How do you say you’re sorry to a people whose country you bombed in the name of peace and democracy?
What words can you use after saying that you are personally sorry for the Vietnam War and the mistakes our government made some 40 years ago.
A Native American recently told me I could help myself by helping someone from southeast Asia, and it got me thinking of ways to express my feelings after all these years. No, I won’t return to Vietnam, despite what travel agencies are booking as a world-class tour, I said. Tunnels the Viet Cong used to flee American soldiers are now open for public view; you can spend a night at the Hanoi Hilton where American POWs were kept for years. You can return to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and try to rekindle the wild abandonment you had with some prostitute when you did not know if you would live to see another day so you drank and whored around all night.
Or, as my friend said as we huddled in sauna shared by men and women with clothing optional, I could look an Asian in the eye and express an awareness that I am only now realizing. We are the same. We are brothers. We are dependent on each other as all human beings are connected with their surroundings and the people they come in contact with today, tomorrow or yesterday.
“Try to help someone, maybe a family,” the woman said in the steamy room. “I don’t know of any,” I said, drinking some cool water.
But that wasn’t true. I remembered that I had once represented a young Asian man, charged with rape of a Cambodian woman in their apartment building. The jury found him not guilty, what I believed to be the correct verdict, but you would not have thought such an ending possible when the trial started.
You see, a good defense attorney will tell his client to “get to” a jury as soon as possible. In our case, it was at the “ringing of the bell,” that moment in full view of the 12 jurors and two alternates when a judge asks the defendant to rise and solemnly demands to know how he (or she) wishes to plead.
“Not guilty” are words that I advised the young man to say loud enough for the number 14 juror in the far corner of the courtroom to plainly hear. A defendant can not whisper these words. It would seem as if he wasn’t sure of his innocence, and if that is the case, why should the fact-finder be any more certain upon hearing the person for the first, and in most criminal cases, the “last” time they hear his voice. (Unless you have an unusually gifted, articulate defendant, who has been thoroughly “prepped ” to withstand the assault of even the most mediocre cross-examiner, you recommend to your client that there is little more to say after announcing a clear and concise “NOT GUILTY!” I advised most defendants to assert their right not to testify, thereby placing the full burden on the prosecutor to proof guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This was planned before the last juror took his seat. My client, who spoke no English, got to his feet as the judge addressed him. He remembered to turn slightly toward the jury box and look in the jury’s direction, also as planned.
What came out of his mouth was anything but reassuring of his innocence. He shouted at the top of his lungs, making a unintelligible sound that made me cringe and want to hide beneath the defense table and raise a white flag of surrender.
He yelled “not guilty” in the Cambodian language! No one, I mean no one on the jury, or even in the courtroom, knew what that young man had just blurted out.
I forgot to instruct him through an interpreter to practice his English at this crucial time in the one and only trial of his life. Instead of projecting a confidence in his innocence, he sent a signal that was confusing at best, and at worst, made a bad impression that could turn someone presuming him innocent to wondering why he even asked for a trial following his now evident show of guilt.
The trial, however, went well for the defense, and I was able to score points against the young woman who never told the assistant district attorney that she suffered from seizures. It all came out under my cross-examination, making it seem that the prosecutor was tying to hide something. In addition, she had suffered a seizure outside her apartment building the day this incident occurred and woke up in her second floor bedroom with my client breathing heavily while standing over her.
We found witnesses that said he carried her from the pavement outside into the apartment complex and performed a needed humanitarian service for her.
She, however, testified he raped her. But there was no physical evidence, no corroborating witnesses, and she had to admit that she was unable to recall any details of an assault when I pressed her. In other words, she told the jury she had been raped after finding herself in bed with a man not her husband at her side, unable to remember how she got there, or how this man was able to breach her most private room. What she ended up telling her husband shortly after finding the two together was anybody’s guess. He never came to court and the jury took notice.
I would like to say that my client and I became fast friends after the not guilty verdict, but it just wouldn’t be true. However, I did become quite close with the interpreter, a short Vietnamese man who translated multiple Asian languages as well as dialects. We would joke about my defendant’s outburst to the jury and we always had kind words for each other the days, weeks and years that passed.
Shaking hands with him made me feel I made a life-long friend. He made me feel we were family.
He also reminded me of a “Kit Carson” scout that worked with me, with our platoon, serving as translator and guide in the “bush.” I never really had a chance to thank that scout for his help, and for his cheery attitude in the field, particularly in the mornings when he greeted me with a smile and the energy to make the best of each day.
I now believe that my translator friend became that scout I never was able to thank . I had tried to make amends many years ago and it wasn’t until that moment in a synthetic “sweat lodge” that some spirit arose and finally brought it to my attention, finally brought it home.
I felt healed. I felt forgiven.