upstanding citizen—very well liked in her school—by teachers and classmates alike.” He donned a charming smile and looked to me for emphasis. “Her grades are top of the class; and, if you look closely, you’ll realize her profile doesn’t match that of a sex offender. That’s not who she is.” Mr. Peters paused to allow the judge to speak.
“I’m quite aware of that, Mr. Peters. Thank you for the insight, however. You may have a seat.”
“Your Honor.” Mr. Peters held his tie to his stomach and sat back down.
The judge’s response had been short, his expression indecipherable, but he had listened. I released a slow sigh.
“I’ve been reviewing your case, Miss Blythe, and I must tell you, this is a very unusual scenario—even for us to be sitting here today talking like this.” The judge looked directly at me as he shared his thoughts, his serious countenance dominating the moment. “I don’t usually take personal appointments, but under the circumstances, I chose to make an exception. I agree with Mr. Peters that a trial would not be in the best interest of all parties involved; and a long, drawn-out process would only serve to injure the self-esteem and any goodness left within the children affected by this situation. The court’s overall effect would be lost on your impressionable minds, and we would’ve given up all purpose for which the judicial system has been established.
“Due to the serious nature of this case, however,” he continued, “I am going to accept the proposal that your attorney, Mr. Peters, has presented to this court this afternoon, as I feel it will help you understand what consequences will be yours should you continue into a life of crime. You need to be made aware that actions have real consequences, and that this court takes those actions and your decisions very seriously.” His eyes bore deeply into mine, making an impression like only one in authority can do.
I nodded but didn’t say a word.
“Prosecution Alternative for Youth—also known as the PAY program here in Central Florida—is a fairly new program to the State, and is used to keep first-time juvenile offenders out of jail. It’s kind of a wake-up call that gives teenagers an inside look at our judicial system and the kind of life they’d be exposed to if they don’t take responsibility for their actions.” His gaze shifted to Mom and Dad. “This program has been put into place to help encourage children to choose a more positive path—one they can be proud of.” He tapped on the papers in front of him for emphasis. “Even though this is a program geared for kids charged with petty crimes, I believe it will help serve its purpose here, as well.”
First-time offender? Life of crime? I haven’t committed a crime. How can I be an offender? The judge’s words didn’t make sense to my thirteen-year-old mind.
“Will that be it?” Dad asked.
“No. There’s more,” the judge continued. “I’m also recommending that Hope spend the next six months, once a week, under the guidance and counsel of Miriam Baker, licensed psychologist for the State. It is vitally important that counseling be combined with rehabilitation for this program to work.”
I blinked in what felt like slow motion while Dad nodded his appreciation. “We understand.”
I turned to look at Dad, speechless. I’m not a criminal! You guys have it all wrong! I wanted to scream. I’m not an offender! Say something, Dad. Mr. Peters? Tell him he’s wrong. Yet, nothing.
The room began to blur, the judge’s words becoming muffled.“I will allow you to proceed under the conditions outlined in the document presented to me by your attorney today,” he informed Mom and Dad, “but that’s only if Hope understands what is going on, receives counseling for the next six months, and follows through with the rest of the conditions laid out in this proposition within the next 90 days; otherwise, I will have no other choice than to entertain charges being brought against her for lack of proper conduct while caring for a minor.”
“Thank you,” Mr. Peters answered. “That is very generous of you, Sir. I will make sure Hope and her parents understand the true gift of your leniency before we finalize this agreement.” He referred Mom and Dad to the paperwork he had handed them earlier. I sat there numb, unable to move.
After reading the proposal, Dad slid the papers across the table in front of me, looking at Mr. Peters. “It sounds fair,” he confirmed. Pointing to the bottom of the page, Dad tapped near the edge and instructed me. “Sign here.”
I scowled at the tone in his voice. “I don’t want to sign my name to something without reading it,” I whispered in a low voice, stalling for time. Scanning the document, I could feel my brow furrow. Legal words swam before my eyes, and I fought with a sudden onset of tears threatening to spill down my cheeks and onto the paper. A knot formed in my stomach as I read all the legal jargon. “I don’t understand these terms. The words don’t make sense.” I breathlessly uttered my frustration.
