Mommy Made Me Do It

Every defendant has a mother, of this much I am certain. If there were justice, I am nearly as certain, many of these mothers, rather than the defendants themselves, would be behind bars.

Harsh words for mothers, you say?

Come. Take a walk on the wild side. Let me show you a thing or two, and see if you still think me too bold.

A man in his 30s is accused of beating his girlfriend senseless. She’s suffered a traumatic brain injury. She stands by her claim the defendant assaulted her while enraged. In fact, the defendant has previously been accused of violence toward his loversMom’s response?

How can the state do this to my son! (It’s less a question than a demand of the gods to give an account of this grave injustice.)

Her son pleads guilty, and the mother attacks her son’s lawyer.

Or consider the man who has developed a taste for child pornography. There’s an airtight case marshaled against him. He must either plead guilty, or, if he cannot face the time the government insists he must do, go to trial, and face yet more time after his inevitable conviction.

Mom’s advice?

Go to trial. The government is corrupt, evil, twisted to level these accusations, she hisses.

A jury convicts the man, and the mother complains about his lawyer.

Or the man accused of murder. He owes his lawyer a fee. His mother demands a meeting with the lawyer if the fee is to be paid. He’s an adult. She’s got it all figured out, the bright road leading to her son’s eventual acquittal.

Trouble is, she has nothing other than her belief in her son to contribute. She wants a chance to work her worry beads, no more. Such belief, such worry, is meaningless to a lawyer preparing a defense.

I once watched a 50-something year old man whisked away to prison. He was convicted of trying to have someone killed. His mother stood in the spectator’s gallery, chanting his name, a look of terror in eyes she had only for her son.

Mothers, I tell you, are the bane of a criminal defense lawyer’s existence. Ask any lawyer. The honest will admit it.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a special kind of mother to stand blindly by her child damning the world. I find myself wondering from time whether the sheltering, even the smothering, love of a mother creates a sense of entitlement that relieves some folks of the sense they are obliged to obey the law.

It’s often awkward to deal with a family in a high stakes criminal case. Mom and dad might plunk down the fee to retain a lawyer, but the act of paying for counsel does not make them the client. Third-party payers aren’t cloaked in the attorney-client privilege; a lawyer’s professional duties don’t run to the parent.

I am stunned over and over again by the parents of folks in their 20s, 30s, 40s, even 50s who lack any ability whatsoever to consider their child’s troubles from the perspective of those who claim to have been harmed. It’s almost as if they were born without empathy, lacking the ability even to imagine another’s point of view.

Not long ago, I was in a prosecutor’s office in central Connecticut. On his desk was a nameplate. It announced his name and title, John Doe, Esq. Beneath the name were the initials “M.S.W.” It surprised me to see this; he’s a tough and salty man.

“I did not know you were a social worker,” I said, taking the initials to signal that he possessed a Masters of Social Work.

“I’m not,” he laughed, and, at once, I got the joke: We are trained as warriors armed with words. Our roles reduce us to attempt tasks for which we are not trained. Enter any criminal court and at once, you will hear about all sorts of programs the accused are supposed to use. Social workers run these programs.

The law does a terrible job of dealing with character disorders. It’s decent at discerning the insane, those who cannot distinguish right from wrong, or who cannot control their conduct. The law does a little better spotting the incompetent — those who cannot assist in their own defense.

But the law fails to recognize or to account in any meaningful way for those who can’t outrun their parent’s shadows, or who cannot cut their mother’s strangling apron strings.

I confess to issues with my parents. My father abandoned us when I was young, and resurfaced decades later, when the hard work of parenthood was done. I learned to navigate without him, miss him though I did, and do.

My mother struggled in his absence, and eventually struck up with a man who regarded me as an intruder. I got the message, and left home the day I finished my last high school class, this after going to night school so that I would not be required to remain a day longer than necessary where I was not wanted. I’ve rarely looked back.

I count it a blessing to have parents so self-involved. Sure, I stumble along life’s way, but I am standing on my own two feet .

Not long ago, our office closed for the weekend amid a sense of exhaustion. It was not the clients who wore us out. It was the mothers of adults, wheedling, whining, endlessly questioning why their children had come to such dire straits.

I wondered whether the mothers themselves weren’t the answer.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that parents ought to cross the aisle, and sit with the accusers howling for false idol of accountability — whatever that may mean. Loyalty is a good thing; family matters.

But too often in recent years I noticed how often criminal trouble is accompanied by an over-weening mother. It’s got me wondering whether there ought not to be a new defense, one as yet untried in the courts: Mommy made me do it.




Also listed under: Journal Register Columns


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