Standing for the People We Represent
A few weeks ago, I was in court with a man I represent, awaiting the verdict of a lengthy and draining Murder trial. As we sat at defense table waiting for the Jury, a seemingly endless stream of police officers and members of the District Attorney’s Office filled the gallery. The man I represent and I looked at each other as the seats were filled with those there to stand against him. We were severely outnumbered. Every day throughout the trial, friends of the victim and the two prosecuting attorneys, came to court show their support. No one came to support the man I represent. He seemingly was in this case alone. Everyone else in his life had turned their back on him or were positioned against him. But he wasn’t alone. Every night before returning to the office for another late night of preparation, I would visit him in jail to see how he was doing and discuss what had happened in court that day. Not only was I his lawyer, but also served as his primary means of emotional support.
When the jury filed into the box, my client and I both stood for the announcement of their verdict. We both had a pretty good feeling about what the jury was about to say and it was not a verdict either he or I were excited to hear. This case was not a good one for the defense. The prosecution’s evidence against the man I represent was quite strong. It not only established that he had committed the acts, but also his intent when they occurred. This was a trial that many expected to last less than a week. It ended up taking close to three, because we left not a single witness unchallenged. We did our best to poke holes in the testimony of every witness the prosecution offered. Still, in spite of our best efforts, we knew the likely verdict was Guilty.
The trial left me physically and emotionally drained. As my client and I stood there waiting for the Foreperson to announce the verdict, I was struck with how I was not only standing next to this man, but was standing with him. That may sound like a small distinction to some, but to a person whose life in many ways will be decided by the outcome of the case, having someone fighting with you and for you, can make all the difference in the world. As a Public Defender, the life of every person we represent is placed in our hands. Many times, we get to know people in their most difficult moments. Representing someone who, if convicted will likely die in prison, can wreak havoc on an attorney’s emotions. It is a challenge that can defeat even the best of lawyers. Many lawyers deal with this challenge, by building an emotional wall between themselves and their clients—which is why they refer to the person they represent as “my client” as opposed to using the person’s name. These emotionally detached lawyers handle cases, they don’t defend people.
On the other hand, Public Defenders who are committed to client–centered representation, recognize that every life has meaning. We sometimes represent people who have been written–off by society. Every person we represent, no matter what they are charged with or how strong the case against them, deserves to be represented with respect and dignity. Public Defenders are assigned to some of the most difficult cases from a factual and evidentiary standpoint.
Many times, when I discuss how difficult a particular case may appear, people ask how can you invest so much time and energy to something that appears to be such a “loser”. The answer is that the person I represent deserves nothing less. As much time and energy as a lawyer loses in preparing for and defending a near impossible case, the person we represent stands to lose so much more. A person whose life has been placed in my hands, deserves nothing less than my complete commitment, in terms of my time, my effort, and the emotional energy I invest in trying to win the case. If a defense lawyer doesn’t care about the outcome of the trial and what it will mean to the person they represent, then that lawyer is not giving the client the commitment he or she deserves.
After the jury announced their one word verdict and the man I represent was led away in handcuffs, I felt like crying. Even though the case was near impossible to win, I felt as if I had let him down. It was my job to save him and to that extent I had failed. There are no moral victories when it comes to trying to protect someone from the loss of his liberty for the remainder of his life. Last week when I visited my client in jail, he told me he wanted to thank me for how hard I fought. I tried to apologize for letting him down. He told me I did not have to. He felt I gave him everything he could ask for. He explained that all he wanted before he went to prison, was someone who would fight for him and who cared about his well–being. He told me he knew he got the best defense he could have hoped for and as a result, accepted his fate from that day forward.
When I walked out of the jail on my way back to the office, I felt a little better about what I had provided this man. The loss, like every loss, still burns in my gut. I get sad when I think about how I was unable to save him and of the life in prison that he now faces. But I had some solace in the fact that I had fought for this man’s life with every ounce of energy and strength I could muster. I gave him the respect he deserved. I stood in front of the tank and tried to protect him, even when everyone else had turned and walked away.
When people ask me how I can give so much of myself, when someone I represent is so clearly guilty, my response is always the same. Human respect and dignity require nothing less. I am proud to be a Public Defender. As Public Defenders, we are dedicated to client–centered representation. We tirelessly fight to save lives. We fight for human dignity. We stand firm and fight for people who many times, have never had anyone else in their lives willing to fight for them.