Every so often the deadline approaches for this weekly column and I am without any sense of urgency. The thought occurs to me to stop writing. But the last time I did that, some six or so years ago, I was surprised by the number of folks who wrote or called to ask why I was stopping. I figured if folks were actually reading me, I’d better keep writing. I returned after only a few weeks “retirement,” warmed by what I saw at my own wake.
So I am prying myself off the wall to write this today, filling space with words to keep my place on these pages. I think I am somewhere into the 14th or 15th year of writing weekly.
It’s been a bitch of a year. I’ve tried a series of criminal cases from one end of the state to the other. While I’ve won a goodly share of counts in these cases, my clients were incarcerated in each case. I get taunting hate mail from trolls, one fellow wondering why anyone would hire me, given all these losses.
Some days I ask myself that very question.
I drove home from my last trial wondering whether I’d ever try another case. It hardly seemed worth the effort, the long nights, the tossing, the turning, the thousand and one imponderable and unanswerable questions that are the daily life of being in trial. I’m a fool for my clients. By the time a case goes to a verdict, I’ve generally persuaded myself that the client cannot be convicted.
Juries don’t share that confidence, apparently.
In a recent trial, the investigator for the state and I talked a lot of trash.
“What are you doing?” he would ask. “Why won’t you let your client plead?”
“I’ll tell you what,” I responded. “I will plead guilty for him, if you will serve his time.”
“How does it feel to be a sociopath?” I would ask him.
“What?” the investigator said.
“You want to lock my client up and put him in a box, destroying his family, depriving his children of his care and company. What’s the matter with you?” I replied.
So went the sub-rosa warfare, silent digs and jibes well off the record.
The fact of the matter is that clients decide whether to try a case or not. Some clients simply cannot face prison. I am with them, frankly. Our quick resort to prison for all manner of human failings strikes me as a public health crisis. We incarcerate more people per capita in the United States than any other nation on Earth. And we call ourselves the land of the free?
Most days I’d rather burn the flag than salute it. The criminal courts are charnel houses. It strikes me as worth the fight to keep a living, breathing human being from entering prison.
“But what about the victims, their pain, their suffering?” I am asked.
All I owe those who make complaints against my clients is respect. I don’t represent them: my lot is to stand beside the man or woman they hate. Call me a fool, but I can’t imagine standing elsewhere in the courtroom. I watch the righteous, whether judge or prosecutor, with a certain wariness. It is the calling of a criminal defense lawyer to see more than the caricature presented in open court as a defendant, the man the world seeks to define by his worst moments.
So amid the discouragement of a difficult year, I am driven to my knees, weary, sorrowful, and yes, somehow, determined to meet the next fight more effectively, vowing to find passion to muster in defense of an accused.
Bent and bowed, but not broken, such is the state of my spirit.
Thanks for reading. I’ll try to come out swinging next week, but this week, I’m quiet, overcome with sorrow and grief for the lives I could not save from the social devastation we foolishly call justice.•