“When is your next court hearing?” I asked in a rare one-on-one interview with the new girls who had made it into campus.
“I go back to court next week,” she stated. “Coach,” she added with intense seriousness, “this is my third strike. I blew it. I am going to be doing the rest of my life in prison.”
As she stated this inevitable fact, she didn’t cry. She was just stating the facts. She knew she had gambled and lost. She knew the ropes. Do the crime? You do the time. California was firm on the three strikes law. Three felonies proved you were a persistent threat to society and 25-to-life is what you were going to get.
“Who is your judge?” I asked.
“Ito,” she replied.
My experience with Judge Lance Ito was less than the entire world’s contact with that particular Compton Court judge. Most of the world sat glued to their television sets as Judge Lance Ito presided over the O.J. Simpson murder trial. My exposure to the decider of people’s fates was limited to his oversight of cases brought against Teri Shedarowich and Erin Iwakiri, two GOGI Girls whose diligent work in the campus warranted my appearance in court.
I knew the drill in his courtroom. He preferred facts and didn’t mind hearing directly from the accused. Some judges prefer to communicate only with the Public Defender. Judge Ito, I had learned, was not against letting the accused make a statement or two.
What I didn’t know was if Judge Ito would give me another women, bypassing the three strikes sentencing and letting me keep LaDawn Bell in GOGI Campus, instead. There was a logistics challenge, however, as the longest I could request was a year of jail time. Anything more than a year of time required a prison stay. The likelihood of him permitting a year of county time over 25 in the company of CDCR was slim. Still, we were going to give it a shot.
“Coach, I am done,” she said.
“We don’t know that,” I replied.
“No, Coach. I mean I am done with that life. I truly am,” she said.
One thing you learn when you are in jails or prisons is not to believe conversions or commitment of life changes from anyone relegated to wearing a tracking number and wristband. It’s usually just jail talk making up their confined conversations. In most cases, it all gets forgotten when the door is unlocked and the meth pipe is pulled out of the dresser drawer. Still, there was something in her eyes; something I knew was not the same-ol’ flapping of the jaws and wishful thinking.
“How do you know?” I asked. “How do you know you are ready?”
She paused for a moment before thoughtfully responding, making the full-on eye contact that only comes with honesty.
“I dunno, Coach. I just know.”
I knew she knew. And I knew there was enough muscle within her to actually succeed, if she became humble enough to turn over her decision making to the grooming and learning she would receive in GOGI Campus.
“OK. Here is what we are going to do. I am going to bypass campus rules, make you the President of the Campus and I am going to go into court with you and ask Judge Ito to give you to me for a year instead of prison.”
The tear running down her cheek was likely to have been the first tear making its way out of her broken heart for many years.
“You don’t even know me,” she said.
“I have very good instincts, LaDawn. I think you can be a great GOGI leader. I think you are done and I am going to make a stand for you. But you are going to need to learn everything you can about GOGI, learn the tools, and be prepared to tell the Judge why you think this will work.”
“Alright, Coach. I can do that,” she replied.
“You better do it because I am putting my reputation on the line for you,” I said with every bit of seriousness the situation deserved. “If other women are to get this chance at changing their lives it is going to be because you do not fail. I will not let you fail. There is too much at stake. Do you understand me?”
“You will not fail. Are we clear?” I stated.
“Yes, Coach. I got it.”
Announcing to the Campus that I was going to bypass all campus protocol and place LaDawn Bell, a career criminal, a shot caller, an active addict, a woman with a proclivity for getting into physical fights who was admittedly self-serving into the coveted position of Campus President nearly caused a mutiny.
“That’s not fair,” one of the girls declared.
“I know,” I replied.
“She doesn’t even know the tools,” stated another.
“I know,” I replied.
“You don’t know her like we know her, Coach. LaDawn Bell? She ain’t no good,” said another.
“I know,” I replied.
“But, Coach, you said this was our campus. We didn’t vote for her,” another chimed in.
“I know,” I replied.
LaDawn and I stood at the front of the group, united solidly in the stand we were making against the barrage of objection.
I let them vent for a while and then the room went silent. It was my turn to explain myself.
