The man who stole my Volkswagen was named Harry Brown. He was short, had a face like a bulldog and dark brown eyes. His hair was slicked back with something even more serious than Brylcreem. He turned those eyes on me full bore when the judge who heard his case sentenced him to four years.

All I could think of was that in four years, I would be somewhere else, maybe in college. Maybe I should change my name?

A few days later my father delivered me the bad news. Harry Brown had gotten a mistrial declared in his case. The prosecuting attorney wanted to meet with me.

How could this happen? I was about to learn the difference between justice and the judicial system. Harry Brown said he couldn't possibly have stolen my car on the day in question as he was in jail that day.

It seemed that someone had made an error. Instead of putting in the proper day the car was stolen, someone had put in the date the car was recovered (two days later when he got drunk, wrecked and passed out behind the wheel).

"Of course he was in jail," I wailed. "He was in jail for stealing my car!"

It didn't matter that he had stolen seven other Volkswagens. It didn't matter that whoever made the mistake could take the stand and say that they made a typo. There was nothing to prove that he had stolen my car.

"It looks like he'll get off, since there's nothing on paper to indicate that was the day the car was stolen," said the lawyer, who I had only minutes before thought was handsome.

Then, without even thinking, I said that I had it on paper. I could prove when it was stolen, and when it was recovered.

"How?"

"I wrote it in my diary," I said.

"We'll need to introduce that as evidence," he replied.

"Sure, Dad can just photocopy those two days and ..."

A court of law doesn't accept photocopies. A court of law demands original documents. That is why, a week before the trial, I had to hand my diary over to the attorney. This wasn't my placebo diary, in which I wrote terrible things about my brother and left out for him to discover. This was the diary that I kept hidden so carefully that no human hands but mine had ever touched it.

I know now that in all likelihood no one gave a thought to that white book. No one took it home and read it aloud. I didn't know it then, though. I had a few days to mull over the past two years and see that there was plenty for me to be embarrassed about. Why did I have to have such a big crush on Peter Bolay? Who was I kidding when I thought I could make cheerleader if my highest jump was only about three inches off the ground?

The second trial of the people vs. Harry Brown began. I had to take the stand and read from my diary the dates and pertinent information about each day. This time there was a jury. I wished Harry Brown had gotten away with my Volkswagen never to be seen again.

While my first brush with the legal system was odd (and even terrifying in the eyes of a teenager), I can report to you that Harry Brown did not walk. I think the jury was so irked at having to sit through his meager defense, and so impressed with the extent to which the prosecution went that they inquired, "Do we have to sentence him to four years?"

I didn't really understand what the judge responded, until the verdict was announced an hour later. Harry Brown was sentenced to life for being a habitual criminal. He turned those eyes on me again, and that time I knew that I would be nowhere near if he were paroled.

I have thought about this introduction to the legal system many times over the years. I didn't think then, and I don't think now that life was an appropriate punishment for a man who made a career out of stealing Volkswagens. Not in a world where people who molest children always seem to be released too soon.

I got another Volkswagen. I also got another diary. Only, I had grown up a bit. So I called the new volume a journal and burned the old one.

But I can still recall, as if it were only yesterday, the look in Harry Brown's eyes.

Terry Murry welcomes input and suggestions from readers. She can be reached at tmurry@uci.net, or c/o EO, P.O. Box 1089, Pendleton, OR 97801.

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