Tucson Salvage 

How this quadriplegic overcame incredible odds to become a Juvenile Court public defender

click to enlarge Corinne and Katherine Schram at home.

Brian Smith

Corinne and Katherine Schram at home.

It was early December in 1992 and lovely 16-year-old Corinne Schram and two of her girlfriends were headed to see the Grateful Dead at the Compton Terrace Amphitheater near Phoenix. They were driving up I-10 in Schram's Daihatsu Charade hatchback. Schram was headlong into teen rebellion then, partying a lot, drinking and doing drugs. All of her friends and boyfriends were older. People her own age bored her. She attended public school, mostly in the advanced GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program, and was to graduate high school a year early. But she hated school, so she quit all together.

Schram was in the front passenger seat, and they were somewhere near Casa Grande. The girl driving turned to say something to the girl in the back, but got distracted, and the little Daihatsu suddenly jerked out of its lane, swerving off the road into the median. She over-corrected, the weight and momentum of the turn was too much and the car flipped.

But they were lucky, because no other cars were involved. They were lucky because investigators determined that the accident wasn't alcohol-related. They were lucky because the driver miraculously emerged from the crash unscathed. They were lucky because the windows of the Daihatsu were large enough to accommodate the girl in the backseat, so she was ejected into the cold air and only suffered a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder.

But Schram wasn't exactly lucky. Or maybe she was lucky, if you consider the number of corpses that freeway has given up. She was found alive and broken, hanging out of the wrecked car. Her head and face had slammed so hard against the freeway that it snapped her neck. She was airlifted to Good Samaritan hospital in Phoenix. She doesn't remember anything at all about the crash, or even any precise moment waking up in the hospital to the horrific discovery that she was paralyzed from the neck down. Or that she needed many surgeries on her face, jaw and neck.

click to enlarge Corinne and Katherine Schram at home. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Corinne and Katherine Schram at home.
Imagine surviving a catastrophic crash in the worst imaginable way. You no longer can walk or move your arms or fingers. You want to die, but you can't even commit suicide because it's physically impossible. You're forced to depend on someone else for every movement, every necessity in your life, except for the movement of your head.

You've given up all your dreams of the future, the kind that can lift a teen out of a spiraling youth. Forget it all. In this world you can't lift a fork to your mouth to feed yourself or brush a wayward hair from your face, much less reach out and touch another human being.

Then imagine somehow shifting that story—that self-narrative of defeat, alienation and loneliness—to something that's perhaps more complex and nuanced—a storyline mixed with a fierce desire to survive. It's not blind faith. And it's not some god. It's all you. It's all you in the center of a random, indifferent universe ruled by chance.

And then imagine telling yourself, and your skeptics, this: Fuck it—I'm going to go to college. And then: Fuck it—I'm going to go to law school.

Because that's what 39-year-old Ms. Schram did. She's now a public defense attorney at Pima County Juvenile Court, where she has worked for seven years.

And she sometimes sees her teen self in the kids she defends.

We're in Corinne Schram's bedroom, and it's lovely and airy, filled with natural light and mood-lifting pastel colors. There are butterflies with spread wings enclosed in a few framed cases that hang on walls. They look trapped in midflight. A calico cat sleeps soundly on a paisley comforter in the middle of her made bad. The central- Tucson house, which she shares with her mother and seven cats, is similarly airy, and smells of flowers. The Salt Lake City-born Schram has lived in the place since moving to Tucson when she was three years old.

She's in her wheelchair talking of her life and relationship to the world around her. There's dignity about her, and she offers personal insights with zero embellishment.

Does she ever dream of living a different life?

"There's no point of having dreams of a different life because it's not ever going to happen."

Does she get lonely?

She nods her head. "Of course." After a long moment, she adds, "Everybody does. But then, at the same time, it sucks never having time alone. My only time alone time is when I'm reading or sleeping."

She needs caretakers. She needs her mother Katharine. In the first four years after the crash, until she received a personal injury settlement, all Schram had was her mother to care for her—the feeding, the bathing, the dressing, the driving, everything. Her father wasn't around much after the accident, and he has since remarried. Her one sibling, a sister who now lives out-of-state, was traumatized. "She went through years of depression and survivor's guilt," Schram says. (Schram has three much younger step-siblings on her dad's side living in the Czech Republic).

