The youth-written stories in YCteen give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Good Enough to Be a Lawyer
I discovered my courage and communication skills
Damia Mendoza
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Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to be a criminal lawyer. I like to argue and prove my point. If I think something isn’t right, I say so and then I explain why.

I’m particularly interested in criminal law because I feel strongly that if somebody takes someone else’s life or otherwise infringes on their rights, that person should suffer consequences. Even though there are some flaws in the system, laws keep society safe.

But two years ago, when I moved to New York City from Ecuador, I was sure I’d have to dash that dream. I thought my English would never be good enough for me to stand in court, address jurors, and prove my case explicitly.

I also worried that I might be too afraid to confront criminals. In Ecuador, many crimes are ignored by police. I think that happens because they do not have the resources to follow up on every case. Even when cases do go to trial, justice isn’t always served because some lawyers and judges are corrupt. I didn’t know if it was the same in New York. I never want to be a lawyer who could be paid off to, for example, not bring evidence against an alleged criminal.

Still, this past spring, I landed an internship with the Queens District Attorney’s Office. My history teacher recommended me to them. Even though I had my doubts about it as a career choice, I wanted to get experience working in a criminal law office to see if I even liked it. I went for the interview, and I was a little nervous, but they accepted me. I was assigned to the Hate Crimes Bureau, which deals with crimes that are motivated by prejudice against people because of their racial or ethnic group, national origin, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

The Queens DA’s Office is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases that take place in that borough. Prosecutors are lawyers who conduct cases against defendants, the people accused of committing the crimes. Some people think that prosecutors just send bad guys to jail. But I see their work as also seeking justice and fairness.

My responsibilities included making copies of documents we received from detectives, police officers, witnesses, and victims related to the cases. I translated conversations into Spanish, brought documents to different offices, filed documents, and transcribed conversations from the jail and 911 calls. Sometimes one of the lawyers would give me a name and ask me to look through boxes of case files to find as much information as I could about that person. Prosecutors have to do a lot of research to build their case before they get to trial.

Courtroom Drama, in Plain English

I was also allowed to observe when the prosecutors prepared their courtroom speeches to the judge and jury. They don’t just go in the courtroom and start talking. They go in with notes and their speeches are often rehearsed.

I loved all the work I was doing, but the best part was being able to attend court cases twice a week. One case involved a man who was accused of breaking into a man named Davian’s house, then beating and robbing him. I listened as the prosecutor argued that the defendant beat up Davian because he was Serbian.

“The defendant broke into Davian’s house and started beating him while saying that he hated blacks, Jews, and Serbians,” he told the jurors. Then, he told them, the defendant saw a nice watch and put it on his wrist and said, “Oh thank you, I’ll just take this.”

As I observed, I thought, “I understood everything he said, it makes sense.” When I said to one of the lawyers, “I noticed you don’t use sophisticated language,” he replied, “Of course not, we’re talking to normal people.”

image by YC-Art Dept

Observing these trials made me see that I could become a successful courtroom lawyer even though English is not my native language. Moreover, I can also use Spanish to communicate with many Spanish-speaking victims who do not speak English.

I Am Not Afraid

One day when I was delivering documents to the prosecutor during a trial, I noticed the defendant was staring at me. He had 11 charges against him including burglary and sexual abuse. He kept looking at me. I felt that he wanted to kill me; he seemed angry. I felt weird and scared at first, but then I thought, “I have nothing to be afraid of.” So, I did not look away and stared back at him. Although it only lasted for a few seconds, I felt that it was a battle I had won.

After the jurors were dismissed for the day, I decided to go watch another trial. I took the elevator and surprise, surprise—the defendant and his attorney were right there. The elevator was full of mirrors so I just looked down. “He gave me that scary look in the courtroom, and now he is just inches away from me,” I thought. I was not shaking, but I was more scared than when I was in the courtroom. The attorney broke the ice: “So, you are an intern at the Queens DA?”

“Yes, I am,” I replied while the defendant looked me up and down.

“How are you liking it?” He insisted on continuing the conversation as if he was actually interested in whether I was enjoying my internship.

“I love it,” I told him and the elevator doors opened. “Good night.” I walked out and smiled. Although I had no experience being around people who’d been charged with serious crimes, I wasn’t as scared as I thought I’d be. I also knew that if I became a lawyer, I would get more experience dealing with different kinds of people and over time I believe I would feel less afraid.

A Justice Seeker

After my internship, I would go home and picture myself in the courtroom. I recalled how confident the prosecutors were when they presented the evidence and explained the facts. They would also prepare their victims before the trial and I observed how they cared about those people who had been hurt. I felt proud thinking that one day I could be like one of them, helping victims and making sure that offenders would not cause harm to other people. I think prosecutors do a very important job.

Moreover, because I am an immigrant, I know that sometimes we are made to feel like we do not belong to this country. Nobody should be discriminated against or hurt because of where they come from, their religion, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. The prosecutors in the Hate Crime Bureau make sure that justice is given to those victims, even if they are undocumented; their immigration status has nothing to do with their right to human dignity and justice.

What also motivated me to want to pursue the field of law was the encouragement that I received from the prosecutors at the Hate Crime Bureau. They praised my office skills. They said I was thorough, fast, and that I could work independently. They noticed that I read law books in my free time. Sometimes they included me in their discussions of cases and when I gave my opinion they would say, “That is a good observation.”

Now I don’t just dream about working as a lawyer. I know I can make it a reality.

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(NYC-2015-01-06)

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