Another Year In The Trenches
Come next week, I start another trial. This one is a capital felony, although the state is not seeking death. I suppose it's hard for the state to get up enough blood lust when there are no photographs of a mangled corpse to show the jury. In this case, a young woman simply disappeared many years ago. Comes now my client, accused of raping her, murdering her and then disposing of her body in some still hidden place. Happy New Year, all.
Summoning fight is usually not hard for me. I was born on the other side of the tracks and know firsthand how thin the line that separates me from the folks I represent. And for all my bold irreverence, I know a truth Christians know: All have sinned, and fallen well short of the glory of God.
But I am having a hard time summoning fight just now. I am tired, discouraged and filled with misgivings about the law and my role as a lawyer.
It all seemed simple a couple decades ago. The adversary system tested the truth. The state brought charges. Trial ensued. A jury decided not so much guilt or innocence as whether the proof was sufficient to convict. On the civil side, parties claiming injury could seek recompense. More strangers deciding destiny. And at the center of it all, a contemporary Odysseus, a wily lawyer of many strategies. Over the years, I thought, I will become stronger, wiser, better able to master the fates contesting in the well of the court.
I did not count on becoming a friend of sorrow. Or fatigue. Or seeing clients put guns to their heads to avoid the consequences of a judge's scorn. Or mothers kneeling at my feet holding my hands weeping in a crowded hallway and begging me to do something for their son. Or responding to emails telling me how hard it was to keep from swallowing a jar of pills to make the night go away. I never thought I'd see so much suffering. I thought I would be able to prevent it from happening or make it stop. I thought I would be a hero.
But no one is a hero to a client spending his life behind bars.
For many years, Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost was hero enough for me. "Better to reign in hell then serve in Heaven," he told his dispirited ranks as they descended to Hell. The proud defiance energized me. Yes, I thought, far better to be in Hell -- with all my friends. But I didn't realize that Hell was a real place, a place filled with broken people who pay their fees for counsel in lumps of sulphur.
Law students are taught about clients who bargain in the law's shadow. Reasonable people populate the textbooks on torts. The penal code strives to hold people accountable for the consequences of intentional acts that cause harm. But as the years go by these perspectives on the conflicts filling the courts ring hollow. These lucid fictions collapse against the ever present weight of the irrational. Law is not the rule of reason in human affairs; law is fear's fiction slapped against the gaping wounds of those incurably injured.
As the year ends, I find myself combing through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders looking for context. All these broken people. How do they fit together? What do they expect of me? A stray line from Harold Lasswell's Psychopathology and Politics yields perspective: "The pathological mind, if one may indulge in a lame analogy, is like an automobile with its control lever stuck in one gear: the normal mind can shift."
And I realize at once that all these rumbling gears are active in me as well. Mine still shift, or so it seems. But as I read through the DSM-IV-TR, I know that nothing human is really foreign to me, or to any lawyer. And hence the sorrow.
I've wondered, sometimes, about whether a state's penal code can be reorganized under headings corresponding to the Seven Deadly Sins. I tried to sketch it out the other night. Associating lust and sex crimes seemed fairly easy. But isn't anger also at the core of many sex crimes? And what to do with sloth or gluttony? The human spirit easily bends and becomes frozen into so many caricatures.
I inspired uncommon hatred among some in the past year. I know this because I write about my trials, and the families and friends of complaining witnesses reach out to tell me all about my many failings as a human being and as a lawyer. As the year ends, and I put the demons these folks unleashed to bed, I realize that my sin is pride. I strut, I preen, I crow, I conjure what magic I can in the effort to win each trial I undertake. And on the occasions I do not win, I am crushed. Is it any wonder that I am so easily ridiculed as vain? I own this, sinner that I am, and I know there is little hope of redemption for the likes of me, at least none that I can foresee.
So another year begins, and with it another round of bitter trials. More clients who want miracles, and me, just proud enough even on a bad day to think I can turn any sow's ear into a silken purse. But I am no longer young, and no longer confident enough to think that anything is possible. I have seen good men handcuffed and taken into dark places where they will now die because I could not prevent harm from befalling them.
I need courage, just now, but I am so much more comfortable counting sins than courting virtue. Where to turn for courage? Where when I am spent and weariness feels more like a companion than a visitor?
Somehow even now, Milton's Satan summons. But is it enough? Is it enough to say with Satan: "So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,/ Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost"? Frankly, it is not. But as the new year dawns and old wounds continue to fester, I have little choice.
When the law beckoned, I assumed it would mean a life of toil. But somehow I never really foresaw how hard the work would be. I see it now. And at once my knees tremble, and I know something I have not felt so powerfully in a long time: fear. A new year dawns and I am still bruised by the year just passed. Another year dawns and uncommon cunning is required yet again, and faith, too; yet I lack faith.
The law is hard; I must, somehow, become harder than sorrow.