“I don’t ask much from you. I come here and teach you to be strong and self-sufficient and I am very proud of each and every one of you for learning to be strong, self-sufficient. Now I need a favor. I think we can help turn LaDawn’s life around but I need time. She has court next week and if we all prepare her, we might be able to keep her from spending the rest of her life in prison. I need you to do me a favor and support LaDawn as President until after her court date. I am going to court asking if the judge will give her to GOGI for a year. If she is Campus President, we just might have a shot. Can I have your support? Will you raise your hand if you will help me by voting for LaDawn as the temporary President of GOGI Campus?”
Most of the hands crept cautiously upward, making certain that they were not the only one endorsing my calling this shot which rattled the very core of our rules.
The women in the campus resented me, I am sure. They undoubtedly thought I had been swindled by a self-admitted con artist, I am sure. They wodl be regressing to the eroding poison of gossip and criticism in the hours that followed, I suspected. I knew all the damages to be repaired at a later date. But this was a life raft I felt compelled to toss out, even if it caused others to need to swim a little more.
The campus focus turned toward preparing LaDawn, and everyone else to present themselves well in front of their Judges for their upcoming hearings. Long after I left the campus each night the women were in their requisite rehearsals on what they would say to the judge, the jury, the DA and how they would describe their commitment to positive decision making to their Public Defender.
LaDawn began to blossom. I could see it happening in the courtroom rehearsals. She was speaking more confidently about GOGI and about her commitment to change with each mock hearing. Still, we had a long way to go and a short amount of time with which to make it happen.
While it was likely LaDawn was sitting in some holding cell in the basement of the courthouse, I was still inching my way eastward on the 105 freeway, slowly traveling past the jail as the sun was coming up, toward the Compton Courthouse which housed Judge Ito’s court. The security line in the morning at courthouses is long, each person being screened and x-ray inspected before they fill the overcrowded elevators up to their respective courtrooms.
I took my seat, choosing that place where LaDawn could identify me quite easily without breaking the rule not to communicate with anyone in the audience. When she was escorted in her jail uniform, handcuffed with the bailiff by her side, she truly looked as if she felt quite comfortable in this familiar surrounding. Admittedly, she looked like a career criminal.
At the last minute, a few GOGI volunteers joined me, women who had been released and were making a stand for other women in a similar situation.
“You made it,” I said with the beam of a proud mother on my face.
“The matter of LaDawn Bell,” the judge said, moving a massive file before him.
“Ah, she ain’t neva gettin’ out,” was the comment from the woman seated directly behind me as she observed the huge record of a lifetime of crime being opened by the judge.
Most of the court cases were thin-file infractions of one law or the next. None of the sentences that morning had been serious, nor were their crimes, and the files were not massive, as was the case with LaDawn Bell. The judge’s reliance on the District Attorney to dole out the sentence with the prior cases was not a good omen for our GOGI Girl and her extensive file. The judge actually needed to use muscle leverage to move her file into place. I had never seen that before. For good reason, District Attorney types don’t take too kindly to criminal files that are thicker than a Bible, Koran and Buddhist meditation book all stacked together.
LaDawn stood and her public defender began his introduction in the now-familiar ritual that would ultimately lead to a decision by the courts. Charges were read. Then the judge consulted the top papers in the file. The Public Defender stated something about giving her another chance. The tension was mounting and I was praying LaDawn would remember what we had rehearsed. She was to ask to speak to directly to the court.
She leaned into the Public Defender and the negative shake of his head let me know she had asked the appropriate question.
Now I only prayed she would follow the rest of my instructions. I held my breath and closed my eyes.
“Don’t fail me, LaDawn. Don’t fail me,” I said to myself, and God, and LaDawn, and any guardian angels up there who might have an interest in the outcome of this case.
“Your honor, Judge Ito,” she said.
My heart began pumping again.
The Public Defender tried to silence her.
The DA shut her file and looked up in dismay.
The judge calmly raised his eyes from the file and replied.
“Yes, Miss Bell?” he said.
“Your Honor, I have made a lot of mistakes but I am in the GOGI program and I can do it now. I know what I need to do. The program director is right over there. Can she talk to you for a minute?”
