09/10/2012 04:36 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Mother Mary Comes to Me

When I come to work in the overburdened criminal courtrooms of Cook County, Ill., I can spot them immediately among the people lining the hard wood benches. Their faces are taut with worry. Their clothes are modest, their shoes a little worn. Their eyes scan the door leading into the courtroom from the lockup, searching for a glimpse of their child.

They are the mothers. They are usually the only ones who come to court to see the people I represent. In my two decades as a public defender, I've rarely seen my clients' friends, or fathers.

It's the mothers who come, who accept collect calls from their children in the jail. The mothers who put money on the books so my clients can buy things they need from the commissary: toothpaste, underwear, food. The mothers who take the bus to the jail and go through security and wait patiently for their name to be called, to talk to their son or daughter through a hole in glass.

The mothers are the ones who call me. Can I get their daughter out of custody and into an inpatient rehab program? Can their son get electronic monitoring so he can come home?

The mothers are the ones who cry in the hallways. They are the ones who yell, who demand, who sometimes scold me for not doing enough to help their child.

Mothers can be demanding, insistent. That's why some criminal defense lawyers simply refuse to speak to them. Lawyers don't have to, in adult criminal cases; the lawyers' only obligation of communication is to their client.

I do talk to the mothers. I always have. At first, it was pure pragmatism: Moms can help convince my clients to make intelligent decisions about their cases, something at which I am often a spectacular failure. When I had two sons of my own, being kind to mothers was my way of cosmically warding off the dread day when I might see one of my boys brought out of a lockup in khaki scrubs: there but for the grace of God go I.

Then I read something that transformed how I see the mothers of my clients, instantly and forever. In his book "Jesus on Death Row," Mark Osler unabashedly compares the prisoners I represent to Jesus. He cites Matthew 25:36: "I was in prison and you visited me." Osler writes about how he is able to equate "the hated, the guilty, even the imprisoned and reviled killer with Christ, for it is at Christ's invitation that I compare society's treatment of 'the least of these' with that of Christ himself."

It struck me with bracing clarity: if the prisoners I represent are Jesus, their mothers are the mother of Jesus. They are all Mary.

She came with his followers to Jerusalem on the day when palms waved and cloaks spread in the dirt and praises rang out, and some Pharisees in the crowd said, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop" (Luke 19:39).

She was there when menacing clouds began to gather, as plots to test and trap Jesus turned to a determination to put him to death.

Someone must have given her the awful news of his arrest, the mobs with torches and swords that took him away. She must have worried and prayed and hoped for a miracle.

She was standing by his cross when his life ebbed away. Her son -- the one she conceived in astonishment and bore in a stable and raised, sometimes in bewildered frustration -- suffered and died before her eyes. She was helpless to save him; she could not even touch him.

I saw her today in court. She was a dignified woman with dark hair that framed her tired face. She sat quietly as the judge sentenced her son. She hugged her red cardigan sweater around her shoulders as she watched the sheriffs take him away. She was there for him; she will be there to pick him up when he walks out of the tomb of prison into daylight.