Psalm 23 In The Well Of The Court

            What would you call a self-confessed agnostic who recites Psalm 23 in times of grave trouble? Hypocrite comes to mind, and the description fits. Fool also fits. And sinner works, too, although just what the concept of sin can mean to the godless is a mystery.

            But there I was on the cusp of cross-examination in a difficult case. The words summoned me like an invitation to place I no longer knew how to visit.

            “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

            In high school when all was storm, stress and terror, I had committed many of the Psalms to memory. I used to try to pray then, although it has been decades since such speech has escaped my lips. What has any lord to do with the grim work of a courtroom?

            “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.”

            We’d already seen the autopsy photos. Another teenager shot dead over nothing. In the balance at trial hangs the life of another young man. The state has in mind a location far from green pastures and still waters. Lose this trial, I thought, and a lifetime of sterile concrete awaits my client.

            “He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

            These words fall flat on my ear. I know nothing of righteousness. I am profane, loud, sometimes vulgar, a man of unclean lips. Close contact with chaos in my own life and profession has given me an intuitive grasp of the world’s brokenness. Original sin makes sense. It’s grace that escapes me, and righteousness, too.

            “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; …”

            Now the psalmist sings! Was he a lawyer? Did he stand next to the accused? Certainly he knew terror, and how easily the world becomes unstrung. I often imagine the words “Valley of the Shadow of Death” chiseled above the door of the courthouse. Nothing good comes of a trial. Nothing.

            “… for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

            Oh, that there were a good shepherd. There is no clear way out of a criminal trial. Client’s trust lawyers; lawyers look to the jury. Where do jurors look?

            “Thou prepares a table for me in the presence of mine enemies,…”

            Is the lawyer seated at the table next to me an enemy? It is an adversarial system; we pit our skills against one another in what the law hopes will be a search for the truth. Yet the law seems far from neutral. Sometimes it seems as though the judge and prosecutor are aligned against the accused. What Psalms do prosecutors recite in the dead of night? What prayers do judges utter? The work of justice may not be sacred, but do the scales weigh heavily in the hands of those who hold them?

            “… thou annointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.”

            And the dark truth about lawyering: Good lawyers take their client’s sorrows to heart, if they can. Yes, there are cases not right for a given lawyer. Chemistry governs the relationship between lawyer and client, as it does between husband and wife, lover and beloved. Sometimes the chemistry fails. But lawyers are blessed, despite all they do and see – they get to go home at the end of trial, win, lose or draw. And there is abundance in their lives as well. This abundance can breed a sense of arrogance, of being above it all. We are spectators to so much sorrow we sometimes feel immune to the very things that lay our client’s low.

            “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

            I’d like to believe that; I really would. But there is little mercy in a courtroom.

            I recall once receiving an email from a juror in a case of mine long after the verdict, but just after sentence was imposed in a murder case. The juror was devastated, and felt betrayed.

            “Why didn’t you tell us what would happen if we voted guilty?” she asked.

            The client, a young man still a teenager, was sentenced to 50-plus years in prison.

            “The law prohibits me from doing so,” I replied. “Would it have changed your vote if you knew the consequences?”

            It took a while for her to respond.

            “No, I don’t think it would have, not in good conscience,” she said.

            I’ve thought long and hard about that exchange with the juror in the years since.  Good conscience in a courtroom? It seems like an indulgence.  The law is a blunt tool, a sledgehammer forged over centuries of struggle with dark truths about human nature. Justice and good conscience are luxuries in the marketplace of human suffering.

            I’ve taken to reciting this psalm aloud with clients in quiet moments while a jury is out, or before they are themselves to take the stand to give an account of themselves to strangers.

            “The one in my Bible sounds different,” one client told me not long ago.

            “That’s because you’re not reading the King James translation,” I told him. Rendering the psalm into contemporary cadence destroys its power. “I walk through the darkest valley,” as the New International Version puts it, is simply tone deaf.

            Church and state must remain separate. I get that. We must not establish religion by means of state action. I get that, too. But somehow I think it would be fitting to open each session of criminal court with a recitation of Psalm 23. It might prompt a proper spirit of humility in a forum that is anything but humble.

            We play at God in the criminal courts, making declarations about guilt and passing sometimes horrible judgments on men and women really no different than the rest of us. It’s become too easy to hate, to fear and to condemn.

            I am an agnostic, and a sinner, too. But reciting Psalm 23 over and over again has taught me to see just a glimmer of grace: would that our courtrooms were more gracious, and merciful. That’s a prayer I can almost utter.



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