Another Year In The Trenches

Come next week, I start another trial. This one is a capital felony, although the state is not seeking death. I suppose it's hard for the state to get up enough blood lust when there are no photographs of a mangled corpse to show the jury. In this case, a young woman simply disappeared many years ago. Comes now my client, accused of raping her, murdering her and then disposing of her body in some still hidden place. Happy New Year, all.

Summoning fight is usually not hard for me. I was born on the other side of the tracks and know firsthand how thin the line that separates me from the folks I represent. And for all my bold irreverence, I know a truth Christians know: All have sinned, and fallen well short of the glory of God.

But I am having a hard time summoning fight just now. I am tired, discouraged and filled with misgivings about the law and my role as a lawyer.

It all seemed simple a couple decades ago. The adversary system tested the truth. The state brought charges. Trial ensued. A jury decided not so much guilt or innocence as whether the proof was sufficient to convict. On the civil side, parties claiming injury could seek recompense. More strangers deciding destiny. And at the center of it all, a contemporary Odysseus, a wily lawyer of many strategies. Over the years, I thought, I will become stronger, wiser, better able to master the fates contesting in the well of the court.

I did not count on becoming a friend of sorrow. Or fatigue. Or seeing clients put guns to their heads to avoid the consequences of a judge's scorn. Or mothers kneeling at my feet holding my hands weeping in a crowded hallway and begging me to do something for their son. Or responding to emails telling me how hard it was to keep from swallowing a jar of pills to make the night go away. I never thought I'd see so much suffering. I thought I would be able to prevent it from happening or make it stop. I thought I would be a hero.

But no one is a hero to a client spending his life behind bars.

For many years, Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost was hero enough for me. "Better to reign in hell then serve in Heaven," he told his dispirited ranks as they descended to Hell. The proud defiance energized me. Yes, I thought, far better to be in Hell -- with all my friends. But I didn't realize that Hell was a real place, a place filled with broken people who pay their fees for counsel in lumps of sulphur.

Law students are taught about clients who bargain in the law's shadow. Reasonable people populate the textbooks on torts. The penal code strives to hold people accountable for the consequences of intentional acts that cause harm. But as the years go by these perspectives on the conflicts filling the courts ring hollow. These lucid fictions collapse against the ever present weight of the irrational. Law is not the rule of reason in human affairs; law is fear's fiction slapped against the gaping wounds of those incurably injured.

As the year ends, I find myself combing through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders looking for context. All these broken people. How do they fit together? What do they expect of me? A stray line from Harold Lasswell's Psychopathology and Politics yields perspective: "The pathological mind, if one may indulge in a lame analogy, is like an automobile with its control lever stuck in one gear: the normal mind can shift."

And I realize at once that all these rumbling gears are active in me as well. Mine still shift, or so it seems. But as I read through the DSM-IV-TR, I know that nothing human is really foreign to me, or to any lawyer. And hence the sorrow.

I've wondered, sometimes, about whether a state's penal code can be reorganized under headings corresponding to the Seven Deadly Sins. I tried to sketch it out the other night. Associating lust and sex crimes seemed fairly easy. But isn't anger also at the core of many sex crimes? And what to do with sloth or gluttony? The human spirit easily bends and becomes frozen into so many caricatures.

I inspired uncommon hatred among some in the past year. I know this because I write about my trials, and the families and friends of complaining witnesses reach out to tell me all about my many failings as a human being and as a lawyer. As the year ends, and I put the demons these folks unleashed to bed, I realize that my sin is pride. I strut, I preen, I crow, I conjure what magic I can in the effort to win each trial I undertake. And on the occasions I do not win, I am crushed. Is it any wonder that I am so easily ridiculed as vain? I own this, sinner that I am, and I know there is little hope of redemption for the likes of me, at least none that I can foresee.

So another year begins, and with it another round of bitter trials. More clients who want miracles, and me, just proud enough even on a bad day to think I can turn any sow's ear into a silken purse. But I am no longer young, and no longer confident enough to think that anything is possible. I have seen good men handcuffed and taken into dark places where they will now die because I could not prevent harm from befalling them.

I need courage, just now, but I am so much more comfortable counting sins than courting virtue. Where to turn for courage? Where when I am spent and weariness feels more like a companion than a visitor?

