Trial as Ordeal
It seems to shock friends when I tell them that it matters not at all to me whether a client has committed the very crime the state alleges. Even clients are wary. Some clients seem to suspect that if they tell you the truth, you won't defend them with all the might you can muster.
But it's true, and therein lies the rub: Although judgments in criminal cases are cast in moral terms - a defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crime charged - the law is not about morals. It is a far more mundane affair. The criminal law would be a far better thing if it shed the language of morals; we've dispensed with such talk on the civil side, where defendants are either liable or not, as the case may be.
My job, the job of a criminal defense lawyer, is to defend clients accused by the state. No one waives the need for a defense simply because they've been accused of doing something wrong, even if they have done it. "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick," Jesus once said to critics questioning why he broke bread with much-hated tax collectors. So, too, with the defense of people: Criminal defense lawyers defend not just the righteous, but also the sinners.
I won a murder trial this week. The jury was went out after lunch and came back before we broke for the evening. "Not guilty," they said. Just like that.
Waiting for a jury's verdict is torture.
"Why are you so tense?" the prosecutor said to me just before the jury entered the room.
"I suppose you've never lost a man for decades at trial," I replied. "It hurts. It always hurts."
Juries in Connecticut are not told, except in death penalty cases, what becomes of a client they call guilty. In serious crimes, the cold calculus of the law imposes decades upon conviction of a crime. It is a rare man or woman I have sat next to for several weeks of trial who I have not come to see as much like myself, a man or woman of sorrow, acquainted with grief and regret for decisions sometimes made in error. Sitting next to a client, imagining what will become of them if the jury says "guilty," is my introduction to hell.
Then the jury said "not guilty."
My client's wife and mother sat quietly weeping after verdict was returned. The investigating police officers, who were not called as witnesses but turned up to hear closing arguments and to wait for the verdict, stood stunned in the hallway.
I crept out of the courtroom, mindful that something momentous had occurred. Two witnesses had told jurors my client confessed to the crime. But there were reasons, many reasons, to doubt what they said, not the least of which was the fact that the lead officer interrogating them bullied them, made them promises he couldn't keep, and lied to them, facts the jury heard.
But still, a man had been killed, shot dead in cold blood, for no good reason at all. There is no celebration at the end of a murder trial. Ever.
I waited for the elevator to escape the courthouse. The victim's mother rounded the corner. We looked at one another for a long moment, her's a look of sorrow, mine one of wariness. Would she blame me? Had I not spoken harsh truths about the boy she nurtured for decades, the boy gunned down in cold blood?
I wanted to tell her I was sorry, but I was not sorry my client was acquitted. The state had not proven its case. I could not summon anything to say, but we walked toward one another nonetheless. We hugged in a long silent moment. Nothing in the legal proceedings had changed a thing for her. "Closure" is a bandage that never fits the wound it is intended to cover when it comes to murder. Gone is gone forever.
My wife was visiting her mother out of town, so I went home early to an empty house. I did not want to see a living soul. I had no taste for the company of co-counsel. My office seemed like a crypt I must avoid, lest the ringing phone summon me to talk about what had just occurred.
I had no appetite, and went straight to bed, beneath the covers by 6:30. And then I wept, off and on, for an hour or so. The tears came and went, responding to hidden cues.
I'm not sure why I cried.
I was relieved, to be sure, but I was also marked by the trial's violence. Autopsy photos always shock. The senselessness of murder outrages. And the searing, silent sorrow of the dead man's mother's eyes haunted me.
Also haunting was how close a call this case had been. My client was one word away from dying behind bars. Had he been convicted, the sentence would surely have been 55 or 60 years. Walking in the valley of the shadow of death is unnerving. I was undone.
I fell asleep early and awoke the next day to a round of congratulations from friends and colleagues. An armor of glibness covered the tears of the prior evening. "Even a blind man finds the open door every so often," I told well-wishers.
I am glad the trial is over. I am relieved that a jury acquitted my client. But I don't think for a moment that the trial accomplished anything or lasting moral significance.
Did my client kill the victim? A jury had reasons to doubt it. I never asked him. The larger moral questions such violence yields are beyond my ken. I am simply a lawyer, holding the state to its burden of proof and fighting as though it was my life, and not that of a stranger, that was on the line.
Hence, perhaps, the tears.