Most Amazing Kind of Payment
JLJ and I rose as the jury walked into the courtroom to announce their verdict. I stood staring down, trying to avoid making eye contact with the jury. JLJ looked around the courtroom, becoming nervous as he saw the large number of uniformed deputies who had entered at the announcement. JLJ started to lean forward as if the weight of the stress started to press down on his shoulders. Seeing this, I leaned to my left to let him know that the presence of extra deputies was standard procedure; it did not mean the verdict would be bad. JLJ and I remained standing until the last juror had taken his seat. JLJ was hunched over even more as he sat down in his chair. Elbows digging into his knees. Fingers intertwined as if in prayer. Praying to hear those two little words that carry so much meaning. Praying for Freedom. Praying for his life.
When the foreperson rose to announce the verdict, I looked over at JLJ. His eyes were closed so tight it looked as if he might squeeze his eyeballs into the back of his head. The clerk addressed the jury forewoman:
Clerk: Has the Jury reached its verdict ?
Forewoman: Yes we have.
Clerk: Is that verdict unanimous ?
Forewoman: Yes it is.
Clerk. As to the Indictment charging JLJ with the crime of Robbery in the First Degree, what is your verdict; Guilty or Not Guilty ?
As the Forewoman announced the verdict, I looked over at JLJ; he was now crying. Tears rolled from the corners of his tightly squeezed eyes, streaming down his cheeks. The Judge addressed the jury about their verdict. JLJ was almost completely bent over; weeping; his back lifting slightly and then lowering as he sobbed; trying to catch his breath; trying to regain his composure. I leaned over and put my hand on JLJ’s back to console him. When my hand had moved about midway across his back, he turned towards me; opened his bloodshot, tear filled eyes; asking, “What does this mean ?” I whispered in reply: “You’re going home.” JLJ stared at me; eyes fixed; almost in disbelief. When the reality of what was about to occur sank in, JLJ started to cry even harder.
After the panel returned to the Jury Room, JLJ rose to his feet to make his final trip to jail, to await his release. He started to walk towards the back of the courtroom. Only a few steps into his walk to freedom, he stopped, turned, and returned to where I was standing to give me a hug. His arms engulfed me, the force of which passed through my body; burying his head in my chest. Now I was the one who wanted to cry.
I represented JLJ for a little more than six months. One thing that always struck me was that JLJ and I are the same age; though, it didn’t appear that way from outward appearances. JLJ’s hard life aged him beyond his years. While the number of years we have walked this earth are the same, the paths on which we have travelled have been completely different. JLJ has spent most of his days behind bars, more than he has as a free man. His total number of convictions are in the double digits; including two violent felony offenses; many more involving theft and deception. But as I have come to understand over the past five or so years, a criminal history does not define a man. There is far more to each person and their story than their record. I took the time to listen to and care about what JLJ had to say; to listen to the story of the man and his life. As a result, I was able to see a side that not many others had.
He is an extremely likable man. I truly began to like and care for JLJ. I enjoyed talking to him, listening to him talk about his life. I learned that while he was a violent man in the past, his last sentence to State prison caused him to change in some, but not all ways. JLJ remained, by his own admission, a hustler and a con man. It was the only life he knew. He survived by hustling, which caused him to land repeatedly in jail. He lived his life on the edge of the law, which always placed his life and his freedom at risk. JLJ explained the circumstances that led to his current arrest; the kind of story that only a client centered public defense lawyer can truly appreciate and understand. He was running a con, because that’s what he does. He landed in jail because the people he conned were upset, calling the police and lying about how he had ended up with their money.
JLJ had a story to tell. A concept that is foreign to many criminal defense lawyers, especially with someone whose record is as long as JLJ’s. Too many lawyers believe the effectiveness of a person’s story should be silenced if they have a lengthy or violent record. I was once one of those attorneys. The lawyer who I was originally trained to be, would have done everything in his power to keep JLJ off the stand. He would have told JLJ what a terrible decision he was making in choosing to testify; that his record by itself would cause the Jury to convict him. But I am no longer that lawyer, thanks to the transformation undergone as a result of the leaders who have led me down the client centered path. I have been transformed into a lawyer who practices, preaches, and lives the client centered philosophy.
