The Innocence Project, founded in 1992, at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University assists prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 280 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison for different reasons like false eyewitness identification, coercing false confessions, withholding evidence from defense, or bad lawyering, before exoneration and release. (From www.dna.gov; www.ornl.gov; www.innocenceproject.org)
I find myself handing my cell phone to the officer at the entrance of the courtroom shortly after getting a speeding ticket after a call from my principal to get to school urgently. My kids are at school, my husband at work; I am all by myself at the court house. I sit at one of the back rows and start waiting. The announcement fills my ears : "People for traffic charges will be called by last name after a few trials." Wait a minute... My heart normally does not beat this fast. Is it the woman they brought from the back of the room in the orange outfit with handcuffs? Is it her story that makes me so nervous? Or do I finally realize that I would soon get up in front of everybody and answer the frightening question: "Are you pleading guilty?" What am I going to say? I feel as though if I blinked twice, I would find myself in a movie. Is there a way out of this? I remember the radar in the police officer's hand. He showed me the number on it. My heart starts to beat faster. I remember my friend's husband going to jail for 3 days after a situation similar to this. A chill passes through my spine. Then there it is, my name. I get up. All eyes are on me. Here is the question. What am I going to say? The radar was wrong?
Suddenly, it feels like a thousand veils in front of me are being lifted one by one. I am dead. All the guardians, officers, and the judge are angels. The people sitting alongside me are other people died with me. The "big angel" is asking me if I did it. It is as if I am watching myself from up above. I hear myself saying, "Yes." He wants me to come over to the podium and explain myself. I start walking. Everybody is looking at me .You can almost hear a pin drop. What a long distance to cover. It seems like I have been walking forever.
I stand at the podium. I start telling honestly and exactly what happened. On the other side is the police officer, the other "angel" who caught me and brought me here in the first place. The big angel turns his attention to him and asks about my records. The officer tells him I am a "plus one".
What on earth does that mean?
Never mind. I guess that's a good thing. After the big angel hears this, I am forgiven. Free to go... No handcuffs... My poor little kids, I can see them again!
I step outside. The cold weather hits my cheeks. I take a deep breath and tell myself to relax and come back to reality. Then I think to myself, what could be more real than death? Well, first of all, it happens every single day. Every minute actually, millions of times. The reality is that I will also die. I don't know when and where, with whom and doing what. I just know for sure that some day I will die to be born into a new world, and that first, I have to answer questions. Is there a possibility of there being no questioning? If this beautiful country has rules and regulations, how can this universe being so big, crowded, sophisticated, and wonderful, not have any laws and regulations? Furthermore, how can you not be questioned when you do not obey them?
Maybe more than death itself, I am dreading the questioning part, millions of times more than that moment ten minutes ago when I was worried about that one simple question. My blood pressure peaked for a single traffic ticket. How am I going to handle answering and accounting for my entire life? Will there be an angel telling that I am a plus one? What a relief that would be!
I recall the story of a man who comes to Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and says "Who shall give life to decaying bones?" The Qur'an relates the story and answers: "He shall give them life who first gave them life, and He is All-Knowing concerning all creation," (Ya Sin, 36: 78-79) drawing attention to the fact that making something the first time, creating something original, is much more difficult than making it after the plans are once complete and the outcome is seen. So, I start thinking, that when I die and I am about to answer for what I did with my life, God Almighty has the power to create the scene, the places that I shed my DNA at, and myself from a stain as small as a salt crystal and even smaller, and ask, "Did you commit that sin" right there and then?
What am I going to say? There is no possibility of God's radar or cameras being wrong. I will most probably find myself saying "yes" just as I did at court today, confessing everything with utmost honesty. That is if I can speak under all that stress.
It is not only the "what I did" part that makes me nervous about answering questions, but what I "did not do" as well. I think about the past. Have I been using it wisely, or did I just waste it, for it seemed like it was something given to me for free.
I am a shy person by nature. It is not easy for me to get used to a new neighborhood, community, or school. How am I going to manage to go into a new world, see and live with totally new creatures that I have never seen before, like angels, spirits, and jinn. Contrastingly, I am wondering about what the other world is really going to be like. What is it like to not have any responsibilities, not having to pray or fast, wash the dishes, prepare dinner, do the laundry... ever?
At least I believe, the new world where we will all die to be born into, there will be no wrong guilty sentences. Everything promised from the beautiful paradise to the scary hell will be there. No wrongful convictions, no unfair treatment. But still, am I ready? Or is there going to be a time that I would totally feel ready? On the other hand, I feel like an ignorant person living in a humble home in a small village—a person who is invited to the palace by the King, to this festive occasion, with the most important people; a person who has a chance to receive precious gifts and drink the potion for eternity, but is still hesitating to go; a person wants to give a present to the King but is unsure whether she has anything to offer that would please him. Besides, wasn't whatever this person took with her to the King given by the very King himself? When I prayed five times a day, didn't I do it with the healthy body He gave me? If I made donations, wasn't it with the belongings He handed over to me in the first place. It is as if for every good I did, I was paid beforehand. Then, even if I do whatever He asks me to do, I can't be hopeful because of what I do. Rather, I would build my hopes on how generous, compassionate and loving He is, setting my intentions right with utmost sincerity.
There is one other reason that would make me eager to leave this world and go to the other side. It's because of all those emotions, talents, intellect, and love—faculties of our body and soul which we are not and won't be using in this world because of reasons like not knowing, not being trained, being too young, too old, sick, or just missing out on the windows of opportunities. Do they not need to get out? Aren't they like the baby in the womb, squashed in there and wanting a greater place to grow? Seriously, what percent of my brain and heart am I really using? If God gave me more potential in them, it seems impossible to me that he won't create a place that they will grow and flourish. And I can't think of a better place to be when that happens.
Finally, I found where I had parked my car and the keys that always fall into the black hole of my bottomless purse. I head back to work. I missed first period, but I need to make at least the third to fulfill my plans. It is the time of the day when everybody is already at work. I'm lucky; there is no traffic at all. The roads are so empty. In fact, there are no cars in front of me on the spacious road. Suddenly, it becomes so appealing to me to go a little faster. Just a little bit... My right foot starts itching... Who would know at this time of the day, in the middle of nowhere anyways? Maybe just one more time...
Nihal Zeren Dila is M.S. in Microbiology and Molecular Biology, GMU, Science Teacher at Pinnacle Academy, VA.