Excerpt from Deng Adut’s memoir Songs of a War Boy

AC Law Group – A meeting of the minds in a court room

The South Sudanese man came to me after he had been arrested when a fight had broken out during a football game. Weapons had been used in the fight, specifically a crowbar and screwdrivers, and my client was one of nine African men who were charged, uniformly, by police after the incident.

The group had been charged en masse with Rioting. The men were all looking at a short custodial sentence and a criminal record. Most of the charged men chose to take on the suggested pleas of guilty as offered by the police prosecution, and wear the sanction that would come. My client, however, thought he was not as culpable as some of the other men in the group.

The more I looked into the case, the more it seemed to me that the police had picked the not-uncommon narrative of ‘a bunch of crazy black men went crazy’, instead of taking the time to look at the individual actions and responsibilities of the nine different human beings involved in the incident.

Too often, those outside Africa group Africans collectively, without considering the individuals in a group. On a macro level, when considering something like a war or pandemic, it’s important to keep in mind that every person who loses their life did so after a unique and monumental losing battle, resulting in inimitable grief. It’s also important to keep in mind that, on a micro level – say after a football brawl – each person involved has their own motivation, fears, and culpability.

After doing my research into the football fight I found that there was an instigator, an aggressor, and an escalator, and that, probably, my client was none of those things. At court, I approached the police prosecutor and indicated as such. I requested that my client be subject only to the affray charge with amended facts and after much convincing he agreed.

The prosecutor eventually agreed. Then we moved to my favourite part of proceedings – the striking off of unfounded charges.

In the last few years I have picked up something of a weakness for expensive pens, but my favourite writing implement is the thick black texta I keep in my inside pocket when going to court. I pulled it out and started to whittle down the charges that had been levelled at my client but not been proven. Line after line of culpability disappeared under my ink, and with it money and time that my client would have owed the state. It was, and still is, an indescribably wonderful feeling. When I was finished, a few sporadic lines of the original charge sheet remained.

It was at this time that I noticed, in court, the only other lawyer of the co-Accuseds who had not taken the original Crown offer. This lawyer’s name was Joe Correy, a kind-looking and energetic young lawyer of Lebanese descent, who had been retained by one of the other defendants. Joe had done almost exactly the same redacting job that I had. I held up my charge sheet and we shared a smile and a moment of mutual satisfaction.

Having negotiated the charges, it was not time to present our evidence to the court. Joe argued to the court that just because all of the men in the brawl had a similar skin tone that didn’t mean they were all similarly culpable. Joe claimed that while his client had helped instigate the initial fracas –which almost anyone who’d played sport would probably be familiar with – the violence that necessitated these legal proceedings was a shock to his client, and that his client had indeed been a victim of it.

Correy had taken the time to break down, from moment to moment, what happened on the day of the brawl and argued that his client should not be sentenced to imprisonment. I could tell that Joe was looking for a similar outcome to the one I was looking for. I wasn’t trying to have my client completely exonerated – I thought there was no getting away from the affray charges – but I didn’t think he deserved to go to jail either.

Before I started law school I held a Pollyanna-ish assumption that everyone in Australia gets the legal defence they deserve. After a few years of working in the industry, I knew that that assumption was unfounded. I could see no holes in Joe’s defence of his client though, just rigorous and complete reason. I was impressed. My submissions were eerily similar.

My client ended up receiving only a section-ten (dismissal) bond, which meant although they were found guilty they wouldn’t have a criminal record. Joe’s client received a Community Service Order, an outstanding result considering there was CCTV footage of him appeared to show him stabbing someone (in excessive self-defence). It was undoubtedly a winning outcome for both of us. Our client’s ironically were on opposing sides of the affray.

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