Two letters unsent … one to Nancy G.

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” 

-Assata Shakur

By John Cole Vodicka

One of the public defenders we observe in our courtrooms told me not long ago that he believed “the legal system is broken beyond repair.” He said this after a 61-year-old homeless, mentally ill client of his had been ordered confined indefinitely in a carceral mental facility.

The client had already served ­– pretrial – six months in jail charged with misdemeanor trespassing, public indecency, and a bogus felony burglary charge.

The lawyer, who has an active caseload of more than 300 indigent human beings charged with misdemeanor offenses, also complained to me that my criticisms of him for poorly representing this particular client were unfair, and that he was not, as he believed I had implied, “conspiring with the State against (the client).”

The lawyer insisted that he was “heartbroken” about his client’s situation, but that he was “weary” and “sick and tired” of being included on the list of the people in the criminal legal system I said had failed his client: the police, mental health and homeless advocates, the prosecutors, the public defender’s office, the judges.

He spouted off some mumbo jumbo about his “moral and legal obligations” as a defense attorney, which somehow in his mind limited his ability to advocate effectively on his client’s behalf. “I moved heaven and earth to help (my client),” he told me. Unfortunately, from my layperson’s perspective, while the lawyer might have gotten the earth to tremble beneath our feet, his client still fell into a dark abyssThe 62-year-old African American man – who suffers from dementia and who, after his bench trial, asked the judge, “When will I get out of jail?,” is now locked up in Augusta, Georgia. Maybe forever.

After this “free lawyer” (as defendants are prone to call public defenders – “I don’t want no free lawyer!” they will often say) simmered down some in his emails to me, I decided reply with a thoughtful, but pointed response.

I wrote in my email that I wanted to know how many hours he had invested in his elderly client’s case? Had he interviewed witnesses and victims in the pending misdemeanor cases? How often had he visited his client during the six months he was jailed? Did he attempt to track down members of his client’s family or anyone who knew his client intimately? And, if and when he had communicated with his client, was the “weary and heartbroken” lawyer confident the defendant understood what was happening to him in the courts? Were any pretrial motions filed to encourage the State to put up or shut up? And how responsible and ethical was it for him to take part in a 15-minute bench trial involving his client, a trial that produced a four-page transcript and resulted in his client being sent off to Augusta? And where in all of this did he object – on the record – to what was going on?

Alas, I didn’t send the email to Mr. Public Defender. Maybe it’s because that ultimately I am in agreement with Ms. Shakur’s opening quote above. It’s impossible to appeal to the moral sense of persons who are a cog in a system that oppresses others. 

Instead, I wrote another letter. I will not be able to send this one either, because it can’t be delivered. But it is a letter I very much needed to write and to share.

Dear Nancy Little Gallagher, 

It has been a rough 10 days since learning of your horrific death, that your lifeless body was found in the garbage dump on Cherry Hill Road in Monroe, Georgia.
I first heard this shocking news on Friday, July 23, while sitting in the State Court courtroom, shortly after I’d explained to the solicitor and judge that I’d not been able to find you to get you to the courthouse for your arraignment on the misdemeanor charges you faced.

When the prosecutor told me that you were dead I think I went into a kind of shock. The images of your death – stuffed inside of a garbage truck, compacted and tossed into a mountain of trash, were too much to comprehend, too awful to bear. My mind went crazy wondering just how you found your way into the belly of a dump truck. Were you killed and thrown into a dumpster? Did you crawl into a garbage receptacle to get out of the heat, the rain? Were you still alive as the truck moved along Highway 78 from Athens to Monroe? It was all too much, Nancy. I wept.

When I got home that Friday afternoon, I telephoned the Monroe police department. The Athens-Clarke County solicitor had indicated to me that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was assisting the Monroe police and treating your death as a possible homicide. I talked to a police detective and told him of our relationship, short and sporadic as it had been during the one month I knew you. I told him about our Athens Area Courtwatch Project and how I’d first encountered you when you appeared remotely from the jail on June 13 at your first appearance bond hearing.  

I was observing that morning’s hearings from the Magistrate courtroom, and heard you tell Judge Benjamin Makin that you were homeless and that you did not have “one penny” to make bail. Judge Makin set your bond at $10 on each of the two charges, telling you that with the sheriff’s transaction fee, it would cost you $33 to be released from jail. Our state legislature recently passed a law, signed by Gov. Kemp, prohibiting judges from setting non-cash bonds in cases where police officers decide to tag “family violence” onto misdemeanor trespassing charges.  

Two weeks later, on June 25, I discovered you were still locked up, unable to post the small amount of money that was denying you your liberty. I drove out to the jail, signed some papers and handed $33 to a sheriff’s deputy. I waited in the jail lobby for two hours until they finally brought you out from the cages and “handed” you over to me.  