Dad lowered his voice, his body hunching toward me. “All this means is that even though you’re innocent, you are willing to attend some special classes and receive counseling for six months, which prevents us from having to go to trial. This also tells the courts that you take Colleen’s allegations seriously, and it allows the judge to appease Colleen while keeping us out of court.”
Mr. Peters leaned toward me, as well, lowering his voice to protect my confidence. “Trust me, Hope. You don’t want this to go to trial. It would be a long, drawn-out battle, and you’d be drilled by opposing counsel until you don’t know which way is up. It would be an emotional nightmare and a financial catastrophe for your family, on top of everything else. The judge is doing you a huge favor by allowing us to proceed in this manner.”
I looked at the papers in front of me then back at Mr. Peters. “What about my future and my dreams of being a teacher? If I sign these papers, I’m throwing that all away.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Mr. Peters corrected. “If you sign on that line and follow through by taking the few classes the judge has ordered you to attend, plus meet with Ms. Baker for six months, this incident will never be on your record—ever. You’ll never have to list it on a job application, and it’ll be like this whole incident never took place.”
“Well, technically, it didn’t.” I eyed him harshly, my words curt.
“You know that, and I know that, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world will ever get to know that. When you have a record, it follows you the rest of your life. Trust me. The judge is giving you a gift. Take it.” Mr. Peters looked to Dad for support.
I let out a controlled sigh and tapped my foot impatiently. “But I didn’t do anything wrong,” I whispered sharply. Irritation fought with my rationale. If I sign those papers, I’m falsely admitting to something I didn’t do; but if I don’t sign the papers, I could possibly be the cause of a lengthy, ongoing battle—one that can possibly destroy my family. It’s a no-win situation, I pondered.
“Hope, sign the papers.” Dad redirected my focus to the legal document in front of me. “You know I would never encourage you to do anything that would jeopardize your future,” he added. “You are going to have to trust me on this. It is in your best interest to listen to our attorney. Sign the agreement,” he repeated.
I sucked in a deep breath and accepted a black pen from Mr. Peters, neatly penning my name on the last page of the document. I then handed the pen to Dad. He glanced over the agreement one last time then legalized it with his signature and date next to mine.
Recognizing our official arrangement, the judge spoke again. “I’m sorry we had to meet under such circumstances, Miss Blythe,” he apologized. “I truly wish you a successful future, and I hope to never see you back in my courtroom again. Understood?” A cordial smile accompanied his sincere wishes.
I solemnly nodded. “Thank you, Sir. You won’t.”
“Mr. Peters, please file the paperwork with the court on your way out today. I will sign off on it and get you a copy,” the judge concluded.
Mr. Peters made eye contact with the judge then nodded his confirmation. “Thank you, Your Honor. I will.”
Motioning to the bailiff, the judge stood. We all followed suit as he swiftly exited the room. “You can count that a win,” Mr. Peters uttered in a low voice.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
I released a pent-up sigh. “And, that was that—the beginning of the end.” I finalized my recollection with a solid nod.
“But, that wasn’t the end for you, was it?” Greg scratched at the stubble on his chin and studied my face as my truth set in. “I imagine it didn’t feel like a win, either.” His knowing stare didn’t escape me.
“Depends on what you mean,” I nonchalantly replied.
“What I mean is, you still carry it with you. Those circumstances changed who you were and who you’ve become–who you trust.” Greg sat a moment and watched me. “Just because you have an issue finalized on paper doesn’t mean it’s finalized in your mind and emotions. You still had to get past all the wreckage it left behind, and that’s not usually an easy task. That’s what I mean,” he verified.
Tears stung my eyes and constricted my throat, deep-seated anger welling up from a place I didn’t know existed. “It wasn’t fair,” I vocalized. “She ruined my life and destroyed my faith in the justice system; but, what was worse? I was the one held accountable for her actions. No one made Colleen pay for anything.” My arms began to tremble, tears spilling down my face. “It’s not fair,” I voiced again, “and it wasn’t right.” Greg listened as resentment seethed from a dark place. “Guess you’re right,” I gave in. “There’s never been closure—ever.”
A sympathetic smile warmed Greg’s face and fueled his desire. “Then let’s work on giving you that.”