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Lose You to Find Me

“We’d always go into it blindly

I needed to lose you to find me”

Selena Gomez, Lose You to Love Me

On January 12th, 2023, I thought my life was over.

I walked into the courthouse located in Hastings, Michigan believing my husband would come home with me. He had been accused of a white-collar crime. My husband’s then lawyer told him a plea deal was the quickest and easiest solution; fighting it would drag us all through a messy trial with no certainties. The only way out was through a plea deal.

We were assured over and over by my husband’s attorney that a plea deal would spare my husband from prison time. There was one problem: it was never properly documented on court record.

The plea deal dissipated into thin air; Judge Michael Schipper sentenced my husband to 10-20 years in prison. In an instant, my life shattered; turning everything into unrecognizable shards. I walked out of the courthouse alone, with tears running down my face. I was in shock; nothing felt real.

In the year prior, I just finished my Master’s in Criminal Justice. At the urging of my husband, Ryan, I finally pursued my dream; one of the best decisions I ever made. The material came easy to me. I maintained a near perfect GPA. The professors spoke of restorative justice, diversion programs, doing things a better way; things I believed and still believe in. I hadn’t even had a chance to look for a job in the field yet, when my life was violently disrupted. I learned the hard way, these evidenced-based practices were not implemented everywhere. Especially in rural counties with volatile judges.

My trust in the criminal justice system fell away. I watched my old life tumble out of my hands. My heart hurt like it never had before.

I cried and screamed inside my car. I could barely see through tears when I texted Doug, the Probation Officer, who prepared Ryan's Pre-sentencing Report. I asked him how to report the judge for what transpired. As soon as he told me, I became a woman on a mission. I went straight to the notary with mascara streaks running down my face. I overnighted the complaint. I took a picture of myself that night, but I didn’t look at it until recently. I looked irrevocably broken.

I still believe we should have gone to trial. I still believe we likely would have won. Then I remind myself in that alternate universe, I wouldn’t be here telling my story today. I had no way of knowing that in the darkest, ugliest, most painful moment of my life, a criminal justice advocate was born.

In a quest to understand how this could happen, I dove headfirst, down a rabbit-hole of uncovering misconduct in Barry County. I relied heavily on my first love: writing. Openly blogging about Ryan’s experience as we experienced it offered peace of mind; even though these people tried to destroy me, they couldn’t take my voice away. I called the Judge and Prosecutor out at every opportunity. I found and locked arms with many others who had been preyed upon. I began meeting other families wronged by the criminal justice system. I connected people to vital resources. When afforded an opportunity to speak out against injustice, I took every single one.

I stumbled into the world of Mitigation and Participatory Defense. I learned the art of court-watching. I took more classes and earned certifications. I consumed book after book on criminal justice reform, investigative journalism, and law. I left no stone unturned in digging up information, getting to the why and how of the system being so broken.

I shared my knowledge by creating resources as Advocacy Link Libraries, Judge and Prosecutor Review Directories, printables, and guides; tools that people could use to navigate the endless sea of crazy that is the American Criminal Justice system. It felt like all the right doors were opening for me. I established the very first Citizen Detective Team to investigate wrongful convictions. I launched a podcast. Stepping through the open door and being myself, was the sole requirement for all of it and I did it one after the other.

So much was stolen from me by the broken criminal justice system. Yet I persevere; I actively choose happiness. I press onward with hope that tomorrow will be a better day.

If I could go back in time and comfort myself on January 12, 2023, this is what I would say:

I know you feel lost and broken right now. They've kicked you so hard in the gut that you can't catch your breath. You’re going to have nights crying yourself to sleep. You will have days where you don’t feel brave; when even breathing feels difficult. But please, please hold on. Things are going to get so much better. This is a horrific but unique experience to see the holes in the system.

You will laugh again. Sooner than you think. You will learn to finally ask people for help.

You and one of your best friends will finally learn how to jump start a car, you’ll discover new talents. You’re going to unapologetically read BB Easton and Colleen Hoover books. You’re going to learn to be kind to yourself, and practice self-care. You are going to stop worrying so much about all of the stupid little things that really don’t matter.

Yes Rita, you are going to lose your husband for a little while. This loss is going to feel like a death. Give yourself the time and space required to grieve. It will help you heal. You will turn all of this pain into something beautiful. You are going to help so many other people.

I promise you Rita, at the end of all of this, you are going to find YOU. And YOU are nothing short of amazing.

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