I sat across the deposition table from an older attorney. A nice man, I grew up with his son and knew the family. I had always liked him, but at this particular moment I felt an urge to slap his face as he winked at me and said, “These two lovebirds will be back together in no time.”
He represented the husband. More accurately, he had represented the husband’s wealthy parents in real estate and business dealings for more than 30 years. He knew they were good people, solid pillars of the community, and reliable clients. He made the mistake of presuming their son was the same.
I represented the wife. She was young and pretty with a 2 year old son she was desperate to save from the bad situation in which they lived. I had interviewed friends and witnesses who all told basically the same story. The couple met in their favorite watering hole, shared a love of cocaine, and got married in a stupor. The husband’s parents were able to keep fights, arrests, and restraining orders at bay because of their considerable financial interest in a small town.
The wife had a few miscarriages, which she blamed on the drugs. The husband told people that he was secretly relieved when the pregnancies didn’t take. Then, during her last pregnancy, she sobered up, and it took – or the other way around. And after she got clean her husband got angry.
She brought me her copy of a police report which reported that he had grabbed her by the hair and thrown her down the stairs while she was pregnant. She dropped the charges.
Every time she tried to get out of the marriage he threatened her. The usual list of threats includes “I will kill you/myself/our child,” “I will never give you a nickel and you will be homeless/hungry/poor/kicked out of the country club,” “You will never see me/our child/our friends again,” “I will stalk you/your friends/your family until your dying breath.” His threats also included “I will have you arrested for drug abuse.” This was enough to make her scared to leave. The physical violence made her scared to stay.
Until the day that everything changed.
She was asleep. He came home late, drunk and angry. His crashing into furniture woke the baby, who started to cry. The dad went into the nursery to yell at the baby, the mother jumped up and ran in just in time to stop the dad from slapping the baby across the face. That night, she threw random clothes and baby items into a bag and slept at a friend’s house. The next day she started calling lawyers to file for divorce.
“It was one thing when he hit me,” she told every divorce lawyer she interviewed, “but I cannot let him hurt the baby.” Lawyer after lawyer refused to take her case. Some knew the husband’s family and did not want to cross them. Others knew of the husband’s family and assumed she was lying. And even those who did not know the family found her story to lack credibility when she refused to press charges.
All she wanted was a divorce, her freedom, not an all-out war. She wanted enough money to get out of town safely and start a new life. If she pressed criminal charges she knew the backlash against her would be insurmountable. But, by trying to keep her case low-key, she was giving everyone the impression that things were not so bad; just a little rocky. Her husband was busy telling people that they were just passionate about each other; fights were part of their relationship, and they would be back together in no time.
During the deposition, she finally had the chance to tell her story. She told it as calmly and honestly as she could. She spoke directly to her husband’s attorney and answered every question he asked, whether or not it made her uncomfortable. She explained the beatings, the anger, the abuse, and the threats. Not in a melodramatic tone, just slowly, accurately, and credibly. By the time she was done testifying, silent tears ran down her cheeks.
When the husband’s attorney said that he had no more questions, I was relieved. I could not wait to get her out of there. But, she had one more thing she wanted to say on the record. “I have not pressed charges,” she told the lawyer, “and I do not want to go back to the police. Please just let this end, and let me out.”
At that moment, I felt as if she was the bravest person I had ever met.
A lesser person might have chosen not to believe my client that day. He could easily have told his clients that there would be a long legal battle ahead of them and could easily have run his bill into the 6 figure range to make sure that grandson stayed in town. But, to his eternal credit, he did not. Within a week I had a reasonable (though not generous) settlement offer on my desk. Within 6 weeks the parties were divorced. And about 18 months later I received a postcard from my client. She and her son had moved out of state, she was engaged to a nice guy, and they were buying a modest, but affordable home together. Her bravery had paid off.
What We Love: Sometimes it is the truth, plain and simple, which helps determine the outcomes.
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