The Abyss Claims Another Lawyer

I am deflated suddenly, staring out the window wondering about the point of it all. News is just now breaking that another lawyer has committed suicide. The body of Meriden’s John Ivers, 50, reported missing this past weekend, has been recovered. A self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, the police say.

Did it have to come to this?

The scoffers out there will mutter it’s no loss, another lawyer dead. You know the jokes: “What do you call a dozen lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?”

 Ready for the answer?

“A good start.”

We’re hated until we’re needed, and then we’re the last best hope of desperate people.

When a lawyer takes his own life, it no longer surprises.

But the shadows cast by deaths such as these darken all they touch. Wresting with these shadows is dreary, even dreadful.

Why this death? When did the ordinary consolations of life no longer sustain? When did this man decide that he was no more than the sum of his sorrows?

Something like survivor’s guilt takes root. The man to my left in the law’s trenches is gone. Nothing but memories remain now, and the searing sense of loss, even anger, over what remains — the commitments unmet, the unyielding pain of loved ones, and, perhaps deepest of all, a sense of renewed vulnerability.

Before I knew that Ivers was dead, I sat outside a courtroom in Hartford discussing the practice of law with a younger colleague. He asked me about the year to come — a lawyer’s year begins after Labor Day, when the courts’ new term begins. What trials did I have coming? As luck would have it, my year will be devoted mostly to death: a couple of shootings in alleged drug deals gone bad, a dead infant, a mother run off the road by the driver of another car, a dismembered body. Bridgeport, Hartford, Middletown, Stamford — I’ll travel the state a troubadour of death this year.

Homicide cases are dark fascinations. The stakes are high, the sense of drama keen. They bring out the best in advocates, paradoxical as that sounds. But sometimes the darkness seeps in.

I told my colleague that what worried me was the expectations of my clients. So much riding on each case: fear, anger, grief the daily grind. I wonder, sometimes, whether I want to keep at it.

He scoffed. “You love it,” he said.

I wonder, I replied.

Did you hear about John Ivers? I asked. He’s turned up missing. His car was spotted near a park.

“Let’s hope he’s living on a tropical island,” the other lawyer said.

I looked at him, puzzled.

“C’mon,” he said, “don’t you think about walking away from it all and taking off? We all do,” he said.

It’s true, I suppose. I just returned to the office after a long vacation. Candidly, I sometimes wonder whether vacation is worth the turmoil. Before returning to the office I slide into a funk for days, daydreaming about living in a small cabin in the north woods somewhere, beholden to no one.

Then this news of Ivers’ death, a man I would nod to in a courtroom, sit next to as we waited for our cases to be called. He was not a friend, but he was a colleague, shouldering the same wheel of sorrows.

His death chastens.

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster ... for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you,” Friedrich Nietszche warned more than a century ago in a book titled “Beyond Good and Evil.”

The abyss just swallowed John Ivers. What did he see?

What lead him to turn this dark and final corner? 

Sure, we all have troubles, and suicide casts its pall over lawyer and non-lawyer alike. One in four Americans will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. There’s nothing special about the death of a lawyer.

I get all that. I really do. 

Lawyers, doctors and others in the helping professions sometimes develop a false sense of immunity from life’s difficulties. Shepherding others through the valley of the shadow of death yields an illusory sense of power, as though we can outrun the demons haunting our own lives.

“Wrong,” Iver’s death screams.

Another friend and I talked about Ivers the afternoon his body was found. This friend is also a lawyer. He’s actually a dead man walking, and he knows it.

Years ago, he was diagnosed with stage four intestinal cancer and was told he wouldn’t live much longer. He fought back. Improbably, and without real explanation, his cancer disappeared. He’s lived beyond his sell-by date, and he knows.

“We’re a small bar here in Meriden,” he told me. “We’re hurting. This is bad,” he said, his sorrow dripping off him like a tear.

 I didn’t know what to say in response. I mumbled something lame about only the good dying young.

“I gotta go. Clients are waiting for me,” he said, and he left to attend to the business of living.

I hadn’t intended to write about this death. I was filled with outrage about any number of things, and, as is my wont, was looking forward to picking another fight, tilting at another windmill.

Instead, I spent the late afternoon staring out the window, wondering how fast and how long a lawyer must run to stay one step ahead of the monster that swallowed John Ivers.

Nietzsche was right about the abyss. It is seductive. I wish John had not succumbed


The Kzhir Khan Sideshow


            The decision to have Khizr Khan address the Democrat’s national convention at the coronation of Hillary Clinton was a stroke of genius. Who better to take aim at Donald Trump on the topic of Muslim immigration?

            Humayun Khan, Mr. Khan’s son, was a captain in the United States Army. He stepped in front of a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004, sacrificing his own life to save the lives of those he commanded. For this he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star – high honors for bravery in the United States military.

