In 2011, James McVay was arrested for killing a woman and stealing her car on his way to go kill President Obama on the golf course. He did this after ingesting cough syrup and alcohol to enhance his visions from "Lucifer." Suffice it to say, he had a long history of mental illness. Throughout our relationship he continually struggled with guilt and the thought that people could still care for him after what he had done. Over the years I had grown accustomed to ending each visit with a "song of the day." After each visit I always looked forward to returning to the office so that I could look up the song he had selected for that particular day. I could always judge how James was feeling by the song he selected. When he was feeling overwhelmed and was not sure if he wanted to go through with the trial, his song of the day was "The Gift," by Seether. Fortunately, by the day of trial, his song of the day was "Cowboy Song," by Thin Lizzy.

The day that James was sentenced to die, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I had not only let down my client, but also the entire defense team. Watching my lawyers cry while members of law enforcement patted the prosecution on the back was excruciating. When I was finally alone, I found comfort in James's song of the day. He asked me to listen to "Fight the Good Fight," by Triumph:

Don't get discouraged, don't be afraid, we can

Make it through another day

Make it worth the price we pay


Keep up your spirit, keep up your faith

I am counting on you

You know what you've got to do


Fight the good fight every moment

Every minute every day

Fight the good fight every moment

It's your only way


All your life you've been waiting for your chance

Where you'll fit into the plan

But you're the master of your own destiny

So give and take the best that you can

As we started working on the appeal, I had grown to accept that the verdict was just another obstacle we needed to overcome in our endeavor to bring about change. Unfortunately, another sucker punch came last week when the warden called me on my way to the office to tell me that James had taken his own life. It felt like a kick in the teeth. Telling the rest of the team and calling his mom was like ripping the stitches from a healing wound after a knife fight. I looked for solace in his songs. Out of all the songs we shared, I still went back to the song from the day of the verdict:

Nothing is easy, nothing good is free on earth

But I can tell you where to start

Take a look inside your heart

There's an answer in your heart


Don't get discouraged, don't be afraid, we can

Make it through another day

Make it worth the price we pay.

The final letters that James had written to each of us were hand-delivered the next day. It came as no surprise that his final "song of the day" was Free Bird by Lynard Skynard. However, just as I had grown accustomed to doing over the years, I had to look up the lyrics of the words of one of the songs mentioned in his letter. It was a song entitled Yellow Ledbetter, by Pearl Jam. The lyrics "Sometimes I don't know if I'm the boxer or the bag," helped me to understand how he felt. James had indeed fought the good fight. He had fought his way into this world as the child of a mother addicted to heroin. James did not want to fight his way out. He had reached the point where his will to live wasn't strong enough to meet his will to fight.

As public defenders we all have days when we feel like the featherweight going after the heavyweight. I won't pretend to understand why my client chose to end his life, any more than I pretended to understand how the jury could have returned that death sentence. I too have had my share of days when I did not know if I was "the boxer or the bag." What I learned from my time with James however is that defeat is not about falling down. It is not about how many trials we win or how often we receive disappointing news. It is about how many times we are willing to get back up. It is about remembering who is standing beside us. I am grateful for the song that James asked me to listen to on the one day when I didn’t think I had the strength to stay in the ring–

Every moment of your lifetime

Every minute every day

Fight the good fight every moment

Make it worth the price we pay


You think a little more money can buy your soul some rest

You'd better think of something else instead

You're so afraid of being honest with yourself

You'd better take a look inside your head


The Good Book says it's better to give than to receive

I do my best to do my part

Nothin' in my pockets I got nothin' up my sleeve

I keep my magic in my heart

I know there will definitely be challenges ahead. I know there will continue to be days when it will take every bit of strength just to get up off the mat. However like in all of the other challenges, I know that I have people who will support me. I am truly grateful and appreciative of all the emails and phone calls we have received in the last week from the public defender community. Success is fighting the good fight at every moment, and it is definitely worth the price we pay.

From the editor:  James sent a beautiful letter to Traci about the impact of an intern from the public defender office (Ashley) on his life.   You can see his letter at this link.