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On Defending Real People; or, Not Losing Sight of the Trees for the Forest

As a criminal defense lawyer who also writes a blog, I struggle sometimes to maintain my sanity a level head. (Yeah, to be frank, I kept switching the struck-out clause with the final clause, and finally settled on this way of putting it.)

As a blogger, I read a ton of stories, looking for things that seem worth writing about. I know that this blog needs fresh content if you’re going to keep coming back here to read it. There’s a real struggle I go through daily to find a balance between writing what interests me, and writing what will bring you to my website. While there are those lawyers who say you shouldn’t care about such things, the fact of the matter is that in an area like Fresno—especially when most lawyers doing criminal defense are also doing personal injury, or family law, or…whatever, and I’m only doing criminal defense—I have to worry about getting people interested in reading what I write, and visiting my site. If people don’t know you exist, you’re not going to stay in business long, and if you’re not in business, you’re not going to be helping people. Lawyers gotta eat, too, you know.

But I digress somewhat.

Today, whilst trolling the intertubes, I ran across this story about Seth Rich. I was struck by this sentence:

Before he was a murder victim and then a tool for political discord, Seth Rich was a real person with a real life.

A real person. There’s more than a bit of irony to the article.

What happened after Rich was removed from this Earth in a senseless and gruesome fashion was senseless and gruesome, too. He was reborn a symbol of American political corruption, his memory hijacked by activists and conspiracy theorists who perceived in his death an opportunity, first to hurt Hillary Clinton, and then, after the election, to push back against the idea that Russia hacked the DNC to help elect Donald Trump. According to various speculation, Rich was killed by the DNC, or by the Russians, or by Hillary Clinton’s henchmen after leaking DNC documents to WikiLeaks. Or he never even existed and his murder was, in fact, a false flag operation carried out by government crisis actors. His family, friends, and colleagues are left now to sift through this bizarro wreckage — Rich was, as one friend told me, unlucky twice.

“It just sucks seeing someone who could’ve easily been you be turned into a meme,” another explained.

The rest of the article is mostly about the conspiracy theories, the politics, and the people who have used the story of Rich’s murder to their own benefit.

Perhaps in one sense, that’s just unavoidable. You can’t really talk about what’s happened to Seth Rich by only talking about Seth Rich.

The story got me to thinking about something else. Perhaps that’s more irony: I’m not writing about Rich’s murder because of Seth Rich, either. For one thing, I never knew Seth Rich. Still don’t. I suppose now I never will. I don’t know anyone connected with Seth Rich. I knew that he was thought the victim of a botched robbery, and that some fringe elements—followed closely, as always, by mainstream media in its never-ending quest for clicks—were trying to turn this into a major cover-up. From the small bits I’ve gleaned from “news that cannot be avoided” (i.e., headlines, and short blurbs overheard here and there), I understand it to have something to do with Wikileaks, and possibly spying on the Democrats. Or exposing Democrats. Or something like that.

You’ll forgive me for not getting the details right, because, to be perfectly blunt about it, I don’t actually care. As I said, I have no connection to Seth Rich. And he doesn’t seem like he was someone to whom, until his death was perversely co-opted, I would normally have wanted—no less needed—to pay attention. I’m not trying to be mean. Quite the contrary. I’m very sorry for what happened to him, in the way that I’m sorry for the death of any human being (untimely, undeserved, or not). I just didn’t know him; I had no reason to know him.

But, as I said, reading the article got me to thinking about being a blogger, and a lawyer: a “blawger.”[1]

As a blogger, I end up focusing on particular kinds of issues. Police corruption. Police brutality. Police killing people, including too many unarmed people. Police killing too many unarmed puppies. Police officers testilying. The militarization of police. Police essentially running roughshod over “civilians.”

Sensing a pattern?

There are, of course, a number of other things that I look at from time to time. Drunk driving. Marijuana laws. Or the role of criminal defense attorneys, the Constitution, and the rights of criminals—or, as I prefer to call them, accused persons. Sometimes I write about other lawyers.

As a lawyer, my focus is on defending accused persons. More accurately, at any given time, my focus is on defending a particular accused person. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.