            The Khan family are also Muslim.

            So Mr. Khan was contacted, vetted, and prepared to take the stage at the Democratic convention. His sole qualifying characteristics were his religion, the valor of his son, and his willingness to follow the recommendations of his handlers about how to address Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president.

            Khan hit a homerun.

            He denounced Trump, even removing from his jacket pocket a copy of the United States Constitution, struggling in an endearing sort of way to pronounce “United” without the addition of an extra syllable. Had Trump ever read the Constitution? Kahn – or the person who wrote his remarks – told the world he doubted Trump had.

            Trump, Kahn told the world, sacrificed nothing. Mr. Khan and his wife, by contrast, lost a much-loved son.

            It was perfect, absolutely perfect: A Muslim hero losing his life to a suicide bomber. The war on terror has nothing to do with Islam, Mr. Trump. See! My son’s blood is as red as yours.

            Who would dare criticize Mr. Khan, draped, as he is, in the loss of his son?

            Trump, of course.

            First, the Republican took a swipe at the Khan couple. Mrs. Khan stood silently by, unable, or afraid, to speak – no doubt silenced by a religion that makes women into second-class citizens, Trump insinuated.

            Outrageous, the critics contended. Mrs. Khan then explained, in a published op ed piece, she was afraid to speak – she could not speak – because speaking of her son moves her to tears. Another perfect moment for the Democrats.

            In the days that followed, Mr. Khan became a folk hero, making the rounds of the national television shows. Visitors even flocked to Arlington National Cemetery to pay homage to Humayun.

            Then came critics who contended that Trump had disrespected veterans. Families who lose a child on active duty are Gold Star parents. They get special recognition for their loss. They have made the “ultimate sacrifice” and are entitled to deference.

            I agree. They are entitled to deference. Losing a child in active military duty is an unbearable loss.

            But when a Gold Star family member accepts the invitation of a political party to take to the pulpit and take aim at the opposing party’s nominee for president, the family member sheds that deference. Mr. Khan is no victim, however insensitive, even stupid, some of Trump’s remarks in response may have been.

            Mr. Khan let himself be used by the Democrats; if some Republicans now misuse him, he doesn’t get to crawl beneath a Gold Star shell and claim it’s all unfair.

            Just why both parties thought the national debate about public policy was served by parading the parents of dead children across their respective stages is beyond me. It represents some deep, Oprah-like stain, the dumbing down of debate in the name of raw feeling.

            The Republicans called to their convention the mothers of folks killed in the violence in Benghazi and by illegal immigrants. The Republicans countered by calling the mothers of black men killed by police and the Khans.

            Shame on both parties.

            Parents undone by grief aren’t public policy spokesmen. They are political pawns. Playing with this passionate fire is the same sort of mistake the courts make when they ask victims to comment on what justice requires in a criminal case.

            “No one can be a judge in their own case,” an ancient legal maxim has it.

            Amen. Asking those unstrung by grief to see clearly is asking too much.

            I don’t know whether Khzir Khan himself has ever read the United States Constitution, although I suspect he’s read at least some portions of it. He is, after all, a graduate of the Harvard Law School. As a lawyer, he surely knows almost every clause of the document is contested terrain in the ideological warfare that moves the courts.

            The Constitution is not scripture. It doesn’t define a creed that demands the same sort of allegiance folks give to their Bibles or Korans – it’s documents about means, not ends.

            As near as I can tell, there are no reported cases of suicide bombers inspired by the due process clause. And I’ve missed the press accounts of Baptists shooting up nightclub or concert halls.

            But I have not missed the press reports about the threat posed by radical Islam. I am wary of the Muslim world.  So is Donald Trump. I like that about Trump.

            Trump erred in going after Khans; he is seemingly incapable of walking away from a fight – any fight, no matter how low the stakes. The far better course would have been for Trump to respect the Kahns’ loss.

            “Yes, they lost a son, a hero, who sacrificed his life to protect his men,” he should have said.

            “He was protecting his men from a suicide bomber from a region in the world rife with violence. Let’s be careful about opening our borders to folks from that region. Radical Islam killed this young Muslim man. It has taken aim at us, too.”

            There’s a good chance some of the last words Captain Khan heard before he died in Iraq were “Allahu Akbar” – the suicide bomber’s tribute to a savage vision of God.  His father can tell us all day long that is a mere prayer. That’s the sort of willful blindness that gets folks killed.

            Beatifying the parents of a dead soldier does nothing to combat radical Islam.          

            Khizr Khan’s energies would be better spent persuading his co-religionists that radical Islam is a worldwide cancer.

            Move on Mr. Trump. Radical Islam remains a threat, no matter how maudlin the remarks of Mr. Khan. The Khans made themselves into a regrettable sideshow.


About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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