Oftentimes, especially by those in other professions, I have been asked how I defend those who have committed a heinous crime or those who are obviously guilty. For a long time, I lent upon the Constitution and Gideon v. Wainwright to justify sitting beside my often poor, often addicted, and often mentally ill client. I would compare it to the timeless tale of To Kill A Mockingbird and the standard of excellence in manhood found in Atticus Finch.
And, please do not misunderstand me, I still cling tightly to these ideals and ensuring fairness, justice, and competence in all phases of the American judicial process – which hinges its integrity so tightly to the hard work of the relentless and tireless defense lawyer and the strong, diligent and honor of a fair and reasonable prosecutor. However, the more I defend individuals, the more I find myself competing against a system that is weighed heavily in favor of the State. It has every investigative agency, forensic laboratory, expert, and a nearly endless stream of funds with which to prosecute my client. Most times, I am begging a court for a fraction of those resources to prepare a defense and oftentimes I am turned down, and forced to face the mighty State with my client's rights, the rules of evidence and procedure, subpoena power, and prayer on my side.
As unfair as that is and as unfair as I have seen this system become over the few years I have practiced, I have not faced a challenge like I have faced in seeking to uncover and working to overcome the "beast in man" One of my favorite poets and activists, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that "[e]ven as they strike you down with a mountain of hatred and violence ... remember, brother, remember: Man is not our enemy. The only thing worthy of you is compassion – invincible, limitless, unconditional; hatred will never let you face the beast in man." Whether it is a client, opposing attorney, witness, or other individual – even an alleged or actual victim – being counsel for the defense is more about being attorney for man.
I am finding that the more I focus on my client's common attributes and traits to you and I, and isolate whatever beast he may be facing there is a better chance that I may find some common ground with that prosecutor and provide a paralleled care and correction that addresses the underlying problem – addiction, mental illness, poverty, childhood abuse or neglect or abandonment, and/ or a disregard for the preciousness of their own life and lives of others. In the hundreds of people and children I have defended, I have met very few truly bad men or women.
I have defended those who suffer from mental illness, addiction, and cyclical, horrific poverty (sometimes combined); but rarely have I defended a truly evil individual without any redeeming quality or something unique that he or she offers or could offer to the better of society. It is easy to dismiss these men, women and children listed in "Lights and Sirens" or otherwise placed into the halls of shame at the Crawford County Justice Center; but, in doing so, we deny and dismiss ourselves. I am willing to admit that I am not without fault – that I have committed a crime or two in my life, or act of juvenile delinquency, and in many cases that which differentiates me from one of my clients is a lucky choice or lucky turn down a different road or just plain luck.
Some of those who have reached that level of desperation to steal, burglarize or take another person's life are, in fact, the most misunderstood of all those I have represented. I have sat – like so many of my brothers and sisters at the criminal defense bar – just feet away from killers and those who would break into someone's home and steal, and in the countless hours you spend with that person preparing your case, going over evidence – the man and the beast begin to separate. And the lawyer gets that chance to see the human potential that no one else sees, and it is the lack of recognition of the potential for good and the failure of courts, prosecutors and the public to see what we see that becomes the source of sleeplessness, overwhelming stress and pressure, physical and emotional disengagement from society, and the constant harassment of our own minds begging the question, "have I done enough for the man to overcome his beast, and to let people see the humanity in my client in all its uniqueness and frailty?"
I guess this means I am not a crime and punishment type of guy, but I know that humanity is more complex than that and more deserving of understanding and compassion. And, yes, even those who have been given chance after chance are deserving of our everlasting patience, and while they may need to go to prison because the law requires it, that does not mean that we ignore them, degrade them, and otherwise brand them for life. And if that is our choice – to simply beat them down to "teach them a lesson" – then we can expect to continue to see the beast in man and expect that individual to continue to harm society. Not to say that there are not those who are not so ill of the mind that they should not be locked away for the duration of their lives subject to treatments and therapy to address their underlying illness.
To be quite honest with you, I am writing this out of a deep-seeded frustration with a criminal justice system beset on incarcerating as many people as possible. Despite the fact that crime continues and society suffers, we look at crime through the narrow window of a law or statute; and ignore the underlying issues for which the crime was committed – most often crippling poverty and addiction. We have no real plan. We have many people trying to do good things to address the problem but there is no force or movement by the people of our community to create some change for ourselves, to face the beast in man, to overcome it and find the best in man.
In short, I am a proud ideologue but a prouder defense lawyer. I am not simply proud because I stand up for the parts of the constitution that no one really cares about until they or their loved ones are in trouble, but because in those hours in the jailhouse with the client and the clients' family, I see the man, not the beast. I get to see the potential that the rest of the people – who want their news in 30 seconds snips and make their judgments based upon those 30 second clips – simply ignore or refuse to acknowledge. I am despised because I am willing to see myself in my clients. I despise myself because no matter how many hours, no matter how little sleep, I can never work hard enough nor argue well enough nor give enough. But everyday there is no second best. There is no higher calling for me. Right or wrong, I see the man in the beast and believe that "man is not my enemy;" to overcome the beast and to reveal to those who would see the man or woman veiled behind the beast is one of the most – if not the most – important work I do in this system.
The longer I do this, the more I believe the Greek, Menander was right: "[y]ou are a man. Then pray not to be free from sorrow but for courage that endures... No man while sinning sees his sin for what it is. [Only] later he sees it."