Only once have I had to take the witness stand to plead the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, and that was after I felt compelled to betray a client on death row. You see, I came into the possession of plans for a violent escape from the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers.
If the plan had worked, confederates of my client would have stormed the wooded perimeter of the facility, shot to death some guards and spirited my client away to freedom. I had unwittingly become part of the plan, a conduit for potentially deadly information.
I consulted a series of lawyers about what to do. Opinions ranged from destroying the plans to hiding them out of state to doing nothing at all. I opted to provide the plans to the commissioner of the state Department of Correction, in a rare Sunday afternoon meeting in my office. I refused to say a word about what they were or how I acquired the plans.
I then asked the court for permission to withdraw as counsel from my client’s case. Needless to say, we had a conflict. The state opposed my motion, seeing it as yet another delaying tactic. I was placed on the witness stand to explain why I needed to withdraw. Rather than answer the questions, I pleaded the Fifth. My motion to withdraw was granted.
Criminal defense lawyers defend those accused of crimes. We operate under what I call the Jimmy Hoffa Rule, meaning we can with good conscience defend against accusations for any and all acts that occur before we meet a client. Thus, you can retain me, tell me you killed Jimmy Hoffa, the former Teamsters president who went missing in 1975, and even tell me where you stashed his body. Your secrets are my secrets, and my job is to defend you, whether you actually did the dirty deed or not.
But if you come to me and ask for help in killing Hoffa, or in moving his hidden body, a line is crossed, a line that makes me a participant and potential co-defendant, rather than your lawyer.
I am reminded of all this as I follow the news coverage about Richard Matt and David Sweat, the two men who escaped earlier this month from an upstate New York prison. Candidly, I am rooting for them to make good their flight, just as I would have rooted for my client on death row had I not stumbled into the plan.
But how can you root for convicted killers?, I can hear you gasp.
The answer won’t satisfy everyone, but it suffices for me: No one is the sum of their worst moments. Some part of me is drawn every time to the side of those we condemn to lives of despair.
I realize that Matt and Sweat were convicted of horrible crimes. Sweat, 35, is sentenced to life without possibility of parole for killing a lawman; Matt, 48, is sentenced to an indeterminate term of 25 years to life for the gruesome killing of a former boss. These crimes place these men beyond the pale, just as did my death row client’s rape/murder of a bank executive.
But horrible though these crimes were, they were isolated acts. The sentences we impose on those convicted of a crime linger decade after decade, a form of existential torture that dwarfs the harm done by the killers.
Few readers of this column will have experience with prisoners condemned to decades, or a lifetime, behind bars. We come to know the condemned only by their crimes. Thus, Matt and Sweat are “murderers,” and nothing more. I watch with amusement as breathless newscasters report over and over again about the search for the “convicted killers.” Imprisonment makes the imprisoned into mere caricatures, shadowy images cast on a wall and illuminated by our fear.
I’ve made friends of several men and women serving life sentences. As the decades pass, I watch hope recede, and despair settle in. Long past the time these individuals posed threats to society, they are warehoused, forgotten and left to fend for themselves with minimal decency in penal colonies. Were any of them to escape, I’d be rooting for them to outrun the lawmen’s noose.
Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century British philosopher, wrote “The Leviathan” to provide an explanation of how the state acquired its power. In a stateless world, life is “nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.” We are in war of all against all, each free to do whatever we think we must to survive. We enter civil society, and create a state, to provide for our mutual security.
One consequence of this social contract is that we surrender our right to use force against one another to the state. But there is a limit, Hobbes, the great authoritarian, noted: When the sovereign seeks to kill us, the contract is broken. We are free to strike back, lethally if necessary, to preserve our own lives.
I imagine that this is just how Matt and Sweat see themselves now — at war with a world, with a society, that has placed them among the living dead, consigning them to a warehouse of despair from which they are expected never to return. Why, candidly, ought they passively endure such treatment?
As a lawyer, I’ve sworn an oath to uphold the law. I cannot participate in unlawful conduct; I cannot advise the criminal on how best to avoid detection; I cannot assist the escapee. So I don’t.
But that does not prevent me in the still hours of an early morning from scanning news reports about the search for these men and taking satisfaction that they are still at large. Somehow, their desperate flight and determined efforts to avoid capture are a source of something approaching inspiration.
No one is the sum of their worst moments, and be damned a world that seeks to chain us to our darkest deeds.