Ever since I had decided to be an attorney, I thought this spot was what I was looking forward to. Working as a lawyer in a firm, representing people who needed help. Solving their problems. I wanted to represent Christ to the criminal defendants the churches wouldn’t accept. Back then, I misunderstood that season to be the start of life, and all the preceding seasons were merely preparatory.
I was an associate (translation: peon) in a small firm that did criminal defense and domestic work, as well as assist several of the local community leaders and political figures. In this line of work, you get to see behind peoples’ masks, but that often leaves you wondering which face is the mask.
The first client I remember was “Shaky.” That was his street name. Apparently the head attorney had represented him some in the past before I came along, as I don’t remember him having a case with us so much as stopping by to visit once in while. He was a friendly, jovial, quirky dude. And here is the first point: defense work humanizes the people that we are trained to see as scary criminals. You get to know their families, their insecurities, the things that anger them and the things that scare them. This doesn’t erase their criminal activity, it just places them in the same filthy basket of mankind as you. Shaky was a diminutive black guy who was afflicted with some sort of palsy that caused a tremor. He had the problem most of his life, earning the moniker “shaky,” and in his adult life he learned to self medicate with street drugs. Yes – the palsy came before the drugs. He had never known the type of stable income to cover healthcare expenses, but he could make enough for a hit once in a while to “ease the pain.” I don’t remember what his drug of choice was, and it doesn’t matter now anyway. M and I were relaxing on our new sofa in our new home one evening after a long day with me at the office and her working at the water department, when we saw the 6:00 news from New Orleans reporting that “a crazed man with a knife just attacked several people in a New Orleans quick stop.” There was a mug shot of Shaky on my television. That shook me. I didn’t know where to place my sympathy – on the criminal or the victims. Both had it. I had no choice about it. The Shaky I knew would never stab anyone, unless of course he was high. He had apparently made his way to New Orleans, found something to “ease his pain,” and done something stupid. Very stupid. I’m not the guy who can allow myself to call Shaky “evil,” as some prosecutors want to, to make themselves look like superheroes. It’s more complicated than good and evil. It’s the depravity of mankind in general. I guess that was my welcome to criminal defense, and I didn’t even represent him.
I’ve said before that if you want to fight someone, dehumanize them, and if you want to make peace, humanize them. It’s a common practice with everyone from lawyers to soldiers. Soldiers are trained to call the enemy “insurgents” or for Taliban types, “infidels” for a reason – to avoid calling them by names that might suggest their humanity. When you see a politician labeling people rather than recognizing their humanity, yet claiming to want peace and prosperity for them, beware.
Anyway, the next case in my memory is a juvenile case. My client was a common teenager from a good home who was accused of molesting a developmentally disabled boy in his shower. The victim made a crystal clear identification of his friend, my client, as his perpetrator, and explained that it happened during a sleepover. Being the nasty criminal defense attorney I had trained so long to be, I cross examined the “retarded” boy relentlessly on the stand. I was on the receiving end of countless stink-eyes from his family and friends as we talked about the real Power Rangers coming to his birthday party, and how Santa Claus really did come down the chimney, in my effort to show that he was an impressionable young man who believed the stories his father told him.
During this difficult, heart wrenching questioning, about the time we were talking about his dad telling him my client did the act, the victim blurted out that it was his dad who touched him in the shower, and wept for the lie he had been forced to tell and the effect of it on his friend in jail. Dad was arrested in the courtroom. I did not see myself as the nasty criminal defense guy at that moment, and I was hooked.
If I could have a “Perry Mason” moment like that at each trial, I was standing on the threshold of an impressive career. I wondered if F. Bailey was ready to retire, or if Harper Lee needed an inspiration for a new book. . .