That one came out of left field, but I didn’t have a choice but to be ready.
“What program?” he asked.
“Getting Out By Going In. Coach Taylor is right there,” she said as she pointed to me.
“Alright, Ms. Bell. We will hear from Coach Taylor of Getting Out By Going In,” he said as I instinctively stood and walked to the little swinging door dividing the courtroom from the audience.
“State your name,” someone said. It was not clear who said it because my brain was too occupied with what the heck I might say. LaDawn had been in the rehearsals, not me. This was supposed to be her spotlight, not mine. The room suddenly went a little fuzzy. For me, there was no one in focus but LaDawn Bell and Judge Lance Ito and the District Attorney hovering in the peripheral of my vision.
“Your Honor,” I began. The rest of what I said is not in my memory. It’s on a court record transcript buried in some file somewhere. I know I stated that I needed her. That she was president of the custody campus where women were learning to make positive decisions and she had been elected to lead 24 women and something about wasn’t it a good thing that she was leading for good instead of doing the same prison routine that never worked for her anyway? I remember the jest of the introduction to a new possibility in corrections. What I also remember is that LaDawn cried. I cried. And the judge looked as if he was nearly moved to tears himself.
The District Attorney reiterated the career nature of Ms. Bell’s record, the fact that she had failed every program to which he had sentenced her, and that he had given ample opportunity in the past for Ms. Bell to correct her behavior. She even mentioned the fact that LaDawn started committing crimes when she was nine years old. I didn’t really hear anything but gibberish coming from her irritated mouth, it meant nothing to me. I just kept my solid focus on my brave GOGI Girl LaDawn and Judge Lance Ito.
“Please?” I chimed in.
The silence turned my focus to the pounding of my heart, which nearly deafened me to what was said by the judge.
The girls called it a God Shot, one of those blessings from heaven that no one expects would ever become a reality, like the complete and total instant remission of a terminal cancer. And that is what it was like, it was almost as if in that singular second of grace, Judge Lance Ito eradicated any residual criminal presence from the emotionally broken and bruised woman named LaDawn Bell who was standing before him.
The court record became law. LaDawn Bell became under the supervision of GOGI with a 3 year probation which required her to complete GOGI programming, a formal drug program and he made it very clear she would be severely, and he meant severely punished if she was ever seen in that courtroom again.
“The only time you are going to see me here again is when I come in to get my record expunged,” she replied, sending a warm chuckle of hope throughout the courthouse.
And with that the large files documenting the previous life of LaDawn Bell was closed. She was led out of the courtroom without the ability to glance back at the row of supporters wiping tears from their eyes.
The girls and I returned to our cars, chatting about the magical moments occurring in that courtroom on the way. When they had each left the parking structure I remained in my car, and I cried. What happened in that courtroom just did not happen. Things did not go down that way.
I felt a wave of humility, which begged the question burning in my soul, “What more can I do to be of service?”
LaDawn Bell ~ successfully completed GOGI and the Amity drug program and for the first time in her adult life, she was released from court supervision. She was employed at Direct TV where they were promoting her to shift manager. After more than two years of success as a law-abiding and sober citizen, Coach Taylor and LaDawn returned back to Judge Lance Ito’s court to begin expungement process. She was instructed to return to court in June, 2013, when the process could formally begin.
While waiting for the expungement of her record which would permit her to increase her employment options, LaDawn began her own GOGI Coaching of young girls on the street corners, often taking them into her home and sobering them up and telling them their lives were worth more. While on the way to a fundraising event in Manhattan Beach she and Coach Taylor discussed her future.
“Coach, I didn’t know real people lived like this,” she said on the drive through an affluent beach community.
“Honey, you can live like this,” Coach Taylor replied.
“Aint’ that something. I spent my whole life in prison and here I am, driving with you in Manhattan Beach. Coach, I wanna live like this,” she said. “I wanna live like this.”
LaDawn Bell was a regular volunteer at GOGI and finally a good mother to her son, good grandmother to her only grandchild, and an example for her sisters. On the way to her father’s 70th birthday, January 16th, 2013 at 7:20 pm, LaDawn Bell was the innocent victim of a bullet intended for her niece.
She died instantly.