Three weeks ago an uncommon tragedy happened in the two-road, no-stoplight town in west Texas where I live. Two longtime, much-loved friends shut down the bar together sometime after midnight on Monday night and by Tuesday morning one was dead and the other was arrested. There hadn’t been a murder here in a long, long time, and the small, isolated community grieves the loss of two of its very few members.
I used to live in New Orleans, where news of a murder wasn’t news, really. There were more than 1,000 murders during the decade of my life spent there, but now out here at the edge of nowhere, I was reminded that public defenders struggling to bring equal access to justice for poor people often also face the challenge of bringing justice to country folks brought before city courts.
As a non-attorney working on public defense reform from both outside and now within a public defender system, I source my inspiration from an elderly farmer from Central New York named Delbert Ward, who in 1990 was accused of smothering his older brother William to death while he slept one cold winter morning. Delbert and William shared a one-room shack (no water, no heat) with two more bachelor brothers – all together known as ‘the Ward Boys.’ Since birth, the four worked the family farm together, ate together, on rare occasions rode the tractor into town together. William and Delbert had shared a bed as children and never stopped. Not one of them had more than an elementary school education. At the time of William’s death, they may not have had a single other friend.
The theory of the prosecution from the nearby city was that Delbert brutally killed William as part of a sexual advance gone wrong. The theory of the defense was that William died in his sleep, and when Delbert noticed him unresponsive, tried to resuscitate him the way he knew how – as you would revive a just-birthed calf who arrives into the world not breathing.
The Ward Brothers’ community took it personally. Outraged, they raised Delbert’s bail, hosted dozens of fundraisers, worked with Delbert’s defender, and more than held their own in a story that went on to receive national attention. The Ward’s legal drama nestled within the backdrop of an almost extinct bit of Americana and coupled with the rural community’s solidarity against a big city prosecutor, attracted two local college students to make an award-winning movie about the case. The film, Brother’s Keeper (1992), shows footage of cross examination during trial where the prosecutor ridicules the Ward brothers’ life, their primitive home, the fact that Delbert has never before worn a suit. The public defender tries to educate a court and a jury about what a farming man knows despite being illiterate and with limited knowledge of the world beyond his fences. The dispensation of justice depended on bridging the divide between urban and rural experience.
I was 12 years old, from a farming family down the way, and the lines were clearly drawn: Delbert Ward was one of mine.
It’s been 23 years since Delbert Ward’s trial, and I have read news of thousands of murders between then, including the one that happened here three weeks ago. But I am out in the boonies again, part of a small community nearly 100 miles from “town,” and I’m reminded powerfully of Delbert Ward. All public defenders represent poor folks, and a disproportionate number of them are from the minority community. Then sometimes the client is an old farmer from a rural community in Central New York or a young river guide from the lonely edge of west Texas. Will the system understand us?
In small towns or remote places where communities are most personally affected by crime they may also be most invested in the justice process. In the upcoming criminal proceedings related to the murder in Terlingua, court may be 100 miles away but I bet the community will show up, just as they did for William and Delbert Ward. Public defenders represent not just the individual on trial, but the dignity of us country bumpkins. These cases usually don’t make a major news outlet and these advocates are often very quiet heroes, but they offer hope and justice for a community that is paying attention because it hits so close to home.