Chasing Justice
Author:Danielle Stewart

Chasing Justice - By Danielle Stewart


The world is full of terrible people. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, maybe even said it yourself. But when you say the “world” you don’t mean your world. You’re not thinking about your supermarket, your children’s school, the place you work. You’re thinking about those big cities with those big problems, not your neighborhood.

This kind of talk makes me sound paranoid, and maybe I am. But I’m also right. I know the pedophile blurs into the role of coach. The violent sex offenders deliver your mail or bag your groceries. So often we find out too late the laws that are meant to protect the innocent instead shield the offenders. There was a small window of time in my life when I thought I could be one of the “good guys,” and I use the term lightly as I happen to be a woman. I believed I could follow the letter of the law and still take part in cleaning this world up a little. But I was wrong. You can’t do things the right way and still win when the villains have no code. The only way to get anything done is to be just as wicked, but with righteous intentions.

My ideals aren’t something I’ve formed half-heartedly. They’ve been forged like steel, burned in a fiery pit and then hammered relentlessly. I’ve been hurt. I’ve faced death. I’ve made many mistakes. My spirit was broken and I believed the only way I could repair myself was to knock a little piece of evil off this planet.

One afternoon, as I stared outside, I came face to face with my opportunity. I had left my window slightly open so the breeze could balance the stale, recycled feeling of the air conditioner. Late summer in North Carolina was usually humid and stagnant, but I remember on that day the wind was moving nicely through the trees. I had hoped it would blow new life into me.

The rear of my townhouse faced an alley where an Italian restaurant backed up to the bank. Out the back door of the restaurant stepped a man familiar enough for me to take notice, but not so much that I could place him. From behind him came a girl, who even from the distance, I could see was half woman and half child. She was dressed in mismatched clothing not suited for her age.

The two looked like a peculiar pair. They were clearly not father and daughter, not student and teacher. There was something about their demeanor, the way the man was moving with force and the girl creeping behind him timidly, that made my skin break out in goose bumps. Something was not right.

Suddenly the man turned on his heels to face the girl. He cocked back his fist and before she could even raise her hands to protect herself he struck her hard across the face. The girl stifled a yelp as her hands rushed to her nose which had instantly begun bleeding. She slouched forward, and the man straightened her by grabbing the loose ponytail on the back of her head. He leaned in close and hissed into her face. “You don’t get to talk to me here. You don’t get to know me here. This is my real life and you are a whore who I screw when I feel like it. If you ever approach me in public again I will end you, and there isn’t a soul in this world who would even know you were gone. No one misses a fourteen-year-old hooker.” He tugged again at her hair to make sure she understood, and she nodded through the pain. In a moment of clarity I suppose, the man looked over his shoulder to see if anyone had been within earshot. I ducked back behind my curtains. As he turned again toward her I realized where I had seen the salt and pepper in his hair, the lines on his red doughy face, the roundness of his bulbous nose.

He looked different without his black robe but there was no doubt—he was a judge whose courtroom I had sat in while shadowing a lawyer a few weeks earlier. There he was standing in an alley beating an underage prostitute who had the unfortunate judgment of addressing him outside the confines of whatever seedy motel they usually frequented. This man of stature and prominence in our community was a sex offender.

Any reasonable person would stop what she was doing and immediately call the police. But I believed I could do something about this on my own. To understand why, you would need to know what makes me different from the general population. You would have to understand what brought me to North Carolina in the first place. No, I’m not an assassin who spent her childhood being groomed by monks in the art of ancient jiu jitsu.

As a matter of fact, even if my life depended on it, I’d be hard pressed to do a chin-up. I’m about as graceful as a seasick flamingo. My overall endurance makes me pretty sure I’m one of those people who is thin on the outside and fat on the inside. I don’t have a weapon, I don’t have any allies, and I don’t really have a plan.

I have no particularly impressive skills besides perhaps valuing my own life so little that I’m willing to risk it even when the odds are stacked against me. I’m delusional and I’m damaged, but I’m brave. That’s really all I have right now.

