"Injustice Is Where Hopelessness Prevails"

On Monday, I'll start jury selection in a murder case I tried for the first time last September. The jury could not agree unanimously on whether my client was justified in shooting two women who rushed at him in his kitchen. So we'll do it all over again. As is so often the case in Connecticut, I expect jury selection to last longer than the evidence. It will take two weeks to pick the jury; evidence should take six or seven days.

Preparing for this trial has been an exercise in humility. It is painful to read the transcript of your own work. I've winced, thrown transcripts aside in disgust, and tossed and turned at night trying to reconceive the trial from start to finish. A good friend has helped me by reading the transcript; his critique has from time to time stung. But I have done my best to listen. Listening is hard work for me.

What I have yet to do is prepare my client for the retrial. I am not sure how to do that. How does a man watch the worst moment in his life replayed frame by frame before strangers? How do you sit silently and still when you are attacked, scorned and ridiculed by a prosecutor? How to accept the fact that 12 strangers will now make a judgment about a split second or two they have never, and may never, experience for themselves? The answer is simple yet so very difficult: You walk them throw the valley of the shadow of death; that valley exists in each of us, just beyond the threshold of what we see.

Self-defense is a hard defense to the charge of murder. You ask the jury to conclude the killing was justified. And you do that as the family of the dead sit staring daggers into you. It is a difficult journey, taking strangers to the secret place we all harbor where killing is done not out of joy but of sad necessity.

Trial is tense, and I meet tension too often with dark humor. There is nothing funny about the death of another. But the heavy silence of a courtroom in such cases is the moment before a heart stops beating. I've turned at such moments to clients to say something to distract them from the pain. Too often we've smiled together at some inane aside.

Prosecutors have called a client or two of mine on this during their closing arguments. "The defendant smiled here as the evidence was presented. He has shown and shows now no remorse," they will intone. I've heard those comments and fumed. Does the state now claim the right to dictate even the demeanor we must show as it tries to slay us?

I'm a born contrarian and a approach the simplest of tasks in a fighting frame of mind. Hell, I'd argue with my shadow if I could get it to talk back. There has to be a better way to do just about anything, and rarely is reality the sum of that which simply appears. My favorite figure in literature remains Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost; Yes, the battle may be pointless, but the effort is all. Defiant unto death seems about the right attitude. Or, to put it another way, once I see the freight train coming, if there is no time to step aside, I'll lunge to greet it, hoping to dislodge it from the tracks. There's no point in running, and simply waiting for the inevitable. Attack, attack, attack has become a way of life for me.

All this and more flooded into my mind in an instant as I read a short piece written by Jeff Gamso this morning. Gamso is the high-priest of criminal defense lawyers writing on the life the mind as it confronts the brutal realities of the law. He attended a seminar not long ago. "Injustice is where hopelessness prevails," the speaker said. I might recast the line just a bit to make it fit my emerging sensibilities: "Despair is where hopelessness prevails." Despair is, in my view, the deadliest of the Seven Deadly sins. A criminal defense lawyer cannot despair; there is fight in ever gesture a lawyer makes in defense of a client.

But how to retain hope amid the horror of autopsy photos, tears and fear? Perhaps Satan's sin was the open rebellion, the defiant posture? Perhaps dark humor is less anesthetic than concession.

Read Elaine Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels, my friend told me this summer. "I read it years ago," I snapped, ever too eager to demonstrate my learning. What a pointless display of pride in that simple response of mine. So I reread it. The kingdom of heaven might just be at hand but never arriving. Looking outward for signs and portents is looking away from the kingdom emerging within. Looking within to find the source of righteousness is hard and painful work; pride distracts. Looking within, embracing sorrows, becoming acquainted with grief, peering with an unwavering glance into horror: these are almost spiritual exercises I must learn and somehow teach my client in the hard confines of a courtroom.

Tell me, truly, what are we taught of the care of souls in law school? The hardest truths we must learn and teach on our own, speaking with lips unclean from having uttered so many scorning and mocking words. Trial now beckons as a circle of Hell. And Hell is no laughing matter ...

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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