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For more than 20 years, James Blackburn’s career followed an arc familiar to many a successful litigator. He was only 34 when he made national headlines by convicting Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald in the murder of his family. After trying his first and only murder case, Blackburn went on to be the U.S. Attorney in Raleigh, N.C., followed by partnership in one of the state’s major firms. Blackburn’s career then became a prototype of a different sort: the flameout. Stripped of his law license and convicted of defrauding clients and his partners, Blackburn was reduced to waiting on tables in the same upscale Raleigh restaurant where he once was a star customer. These days Blackburn is not sticking to a script. Rather than skulking away in shame, he still lives and works in Raleigh. And he still gets up in front of a crowd to argue his case — as a motivational speaker. Blackburn’s message: In recounting all the humiliating details of his fall from grace, he illustrates the perils of a zeal to win at all costs, and the redemptive power of coming clean. Once your most embarrassing stories are told — in his case, the lying, cheating and nervous breakdowns — you’re free because you no longer have to worry you’ll be found out. The 58-year-old Blackburn — still graced with a trial lawyer’s looks and mellifluous Carolina drawl — is the poster child for learning from failure, and he carries his message to churches, civic groups, bar associations, law schools and anyone else who wants to hear him. The MacDonald case, says Blackburn, was publicly the start of his upward trajectory, but privately it crippled him. “MacDonald had the best lawyers, he was a doctor, he was charming and charismatic,” recalls Blackburn. “As a result, most people didn’t think we’d win, so there wasn’t much pressure. After we won, I felt like I was always supposed to win everything.” The 1979 trial became an obsession. “I was always trying to find the next MacDonald case — the publicity, the complexity, and the drama,” Blackburn says. “I developed an unnatural and unreasonable expectation of myself and what I could accomplish for my clients.” The trouble for Blackburn festered years after the MacDonald verdict — after he served as U.S. Attorney for North Carolina’s Eastern District, and after practicing solo. Joining what was then Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore in 1987, Blackburn’s obsession with winning — or, more precisely, with not losing — turned into an insane juggling act. Faking a lawsuit that he was supposed to file but didn’t, he covered up by forging court orders and shuffling client money to pay a “settlement.” Blackburn’s partners discovered the scam in January 1993. Indicted on charges that included embezzlement from the firm of nearly a quarter of a million dollars, Blackburn pleaded guilty. The lawyer who won Blackburn a suspended sentence, with restitution payments and community service? Former MacDonald defense lawyer Wade Smith of Raleigh’s Tharrington Smith. Since then, through the shame and the financial pressures, Blackburn has more than toughed it out; he’s made it work for him. The waiter’s job he took at Raleigh’s 42nd Street Oyster Bar, he says, wasn’t just for the money. “It also forced me out of hiding,” he says. “I think every lawyer should wait tables for at least a month because it teaches you humility. And lawyers need humility.” He finally gave up waiting tables after 3 1/2 years. With one rather obscure book to his credit — the aptly titled “Flame-Out: From Prosecuting Jeffrey MacDonald to Serving Time to Serving Tables,” published in 2000 — Blackburn is at work on another, about the MacDonald prosecution. He hasn’t found a publisher yet. While Joe McGinniss’ “Fatal Vision,” published 19 years ago, probably sated most readers’ curiosity about the case, Blackburn has faith in his own project. The one thing he hasn’t been tempted to do is seek reinstatement of his law license, an option open to him for four years. Motivational speaking and writing, he says, suit him better: “I’d rather do this than practice law because I think my ability to influence and help people is greater.” Newsome is a Matthews, N.C., free-lance writer.

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