When LaJoe and Lafeyette return to the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Lafeyette’s court date, the young boy’s face reveals his fear. He asks his mother what is going to happen, and LaJoe reassures him, telling him they will let him go. Although Pharoah is worried about his brother, he decides not to come.
Lafeyette’s fear, despite his own knowledge that he has done nothing wrong, reveals his utter lack of trust in the legal system, as he believes that his innocence is not sufficient to guarantee his freedom.
When the public defender, Anne Rhodes, calls the five boys and their parents into a room, she comes across as brusque and impersonal. However, her attitude is partially the result of lack of time and resources. Even though she is committed to her job and believes that she is doing something useful, she is often horrified by the lack of effective communication between lawyers, judges, and the accused, which often leads to hasty trials that fail to protect the children’s lives.
Anne Rhodes’s attitude reflects that of the system in general. The criminal system does not commit errors and indict innocent people out of a desire to do harm, but because of problems within the system itself. Empathy and justice are linked, because it is impossible to truly understand and defend a person’s story without taking the time to get to know them personally.
In this case, Anne Rhodes believes most of the five boys are innocent. She tries to avoid trial by telling the boys’ parents that each family could pay one hundred dollars to Michael Berger, the man whose car was broken into, and that the children would be placed on supervision, without a finding of guilt. Unable to pay such a sum, the families refuse, and the children are forced to go to trial.
The legal system also seems skewed against the poorest, most vulnerable members of society. In this case, financial resources are the main factor determining the children’s guilt or innocence—a factor that tragically has nothing to do with what actually happened on the day of the arrest.
Anne only has five minutes to prepare for the trial and asks to meet with the five boys alone. She quickly hears their stories, determines who is most articulate, and easily notes that they are not all friends and, therefore, cannot have organized to break into a truck together. Anne becomes convinced of the innocence of most of these boys and believes they have a good chance of being acquitted because the judge is known for her compassion and fairness.
What seems evident to Anne as an experienced lawyer does not necessarily guarantee the boys’ innocence, since this decision depends on somebody else—paradoxically, a judge who knows Anne’s clients even less than she does, and must therefore make a hasty decision based on incomplete evidence.
Anne Rhodes, the children, and their parents then walk into the courtroom. LaJoe tells her son who, like the other children, is nervous, to stand up straight. The trial lasts barely twenty minutes. Michael Berger describes what was taken from his truck and identifies one of the boys as the one who had offered to guard his car. Andrea Muchin, the state’s attorney, questions him but feels nervous, since this is her first trial.
The short duration of the trial emphasizes once again that the potential impact of a condemnation on these boys’ lives is not taken seriously. The fact that Berger identifies only one of the boys serves as additional proof that there lacks sufficient evidence to incriminate the entire group, yet this detail does not play an important role in the trial.
Two police officers then testify and, while they do not provide details that seem sufficient to incriminate this entire group of boys, the boys’ alibis also seems unconvincing, because they seem unable to recall precise details of what they were doing that particular night, four months ago. Even though Anne tries to identify contradictions in the police’s testimony, showing that there does not seem to be sufficient evidence to incriminate all the boys, the judge ultimately decides to declare the five boys guilty, giving a moralizing lecture about the danger of such boys who break into parked cars.
Once again, even the police’s testimony shows that there is something wrong with the decision to incriminate the entire group, as the arrest of these boys seems to have happened as a result of mere contingency, simply because they were all physically near each other. Like so many other members of the legal staff, the judge is more interested in giving a reproving speech about a general phenomenon than he is in determining the participation of these five individuals.
Both Anne Rhodes and Andrea Muchin are surprised by this decision and grow convinced that the legal system is not adequately protecting these vulnerable children’s lives, even though they so desperately need to feel listened to and to benefit from a fair trial. Lafeyette, though, is relieved to realize that he will be able to go home. At the same time, he is angry that the boy whom he knows is guilty did not confess his crime and that Lafeyette is condemned for a crime he never committed.
The fact that lawyers on both sides of the legal system (one defending the accused, and the other defending the accuser) agree that the system is unfair signals that their critiques are not self-interested, but identify deep problem in the state’s capacity to protect truth and justice—and, in particular, to build sustainable communities based on mutual trust and a respect for the law.
Back at the apartment, when Pharoah comes home from school, he is excited to see that Lafeyette has not been detained. LaJoe later hears the two of them argue over a T-shirt, and feels happy to know that at least she still has her two boys.
LaJoe realizes that however much this new injustice might harm the family and the children’s future, she can at least enjoy the present moment and maintain the tight-knit family unity she has worked so hard to protect.