You know the rest of this story, Nancy. How we drove to the Homeless Day Shelter on North Avenue, where I left you at your request. You were smoking the cigarette you’d been longing for and holding a box containing a leftover sausage biscuit.

You borrowed someone’s phone and called me a couple of times that weekend to let me know you’d found a place to take a shower and launder your clothes. You were pleased that you’d been given a pair of red and white sneakers.  

“I’m okay,” you told me. “I’m safe.”  

I didn’t hear again from you and, as your State Court arraignment date grew closer, I began to look for you. I drove out to the day shelters on North and Prince avenues, to the Salvation Army on Hawthorne Avenue where you told me you might be able to sleep. People said they had seen you but didn’t know where you might be staying.

Then, the day before your court date, I found you as you jaywalked across Prince Avenue. In one hand you were holding the same plastic grocery bag I’d given you at the jail; with the other hand you were stopping rush hour traffic as you crossed the busy street. I pulled my car into a convenience store parking lot and we talked for 15 minutes. You looked okay, a little haggard maybe.

“I’m safe. I’m camping out near the Atlanta Highway,” you assured me. I gave you a couple of dollars and reminded you of the next day’s court appearance.

I didn’t expect you to show up for your arraignment on July 8, and you didn’t. Thankfully, the judge rescheduled your case until July 23.

I had a “Nancy G. sighting” again on Saturday, July 10.  This time you were walking in the midday heat along Hawthorne. I stopped the car and we talked on the sidewalk outside the Family Dollar store. You were in rough shape, Nancy, and not making a lot of sense to me. I told you that your court date had been reset. I gave you my contact information (again) and your public defender’s cell phone number.  

You told me it was your birthday. I asked if I could take a birthday picture and you obliged me. I am now so thankful to have that photograph in my phone ­– even though it wasn’t your birthday ­– the one where you are hamming it up and flashing a goofy smile. In fact, I published that image of you in this newsletter last Monday. And on Wednesday I sent the photograph to your daughter.

Yes, Nancy, I am in touch with your daughter! She hadn’t seen you in almost 17 years, when she was 15 and you were 37. Your daughter and I found each other thanks to the Walton County coroner, who I’d spoken with after learning of your death. At that time, he and law enforcement investigators were trying to locate your family.

Midweek last week, the coroner called me to say they had a lead on somebody kin to you. The next day I received a text from your daughter and that night she and I talked for over an hour. It was a conversation revealing and healing for both of us. She shared a photograph of you ­– the only photograph she’d held on to all these years ­– one where you are laughing and dancing alongside your sister, in 1986. She told me she has a notebook filled with your poetry. I hope one day to read your poems. I sent your daughter the articles I’d written about you in this newsletter.

I talked to your ex-husband, too. He sobbed into the phone as he told me of your years with him and the children.

A woman who lives here in Athens reached out to me to tell me that 15 years ago you and she were close friends, so close that you often watched her young children when she worked. “Nancy didn’t have a mean bone in her body,” is how she remembered you.

And a counsellor with the ACC Treatment Alternative Court ­– from which you successfully graduated five years ago ­– burst into tears when told of your death.  

Just today a judge told me he heard about your death last week while he was on family vacation.  “I cried on my vacation,” he said.

Nancy, your daughter and other family members met on this past Saturday with staff at a funeral home in Monroe. Your daughter told me they’ve decided you will be cremated and a memorial service will be held early next year, “after we all get over the shock and can have time to sort through all that has happened.” Your son has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help defray what it will cost to make sure you have a good and dignified burial. The Athens Area Courtwatch Project will also hold a memorial service in your honor, Nancy. I’d like for that to happen next week ­– on August 12, your real birthday!

The local newspapers are saying that the investigation into your violent death will conclude that there was no “foul play.” My God. As far as I can tell, you have been a victim of foul play for the last 20 years. It was systemic foul play that first tossed you to the curb and then kept you on the streets. Then, foul play kept knocking you to your knees until it found a way to put you in cage. Foul play finally tossed you into a garbage dump on Cherry Hill Road.  

We must not let foul play have the last word. Not with you, not with anyone.

I’ve replayed our few conversations over and over in my head since I learned you were gone, Nancy. When you and I were driving away from the jail on June 30, do you remember I asked you how you were treated during the 13 days you were locked away? You thought a minute before you answered me. Staring out the passenger-side window, you finally said, “It was okay. I met some good souls in there. Some good souls.”

Nancy Little Gallagher, you too, were truly a good soul. I hope you now know that you were loved and that you left some lasting memories for us to hold on to. I’m so thankful I got to be the person to meet and greet you when you left the jailhouse on June 25.

May you now join hands with that cloud of “good souls” who’ve been waiting to welcome you home.

– John Cole Vodicka

John Cole Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street UMC and is one of the leaders of the Courtwatch program.