Somehow even now, Milton's Satan summons. But is it enough? Is it enough to say with Satan: "So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,/ Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost"? Frankly, it is not. But as the new year dawns and old wounds continue to fester, I have little choice.

When the law beckoned, I assumed it would mean a life of toil. But somehow I never really foresaw how hard the work would be. I see it now. And at once my knees tremble, and I know something I have not felt so powerfully in a long time: fear. A new year dawns and I am still bruised by the year just passed. Another year dawns and uncommon cunning is required yet again, and faith, too; yet I lack faith.

The law is hard; I must, somehow, become harder than sorrow.

Comments: (14)

  • are a good man and have made a differenc... are a good man and have made a difference in many lives. It is tiring to do what we know is right. Standing up against the world takes everything a person has. We make sacrifices in our own lives in hopes that one day we can look back and know we left this world a little better than we were given it. I am a sex offender and thanks to my attorney I have a life. It may not be the life I pictured but without his help I wouldn't have one at all. I am a sex offender and who is a branch manager of a bank. I didn't think it would be possible but it is now a reality. I have a house and a good car. I have something to be proud of and I owe much of it to my attorney. I have no doubt that you have done the same for many of your clients. Stay strong and be proud that you know the truth and that you fight for those who have no voice. God bless you and your staff. 2010 will be a year of harvest. We will see the fruits of our labor as the rulings continue to come down in favor of common sense. This era of hysteria is coming to a close. If you want to see who appreciates you and your work go to rallypointusa and join the community. Most are mothers of young offenders. Thank you for being you
    Posted on December 29, 2009 at 12:03 pm by RPUSA
  • Hey Norm, for whatever it's worth, if I'm ever hau...
    Hey Norm, for whatever it's worth, if I'm ever hauled into a courtroom and placed in desperate peril, it's good to know that I may be able to get you, or someone like you, to stand and fight beside me.
    Posted on December 29, 2009 at 4:45 pm by Windypundit
  • Thank you! I just finished my first year as a priv...
    Thank you! I just finished my first year as a private Chicago defense attorney. So much of what you wrote, I have felt and continue to feel. It's nice to know there are others out there in this business that have a heart. The feeling of having a mother cry on me because her son is going to prison is utterly horrible. This causes me to second guess myself or question my worth as an attorney. But being hugged by a mother of a son that's coming home is worth more than any fee. And those good hugs are much like the one good golf shot made in an entire keeps you coming back.
    Keep up the good fight.
    Posted on December 30, 2009 at 3:14 pm by Marcus L. Schantz
  • Hello Norm,
    I've never read your blog before; jus...
    Hello Norm,
    I've never read your blog before; just came across it via a Twitter re-tweet. I'm currently a 1L at UT Law. So, with that coloring my statement:
    Your post is especially touching tonight as I just came from a long talk about God, and law, and truth, and failures. I think - or, I would like to believe - that because you decided to wake up in the morning and do the best you could at what you do, someone's life is better than it would have been, and that is enough. To do the best you can, while you can, with what you have, is all there is.
    I told a friend tonight - who is also dealing with a great amount of fear - that the fact that she struggles is very telling; the important things in life should not be left to those who think they are easy.
    Best wishes to you next year, and good luck. May faith be with you when your will is not, and may hope be with you when faith seems lost.
    Posted on December 30, 2009 at 8:29 pm by Mariel
  • Wow - that's one of the more moving things that I ...
    Wow - that's one of the more moving things that I have read in a long time. I'm a second-year law student and work for a criminal defense firm, and maybe this wasn't the purpose or point of your post but what you had to say reminded me of all the reasons why it is that I want to devote my life to such a task. Thank you for your words.
    Posted on December 30, 2009 at 8:37 pm by varkam
  • 20 years burning down the road, and this captures ...
    20 years burning down the road, and this captures the truth of it
    Posted on December 31, 2009 at 4:41 am by Donald Thompson
  • Norm - We are all on this earth for a purpose. Ev...
    Norm - We are all on this earth for a purpose. Even the people you defend have a purpose for without them, you would not be able to live up to your potential. It is easy for the public in general to "hate" the fact that you sometimes defend the worst of the worst, but without bad, there would be no good. Life is full of lessons, and I'm sure you learn something new with every case you defend. You are doing what is within your "spiritual path" or you would not choose to do this day in and day out. Sometimes it may feel like you are swimming against the tide, but without these "grand rapids" there is nothing to learn and there is no growth.
    Posted on December 31, 2009 at 5:51 am by sbj10
  • Amazing post. I had a really crappy day in court....
    Amazing post. I had a really crappy day in court. Fighting over shackles on a 15-year-old juvenile in a locked courtroom populated by two armed deputies and a judge who thought that the minor having argued with other juveniles during a handball game provided the requisite particularized grounds for said shackles. Another fight over a DDA who wants to withdraw a plea offer after we jumped on it because he belatedly realized the plea would prevent the judge from sending the kid to youth prison for the violation of probation the DDA intended to file after the admission was taken.