JLJ had a story to tell. It was my job, my duty, to place him in a position to successfully tell that story. We prepared, going over his testimony time and again; practicing direct; preparing for cross. I kept JLJ fully informed, explaining my concerns about how his record could be viewed by the jury. But, I did not pressure him. When asked what he should do, I gave him as much information as possible, both about the potential risks and the possible rewards; reminding him that it was his story; his life, both of which are important. I assured him that I believed him, explaining that jurors could be persuaded too. I explained that he needed to be genuine about what had occurred and about his own past misdeeds; not apologizing or making excuses for who he was or how he had lived his life. I told him he needed to answer questions honestly and not in a way he thought would sit well with the jury. I let him know that if he chose to testify, I would do my best to protect him on the stand and do everything in my power to make sure he was successful.
Based upon the Court’s pretrial ruling, most of JLJ’s prior convictions were going to be used against him. Before JLJ took the stand, I asked him one more time if he was sure he wanted to testify. He asked what he should do. It would have been very easy for me to take the safe path and fall back to the comfort of the way I had always handled cases in the past. But just because a path may be safe, does not mean it is the right one to take. Sometimes, the place that seems most dangerous is exactly where safety lies. (Barbara Cook). I always remember the lesson taught me by an incredible young lawyer Keeda Hayes, whose words have stayed with me to this very day. She said that the important thing is not thinking outside the box, it’s staying outside the box in the way we think and the actions we take. Criminal trials are not about cases (at least they shouldn’t be). They are about the people we represent and the stories they have to tell. Putting JLJ on the stand, especially with his record and his past was scary. JLJ had a story to tell. It was my job to put him in the position to successfully tell that story. I let JLJ know that while we had made quite a few points on cross examination, I couldn’t guarantee the jury would see the case our way. I assured him that he had a compelling story to tell and that if he wanted to, he should. I felt confidence in the truth of what he had to say. Confidence in our preparation. Confidence the jury would see what a likeable, sincere person JLJ is, in spite of his prior record.
JLJ told his story. He did a solid job. Not perfect, but who is amongst us. He held his own on cross. It was a contentious trial, during which I was the target of the Judge’s wrath, due to my efforts to fight for the rights and freedom of JLJ as well as my unwillingness to back down. During JLJ’s testimony, I had had enough; pushing back even harder, making it clear before the Jury how I felt about the Judge’s attempts to interfere with my ability to have JLJ tell his story. I wanted to make clear to the jury the story of injustice which caused JLJ to come before them. Injustice in the way the case was handled by the police; injustice in the way his case had been handled by the prosecution; injustice in the way the case was being unfairly controlled by the Judge.
Following JLJ’s testimony, we broke for the night. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I sat at the defense table with my head in my hand, trying to summon the strength to pack up and return to the office. The transport Deputy motioned for me to come to the back, causing me to become concerned. When I passed through the door to the back hallway, I saw JLJ standing there un–cuffed. My concern became heightened as this was not the norm. I immediately asked JLJ if anything was wrong. He replied: “No I just want to thank you. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for fighting for me”. I let him know he didn’t have to thank me, but he wasn’t having it. He continued: “You let me tell my story. You listened to me; hearing what I had to say and what I wanted to do. You worked with me to let me testify even though I know you had your concerns. Not many other lawyers would have listened to me and let me do what I wanted. You gave me respect. You treated me with dignity. You made me feel like I mattered. You made me believe in myself, in my story, and that others would believe what I wanted to say”. JLJ then extended his hand to shake mine and finished with: “Thank You”.
As I walked back to my office, I thought about how JLJ would soon be walking out of the glass doors of jail, a free man. Breathing in the fresh air for the first time in more than six months. I thought about what could have been, had I followed the “Rules” learned during my first 10 years as a public defender. “Rules” that I can confidently say, need to be broken. JLJ had a story to tell. He told it. And as a result; JLJ is now a free man.
When people ask me why I have remained a public defense lawyer instead of going private, it’s because of people like JLJ. JLJ needed more than a lawyer. He needed an advocate. He needed someone who was willing to listen to and to fight for him. He had a story to tell and needed someone who would help him tell it successfully. I was assigned to represent JLJ. He did not choose me. He did not owe me anything. But in spite of that, before even knowing the verdict, JLJ took the time to say “Thank you”. Thank you for fighting for me. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell my story. A story that never would have been told had I not been client centered in his representation and followed the rules once instilled in me. His handshake was the greatest form of payment for which any attorney could ever hope. No monetary amount can exceed what JLJ’s handshake and his thanks mean to me. I understand we don’t do this job for thanks or praise. However, gestures like JLJ’s; from someone who didn't owe me anything, who went out of his way to say “Thank You”; I appreciate all your work, make all the sacrifices, all the struggles, all the frustration well worth it. As public defense lawyers we are terribly underpaid and underappreciated. However, JLJ gave me the kind of payment that is worth more than any amount of money I could ever be paid.