"Do you think anyone should go to jail?" The speaker, a youngish FBI agent, looked at me with the same devilish grin I had seen on his face any number of times. He was once the lead agent when a client of mine, a lawyer, was in federal jeopardy. We argued the government to a standstill in that case. My client was never indicted.
I had to stop to think about his question for a moment.
"As a matter of fact, I don't think many people should go to jail, and those who do go shouldn't stay as long as they do. I'll never understand your passion for putting people in concrete boxes," I said.
We were in the hallway of the New Haven federal court. I'd come to show my support for Seymour lawyer Ralph Crozier. A jury was out deciding his fate. The government had charged him with money laundering.
Crozier was convicted.
I am more than a little troubled to see Crozier go the way of all convicted felons. He is a colleague, a sometime antagonist, a friend, whose career, not to mention his liberty, is now in jeopardy. All this because a client of his turned government's witness and claimed that Crozier had agreed to launder drug money.
Ralph's been knocking around the northwestern corner of the state for almost four decades. He's a smart, quirky lawyer with a dark streak he can't seem to outrun. After the verdict was announced in open court, the jury foreman told a reporter that "there were times we felt that he was his own worst enemy." Indeed.
Crozier finished first in his class at the University of Miami Law School. Yet for all his smarts, he's been suspended several times, done a short stretch in state prison for a DUI, and been arrested for disorderly conduct after giving a state marshal an unwelcome kiss.
I sometimes recall the words of Friedrich Nietzsche when I see Ralph hurrying down the street: "Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster … for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you."
The abyss won in Ralph's case.
A few days after the verdict, a senior federal prosecutor called. He said he was returning my call. In fact, I hadn't called him at all. As near as I can tell, my call to him was a "pocket call," his number activated, somehow and improbably, by my phone as it sat in my pocket. No need to get a wiretap on my phone, I giggled; I randomly phone in to the feds so they can listen in.
Then the next day, a client offered a fee in cash, and appeared surprised when I pulled out a federal tax form to record the transaction. I couldn't help but wonder whether the client was wearing a wire, sent by the same agent who brought Ralph down and sought the liberty of my client.
It was the abyss calling, whispering my name, making me wonder if anything is what it appears.
Lawyering is difficult work. We may not stand in physical trenches, dodging lead bullets fired by others. But we do stand in moral trenches, always and forever putting our integrity on the line in the face of trials and temptations.
I don't know if Ralph Crozier did what he was accused of doing. I do know a jury convicted him, and that suggests he may, indeed, have broken the law. Come sentencing day, I suspect he will be sent to prison for a good long time. It's heartbreaking to behold.
"But for the grace of God," I find myself thinking, "go I." His conviction is a bracing reminder that we lawyers are not exempt from the rule of law. Sometimes while staring into the abyss, I suspect we forget that.
But prison? Prison for Crozier? It is unthinkably sad. I wonder if the FBI agent behind the prosecution is satisfied now.