    I read your post to my wife, who responded, “Great. We should all just go out and shoot ourselves right now.” But, somehow, I found your post helped ease the ennui I’ve been feeling since the above-mentioned battles ended. (Well, the first ended: I lost, as you may have guessed from what I wrote. For the second, although indicating he was unconvinced by my argument that the DDA was foreclosed from withdrawing the offer after we had accepted it, the judge has set a date for me to file Points & Authorities and another date for arguing.)

    Keep up the fight. And, please, keep writing. It helps the others of us to be reminded that we are not lone soldiers.
    Posted on December 31, 2009 at 9:27 am by rick
  • An excellent way to renourish oneself is to go to ...
    An excellent way to renourish oneself is to go to your local humane society and volunteer to walk/play with the animals who have been abused beyond comprehension. They give anyone the uplift needed to retrust and start to believe in people again, by their example.
    Best of luck.
    Posted on January 1, 2010 at 5:15 am by vjcinpalmbeach
  • Amazing post. As a public defender, it sometimes ...
    Amazing post. As a public defender, it sometimes feels like we are the Sisyphus pushing the rock up the mountain of justice only to have it crush us, our clients, and their families under the weight only to get up and do it again the next day. And yet we do...your words captured that and more on a reflective weekend. "Whatever you do may be insignificant but it is most important that you do it." -Gandhi
    Posted on January 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm by k
  • Thanks for the very interesting blog. The white t...
    Thanks for the very interesting blog. The white test on a black background is very tiring to my eyes. Would you consider changing it?
    Posted on January 3, 2010 at 1:52 pm by Stephanie
  • Norm, your post was all true, brought a tear to my...
    Norm, your post was all true, brought a tear to my eye as I sit here again trying to think of what I can possibly devise to keep an innocent man out of prison, love, Corinne 97
    Posted on January 6, 2010 at 12:36 pm by corinne
  • Does the sex offender/bank manager, who is greatfu...
    Does the sex offender/bank manager, who is greatful for the life his attorney was able to get for him, ever think about the life his victom(s) have to live? Thanks to him?
    Posted on January 21, 2010 at 10:56 am by Ellabella
  • "The law is hard; I must, somehow, become harder t...
    "The law is hard; I must, somehow, become harder than sorrow"
    Norm, it was hard to read you closing statement of 2009 here on your blog.
    Althought I harbor no sorrow and no empathy I know *exactly* how you feel. What's the point?
    Why do we get out of bed in the morning? What makes us tick? hopeless as it seems - and I in particular keep your statement of "good men taken away in handcuffs" in my mind...there has got to be SOME point....some reward for getting up in the morning, getting prepared to go and do....well...whatever we do time and time again...on a daily basis ....and ...again.
    Maan I feel your pain of fatigue and the black hole of 'why?'
    But then again Norm, if YOU give up, who's going to stand up? Sure as hell the State is not. The Cops are as crooked as they come and the judges rule not according to (reluctant) juries, but what is best for their own good and the re-appointment.
    So my plea to you is to not give up. Sure the world sux. Sure justice could have been served better and in some cases more swifty.
    But please don't give up. It seems like you have changed the lives of many good people. And that's got to be worth something.
    We are now (almost) half way into 2010 and I sincerely hope your professional life has improved a lot, since you chronicled this blog post on the last day of last year.
    Best Regards
    Kenth Astrom
    Northford, CT
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 4:16 pm by BigSwede0120

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