It wasn't easy getting there, but Schram enrolled at the University of Arizona, and graduated with a B.A. in philosophy. Then she earned her law degree in 2007. She'd have a caretaker accompany her to classes, or occasionally classmates would sit with her and turn book pages for her. The writing part wasn't easy either, as voice-activation software is problematic. But she took a full school load, "same as everyone else."

click to enlarge Corinne Schram with her assistant Irving Talavera at Pima County Juvenile Court. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Corinne Schram with her assistant Irving Talavera at Pima County Juvenile Court.

Her three years in law school weren't so intellectually challenging, but going into law was something she needed to do, considering how quickly her settlement money was evaporating—caregiver expenses alone were costing at least $60,000 a year.

"Was I gung-ho excited about going to law school? No. I had to do something that I could potentially make money doing, as well as physically do."

And becoming a public defender?

"I didn't choose it, it chose me," she says. "I was putting out resumes and that's where I got called. Pima County. I never wanted to go into criminal law, but I knew that if I did, it would have to be on the defense side. I couldn't prosecute. I couldn't be part of sending people to prison for non-violent offences. Stuff that I don't believe in. I couldn't prosecute somebody for smoking weed. And the whole system I just think is so wrong and fucked up and prison is so awful, I just couldn't be a part of trying to put somebody there."

Talking of her mother, she says, "We're very close." Then she grins. "Maybe closer than we should be." Their relationship is not, by any stretch, Grey Gardens, but it hasn't always been easy beyond the obvious love they have for each other. They can work each other's nerves, and mom, an intelligent, sprightly woman who looks a good decade younger than her 73 years, sometimes finishes Schram's sentences and vice versa.

When mom joins the conversation, she explains that her daughter was never a self-doubter by nature. It's an analysis that might help explain how mom dealt with the life-shifting tragedy back in the '90s. That doesn't mean their interactions don't get prickly. She uses the word "stubborn" to describe her daughter when relating a story about how years ago she refused a catheter so she could wear jeans in her wheelchair.

"It's not stubborn," Schram says. "It's conviction."

"You're right," mom says.

click to enlarge Corinne Schram with her assistant Irving Talavera at Pima County Juvenile Court. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Corinne Schram with her assistant Irving Talavera at Pima County Juvenile Court.
Irving Talavera reaches into Corinne Schram's purse, which dangles from the back of the wheelchair, and pulls out a pinkish lip glass and gently applies it to her lips. She utters a quiet thank you as he slips the gloss back into her purse.

Dressed for court, Schram looks great in a black, sleeveless top with an elegant V cut, beige slacks. Her neck-length blonde hair shows lavender streaks on the sides.

Schram has a stack of files piled into her lap, on top of which sits her calendar book and a four-inch thick tomb called Arizona Criminal and Traffic Law Manual.

"I usually don't carry a manual," the lawyer laughs. "It's for my depo hearing."

Schram's in the crowded waiting area outside one of many courtrooms inside the Pima County Juvenile Court building. There's a hearing for one of her juvenile clients. She currently has 35 active cases going, and Talavera, who is Schram's assistant, flips open her appointment book, which shows, in color-coded boxes, the number of hearings that Schram has that day. She scans the page with her sky-blue eyes.

She'll tirelessly burn through five hearings in the next two hours—in and out of various courtrooms. Squeezed between the hearings are quick meetings with kids and their parents. She explains that most of her cases plead out; "probably 97 percent. Very few go to trial."

This is part of her workday in a week limited to 30 hours. She's physically unable to work more than that; long hours in her wheelchair can create pressure sores on her body.

She meets with a set of bleary-eyed parents and their son. It's in their faces that their kid's welfare is important to them, their concerned expressions and stiffly chosen words. She reassures them that their son deserves less than a six-month probation.

Irving pushes Schram into the courtroom.

The prosecutor, the boy's probation officer, the judge and Schram go around about the boy's shoplifting and marijuana possession charge.

Schram recommends a sentence less than the six-month probation recommended by the court. His urine tests are clean, he's hitting his 6 p.m. curfew "and he's doing well in school," she explains to Judge Richard E. Gordon.

The judge agrees. He hands down a lesser sentence.

Later on Schram talks of the empathy she has for the kids; some whose rebellious streaks remind her of her own when she was 16.

"I wouldn't call them lost causes," she says. "I don't think any of them are lost causes."

More by Brian Smith

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