So how did I get here, how did I get to a point where I thought I could take justice into my own hands? I arrived in North Carolina two years before I had witnessed the judge’s assault. The life that lay before me was blank. I was given a clean slate; clean to a degree that many people would envy considering the circumstances that led me there. Yet to me, the void stretching before me was suffocating rather than liberating. I was adrift in a new town, a new world. I was twenty-three years old and essentially born again, burdened with the ignorance of a child and the expectations of an adult.

My “relocation,” as I have come to internally label it, had afforded me a small place to live. It was paid outright, and it was mine. I had a sum of money that, in my naïve, unworldly experience, seemed like a small fortune. In truth, it was just enough to be swallowed up by the reality of existing on my own. As it turns out, barricading myself in my townhouse and ordering delivery pizza couldn’t be a long-term solution. It was as bad for my mental health as it was for my desire to fit into my skinny jeans.

I was the warden in my own prison. That realization hit me on a Tuesday and by the following Monday, I had enrolled in college. It was something I had never allowed myself to consider in the past. I was breaking free of the chains, and embracing my new life.

It made perfect sense to me that I should major in criminal justice. I had the unfortunate experience of seeing the system up close and personal from a very young age. The first year was thrilling in its fairy-tale-like explanation of our justice system. I was slightly older than many of the other students who were fresh out of high school, but no one seemed to notice. The excitement of the large lecture halls with stadium seating like I had seen on television made muddling through my general requirement courses a little more bearable. It was text books and study groups. It was me practicing my new life, my new name.

Because I had more time than the average student I enrolled in a few classes that would have normally been reserved for the following year. I was completely captivated by the curriculum in my criminal profiling and theories of crime classes.

The philosophies I learned were idealistic and stirred something within me. I had a newfound feeling of empowerment and pride. My entire life had been so turbulent, such a mess, but now here I was in college dreaming of something better. It seems ridiculous looking back on it now, but I believed I could change the world. Maybe I couldn’t do anything about my own past, but someone else’s future could be shaped by my actions, my hardline belief in the system.

During my second year it was time to plot out the direction of my career. How would I apply this degree? So I went out into the world. I ventured into the streets of this new town I had been dropped in—Edenville, North Carolina. Its population was just over fifteen thousand, but it had pockets of small town charm, and I lived right in the middle of one of those communities. This place was so different than the world in which I had grown up. There were times I felt like I had been transported to Mayberry.

To get started, I set up appointments at the courthouse to shadow criminal attorneys and police officers. I toured the prison two towns over and visited the child protection agency. I was enamored with the thought of making a difference. Then, slowly, reality began to set in. People, bad people, were let back into society because of clerical errors or loopholes.

I observed eight cases, and as far as I was concerned, six of them were completely disheartening. I saw children torn away from caring and loving foster homes and placed back with drug-addicted parents, all in the name of “keeping a family together.” I saw a rape victim being persecuted for the low-rise cut of her jeans and the long line of boyfriends she had leading up to the attack. There were drug dealers who walked free because the police made several errors bringing the case to trial.

The picture slowly became very clear to me. A trial is a game where the truth is of secondary importance and each side aims to win regardless of the collateral damage.

My naïve exuberance turned quickly to disdain. These were the people who failed me; they were no different.

So the moment I saw the judge punching the young girl behind my house I found my purpose. It made me realize that just because I could not arrest or prosecute someone for a crime didn’t mean I couldn’t punish him. And just like that, I dropped out of school. I tossed my books in the trash and ignored emails from my professors.

I, Piper Anderson, was unwilling to accept the world through the eyes of a defeatist. My life up until that point had been wasted. I wasn’t going to spend another minute watching the system fail people. The time I had spent in school showed me that a man like that judge would never be held accountable for his crimes. I’d need to find a way to do it myself. There had to be a place in this world for my idea of justice, and if there wasn’t I was damn sure going to do everything I could to make room for it.