I Can’t Be a Spectator
Republished with permission from Ask Allison
As an aging lawyer who still remembers when you could win dispositive motions and reverse and render cases on appeal, can you tell me what motivates young lawyers to go into criminal defense?
Dear and Beloved Carl,
Some days, I wake up and am not sure how to answer that question. Maybe today is one of those days. Ok. Definitely today is one of those days. So, Gentle Reader, I’ve chose to answer your question on one of my worst days so that I can perhaps elucidate some things for us both. Sometimes I need to be reminded.
I remind myself that I did not get into this profession because I thought it would bring me success. I got into this profession because I can’t be a spectator.
After my first year of law school, I told the only professor that I liked that I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney, and he suggested that I intern at the District Attorney’s Office, since the Harris County Public Defender’s Office did not yet exist. This, he assured me, is what one did.
It’s a funny thing, dear reader, about supervising attorneys. Some of them are terrible people. I say this, in hindsight, as a person who has developed relationships with men and women who have done some truly awful things. The woman I worked under at the District Attorney’s Office was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad person. Imagine being new to all of this, and eager to please. Imagine feeling like your whole future career was based on the impressions you made at this internship. Imagine being screamed at constantly for being stupid when your supervising attorney misplaced a file, to the point that the secretarial pool complained about the noise.
She once told me she was going to move to increase a defendant’s bond because he had hired an attorney she disliked. She constantly looked for ways to make my day a little worse, and to blame all of her problems on me. In one of the more jaw-droppingly appalling things I’ve ever heard anyone say in real life, she said she could never be a defense attorney because she “hated defendants too much.” She didn’t say she hated criminals. She didn’t say she hated crime. She said she hated defendants– people accused of crimes. She was ignorant and belligerent, and I wouldn’t trust her with a dog I didn’t like, let alone a person’s life.
One day I was observing proceedings in a different courtroom. The defendant as a 19 year-old boy who had just been found guilty of murder and the court was moving on to the sentencing phase of the trial. I remember being able to see his dark skin through his cheap, white collared shirt. The boy had been out on bond for four years prior to the trial, and the pastor of his church got up and spoke at length about the youth groups the young man had been leading and the good works he had done.
The young man started to silently weep, and the prosecutor requested that he be shackled because of what she categorized as “emotional outbursts. And the judge did it.
I walked out of the courtroom because I was having trouble controlling my emotions. I did not know whether I would go back in. For what? To face my horrible supervising attorney in a horrible office? To watch this poor kid and a thousand others like him be shuffled through an unblinking system that didn’t care about them?
I thought about how the young man would probably never go to a restaurant again. Never have a girlfriend, never go to the movies or have children. The small and large things that his life would lack now because of this. I thought about how the things the preacher said about him were probably the nicest things people had ever said about him within his hearing, and I wondered if, on the worst day of his life, he turned and saw me and wondered, even for just a second, who I was and what I had to do with this whole thing.
And, dear reader, that’s the question we all have to answer, I suppose. Who are we, and what do we have to do with this whole thing. Christopher Hitchens implores us, “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.” The justice system in this country, in this county, is both, with the added trait of extreme and overwhelming cruelty.
Just because the fight is crushing and the odds are astronomically against us, doesn’t mean that we have a choice to walk away. It’s like saying that no one should tend to the dying because it won’t matter anyway. Mercy and compassion, and some small hope, somewhere, or at least respect for the concept of hope, dictate otherwise.
Anyone entering into this profession with illusions of grandeur and glory is waiting, and asking for, sore and profound disappointment. We do this because we are called to serve. We do this because we seek to understand and to help the people who society thinks of as the most incomprehensible to be understood.
We do this because compassion and human dignity demand it. We do this because someone has to. We do this because we have seen the workings of the machine, and to be a spectator would be more unbearable than to be beaten. We do this because we die on our feet rather than live on our knees.