By Richard Jaffe, New Horizon Press, 2012, $24.95
Ever since Louis Nizer penned “My Life in Court,” attorneys of all stripes have aspired to find meaning in their lives through publication of a memoir filled with professional achievements in and out of the courtroom. Inevitably, the efforts to differentiate their work from the mundane fall flat, as the reader is resigned to completing a long read filled with loosely-connected anecdotes that defeat the purposes of the author. In “Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned,” we are presented with the rare exception.
Quest tells the real-life story of Richard Jaffe, a death-penalty criminal-defense lawyer who has spent most of his professional career defending those charged with capital and other serious crimes in Alabama. Unlike John Grisham’s “The Chamber” and other works of fiction, Jaffe’s clients are real, as are the crimes of which they were accused and the victims whose lives they allegedly took.
Providing a narrative that is incongruously both dispassionate and compelling, Jaffe writes of defending, among others, JamesWillie “Bo” Cochran, a man framed for the murder of a convenience store manager; Shannon Mitchell, a lawyer charged with conspiring with his client (charged with a lesser crime) to kill a key prosecution witness; and Randall Padgett, a man exonerated from death row after being wrongfully convicted of a crime committed by a jealous girlfriend. Jaffe also writes of representing people charged with non-capital murder, including Jermaine Robinson, a 15 year-old who killed a man withdrawing money from an ATM machine; and “Daniel,” a peaceful and loving husband (whose real name is not disclosed) who killed his wife while suffering from the rare side effects of an anti-depressant that caused him to react violently to an ordinary marital spat.
Jaffe does not profess to represent only the innocent; many of those whose cases he features were, indeed, guilty. Nor does Jaffe cast himself in the heroic role of a modern-day Perry Mason.
Indeed, unlike many lawyers-turned-authors, Jaffe discloses several unfavorable outcomes. Without hubris or self-flagellation, Jaffe writes: “If trial lawyers try enough cases, each will make a mistake probably more than once. I know I have.”
Among the many differences between Quest and lesser works is Jaffe’s personal narrative, which is nothing short of extraordinary. Born in 1950, Jaffe tells the story of being raised in a segregated suburb of Birmingham, Ala. Jaffe identifies Birmingham by its nickname during that period, “Bombingham”—a reference to the unspeakable violence against African Americans during their struggle for equal rights. He remarks that “the vitriolic rhetoric of our governor, George Wallace, and the treatment of blacks and Jews, not only made no sense to me, but also seemed cruel, humiliating and wrong. It shaped the attitudes I would carry against authority for my entire life.” Jaffe also writes of having a front row seat to the anti-war movement during the late 1960s, and the attacks by national guardsmen against Vietnam War protestors. Inspired by the words and deeds of Attorney General Bill Baxley, who in 1977 successfully convicted Robert Chambliss for the 16th Street Church Bombing of 1963, and who honorably refused to relent to threats by the Ku Klux Klan, Jaffe applied to law school and vowed to work for him.
After graduating and working briefly for the local district attorney, Jaffe started his life’s work as a criminal defense lawyer. Among the most compelling narratives of “Quest,” and there are many, are the stories of Cochran and Padgett. Cochran was convicted of killing a convenience store clerk during a robbery. Jaffe’s description of the facts of the case and his handling of the appeal are immediately impactful. He points out that the victim was discovered 25 feet away from where he had been shot; that the bullet was never found; that the skin around the entry wound was scraped in a manner that suggested someone had removed the bullet post-mortem; that Cochran’s gun was cold immediately after he was arrested near the scene, reflecting that it had not been fired; that no paraffin test had been performed to ascertain whether Cochran had recently discharged a weapon; and that the money allegedly stolen during the robbery was not “found” on his person until he had been searched multiple times.
Despite these questionable circumstances, the appeals of Cochran’s conviction were unsuccessful until the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Batson v. Kentucky, in which the court ruled that it is unconstitutional to use racial criteria during jury selection in criminal trials. Jaffe explains how he carefully approached the prosecutor who candidly acknowledged using peremptory challenges for the sole purpose of excluding African Americans from the jury. The result, a new trial, which Jaffe won in spectacular fashion.
Jaffe recounts his representation of Padgett with equal flair. With a fact-pattern that brings to mind the movie scripts of Fatal Attraction and Presumed Innocent, Jaffe tells the story of Randall Padgett, whom he began to represent after the latter’s conviction was overturned by the Alabama Supreme Court, and the case against him had been remanded for a second trial. Padgett had been convicted of raping and murdering his estranged wife by stabbing her more than 40 times. Through painstaking investigation, Jaffe pieced together evidence that seemed to show that Padgett’s girlfriend had framed Padgett for the murder by, among other things, killing his estranged wife, refrigerating his sperm and then inserting it into the victim. Jaffe’s description of his approach to the case and the manner in which he solved it is the stuff of a Sherlock Holmes novel, except, of course, that Jaffe’s book is based upon actual events.
Complementing Jaffe’s stories are instructive commentaries which emphasize the importance of the rights of the accused. Among those which have the greatest resonance is the following, addressing the presumption of innocence:
“The founding fathers of our nation knew full well the incredible advantages the government possesses with its sheer power and unlimited resources. The government can obtain most any information simply by virtue of its authority and, as a consequence, thoroughly and completely investigate a crime. They also knew that the public juror tends to believe the voice of authority. In other words, popular belief follows that, if the police arrested this person, they have good reason to believe he is guilty. To balance these realities, those who designed our system built in a presumption that anyone accused of a crime is innocent unless the government produces evidence sufficient to rid any reasonable doubt.”
By interspersing personal narratives with compelling justifications for the legal presumption of innocence and the elimination of the death penalty, Jaffe provides critical context to the work that death penalty defense lawyers do and its importance to our legal system.
As a practicing lawyer for more than two decades, I have been gifted, by well-intended friends and family, shelves of books written by even more well-intentioned lawyers. Few of these books have been worthy of a second look. But “Quest for Justice” is the rare exception. Jaffe’s commitment to social justice and the defense of those accused of society’s most heinous and incomprehensible crimes is an inspiration to those of us who became lawyers aspiring to have occasion to do what Jaffe makes a living at every day.
“Quest” is the sort of rare book that is likely to stay with you, as it has with me.
Michael S. Hiller is managing member of Weiss & Hiller in Manhattan and a professor of Constitutional and Criminal Law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.