Fighting Together Through the Difficult Times
I am going to violate two fundamental rules. First, by writing largely about a personal experience. Second, because I am still emotional about that experience as I write. I recently experienced a disheartening and emotionally draining loss following a jury trial; one in which everyone (except the most important people) were saying it should have been a quick not guilty. I have been trying to deal with this result the past week or so following that conviction. As much as previous losses have hurt, it has been a long time since I have felt so completely disheartened by a guilty verdict as this most recent trial. David Feige (an absolute hero of mine) talks about those three trial losses that can cause even the most zealous and committed public defender to lose their spirit. I believe I have had two of those losses in the past. I hope this was not my third. It has left me questioning myself, my abilities, and my future. Searching to figure out what I did wrong. Grasping for answers that I can’t seem to find.
In my years as an Assistant Public Defender, I have counseled dozens of people in this position, but those words which I know are true, are doing nothing to get me out from under this dark cloud. I have always striven to come to the support others who have struggled in the past, because I know how difficult trials are. I understand no matter how hard you prepare and how well you present your client’s defense, the decision may still not go the way you hoped. You can do everything seemingly right and not achieve the result you feel is just. I understand that in order to succeed, we have to accept a certain amount of failure. I know that it is not the result, but rather the fight we wage that matters most. I get that Michael Jordan never would have been the greatest, most clutch player in basketball were is not for all the times he attempted but missed the game winning shot.
You can hear every platitude in the world, but they all ring hollow when it is you who is struggling to come to grips with some a trial loss. I realize that for every amazing trial victory when all the odds seem to be against your client, there will be more instances in which we don't achieve the desired result. I get that. However, at the moment, I just can't accept it for myself. I keep thinking about how this case came in and how well it looked at the close of proof. I understand that I played a big part in putting the person I represent in that position. But just as much as I would have felt great about my efforts had the jury returned the verdict we thought would come, I must accept my responsibility given that it did not. If all I did was blame the jury as is done by so many on the other side, I would never learn from this experience.
All I keep thinking about is the fact that this man for whom I fought, will lose his freedom and I could not save him from that fate. He will now be forced to live in an iron cell, most likely losing more than a decade of liberty. I accepted the responsibility of trying to prevent that result and failed. Some would say you need to separate yourself from the person you represent. That you should not feel, but rather accept the loss as just another case and move on. I cannot do that. I refuse to do that. Because when I stop feeling for the life and freedom of the people I represent, then I must stop serving as a public defender. I represent people. Their lives have been placed in my hands. I accept that responsibility. If I tried to distance myself from the weight that comes with trying to protect that human life, then I would not be doing my job. I understand that by committing myself to each person I represent (instead of just treating it as a case) that when I can’t prevent that person from losing his freedom, that I will feel the loss deep in my heart and soul. While there can be a downside to that level of client–centered compassion, it is the desire and drive to prevent against that devastating result, which makes me fight so hard and make as many personal sacrifices for the people I represent. It is that pain that makes me, …….. requires, that I understand what I did wrong and do everything in my power to prevent it from happening again. It is not easy, but it must be done.
Public Defenders are truly special people. We are not driven by fame or money. Our decisions in the courtroom are based solely on trying to achieve the best possible outcome for the person we represent. When we do our jobs in a truly client–centered way, it is that person's goals that drives the manner in which we choose to proceed with their defense. To be truly client–centered, we must accept the responsibility that comes with having another person's life placed in our hands. That is an enormous amount of power. And with that power comes great responsibility. Part of that power is accepting responsibility when we fail. Not to make excuses. Not to try and shift the blame. Last week I failed. It is as pure and simple as that. I must determine how to avoid making the same mistakes again in the future. It is not an easy process, but one I must do. Simply staying the course and doing things the same way, will not lead to growth. It will not lead to improvement. It will only lead to continued failure. Too much is at stake. If I am not willing or not capable of accepting and working to overcome my shortcomings, then it is time for me to move on to something else.
Serving as a Public Defender is a great and noble profession. One of the great benefits of working in a Public Defender's Office are those colleagues who come to your support. People who try to lift you up. People who have been there before and experienced similar struggles. It is so much more reassuring and positive to hear someone come to your support, than hearing that you should find something else to do—which was once said to me after a very difficult and emotional trial loss. Not all indigent defenders have the benefit of a strong support structure. People to whom they can turn in their office, when they are faced with difficult times. People who have gone through similar struggles. People who have fought through the tough times and achieved great success. The support this community can give to indigent defenders in small offices, solo practitioners, or those left ignored and unsupported in a large office, who fight for their clients in near isolation, is one way we can have a positive impact throughout the country. Everyone who is a part of this struggle should have the greatest amount of support and assistance.
Where this path will lead me, I honestly do not know. Will I muscle up the nerve to push forward and discover those areas in which I must improve ? I do not know. Will I be able to improve my work, so I can avoid this type of result in the future ? I have no clue. Will I be able to work up the nerve to trust my abilities and go back to trial knowing the life and freedom of the person I am representing, rests in my hands ? I can only hope. I hope I can. I hope I have that strength. I hope I can make those improvements. I hope.
I do not write this blog to garner anyone's sympathy. I am not hoping for people to feel pity for me. This posting is less about me than those doing this work who have gone through or will one day experience similar times of struggle. You are not alone. We have all been there. If you do this job the way it is supposed to be done, you will probably be there more than once. Because if you will are willing to fight for your client even when the odds seem most daunting, you will experience defeat. Every trial a public defender loses hurts. The trial psychosis usually clouds our judgment by the time the jury goes back to deliberate. There are no moral victories when you are fighting for the life and liberty of another human being. I don't care how long a jury is out, whether it be 15 minutes or 15 hours, a guilty verdict is just that, …. a guilty verdict. No matter how hard you fought, no matter how expected the result, every trial loss hurts. You start to question yourself and your abilities, especially when you go through one of those periods where it seems like the losses are stacked like cordwood.
If you are struggling, remember there are those who understand your plight. Who have faced the same struggles. Who have walked miles in your shoes. People to whom you can turn. We may not have the answers, but we will always have a sympathetic ear, a willingness to listen, and a desire to help in any way we can. Always be there for one another. As a supportive public defense community, this is how we work best. If you see someone struggling, extend a hand or a kind word. Make yourself available to all those within this community, regardless of whether or not they are in the same office or if you even know them. Offer samples and ideas when people reach out for assistance. Don’t criticize or belittle them for what they may have missed or not done to your expectations. Be there with and for one another. Sometimes the most healing gestures come from complete strangers. We will all struggle. We will all need a helping hand. Together we can overcome these tough times if we always work together, encourage each other, and support one another. Let's all strive to work together, united as one immovable force fighting for the accomplishment of a common goal.