Oddly enough, there’s a connection between what I started with, and where I’m going now, in this blog post. As happens so often when I start to write, the connection was inchoate when I began, and only becomes clearer—I didn’t say “clear”! (not yet, anyway)—as I write.[2]

Or, at least, I hope it becomes clearer.[3]

I written about this many times before, so I won’t go into the details, but I wasn’t planning to become a criminal defense lawyer when I went to law school. But in law school, I was exposed to a number of stories, like those I frequently blog about—the police corruption, police brutality, police killing people, including too many unarmed people, police killing too many unarmed puppies, police officers testilying, the militarization of police, police essentially running roughshod over “civilians”—and I found my original goals were no longer tenable, or palatable. Too many of the things I learned about struck me as just not right. I thought of all those people who needed defending.

Behind every one of those stories was, obviously, a real person. But I never met any of those people. I never knew any of those people. Until the moment I heard, or read, their stories, there was nothing about them that gave me a reason to think—or care about—them. They were just placeholders. Representatives about whom a story was written that conveyed an idea, or several ideas, that eventually culminated in my decision to become a criminal defense attorney.

But becoming a criminal defense lawyer, my life is no longer really about all these stories, conveying ideas, with their placeholder-people. Those stories seem—are—too big, and provocative, and oddly glorious (because the more inspiring ones always end well, with reversals, or, in the best of them, exonerations). They seem also—also oddly—too small. Being about ideas, they were often clean, while I’ve come to know being a criminal defense lawyer is a bit messy. We don’t always get those oddly glorious and inspiring results. Reversals are few; exonerations even more far between.

Instead of stories, I defend real people. It’s frustrating work at times. Accused people—my clients—don’t always act in their best interests. Some are troubled. Some are, frankly, not nice people. They weren’t nice to the people they were accused of harming, which brought them to me, and they aren’t always nice to me. And while I can’t say that I like very much that last point, it’s often a part of the former point: that accused people don’t always act in their best interests.

Don’t get me wrong. I also have some very nice clients. One or two have even gone on to become friends, after their cases were resolved.

But I defend them all the same anyway, whether they’re naughty, or nice.[4] Because I defend real people. And because I know, as I always try to convince prosecutors, and judges, that the big things are connected to the small things, and not in the way that the prosecutors, or judges, too often seem to think.

Every single person matters. Every single case matters. If not to the prosecutors, and judges, at least to the accused person I’m defending at any given moment. The world is made of people; society is nothing but a bunch of people all stuck together in one place. Without people—which starts with a person—there is no society. So, the foundation of society is a person. That’s why we have to consider all people.

I push on in every case in large part for this reason: people matter, because each person matters.

You could ask, “What about the victims? Don’t they matter?” The answer, of course, is yes. And you may find this hard to believe, but I do what I do for the victims—real, or not—also. Too often, individuals become the target of allegations for wrong reasons. An officer jumps to conclusions. Sometimes an accused person is the wrong person; i.e., not the one who actually committed the crime. Other times, an accused person is falsely accused, which is not exactly the same thing. In the first case, we end up with two victims: the original victim, and the accused person who, wrongly accused, thereby becomes a victim. In the second case, the whole idea of who is victimizing who gets turned on its head.

Our adversarial system was designed as a way, we hope, to get to the truth. Prosecutors are supposed to push the cases they feel justice requires them to push.[5] Judges are supposed to be impartial.[6] Criminal defense lawyers—that’s where I come in—are supposed to push back. We fight for the accused person. Though not in vogue much these days, defending someone—or something, some point of view; also not in vogue these days unless it has the right kind of pro-social-justice-warrior sanctification—has for centuries been believed to be a way to get at the truth.

Blame it on Socrates.[7]

In any event, I push on in every individual case because its my job to make sure that the individual person I’m defending doesn’t get lost in the bigger project—which is the job of prosecutors are supposed to do, but too often forget—of seeking justice.

So now we’re full circle. Sort of. I went from having become a criminal defense lawyer because of stories with placeholder-people that communicated ideas, to defending real people because they are real people, and real people need defending, and now we find that it’s actually a tension between the two. The stories that caused me to become a criminal defense attorney mean something. The people I defend as a criminal defense lawyer mean something. They mean what they mean for different reasons.

But both are important:

Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

That’s Bryan Stevenson, writing in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. More quotes from the book can be found here.

It all ties together: the stories, and an individual person upon whom the story was based. In some sense, they’re placeholder-people, like Seth Rich was for me when this post started. But Seth’s story turned my thoughts toward the difference between the stories that drove me to practicing criminal defense, and the people for whom I continue to do it.

Hopefully, that’s a purpose for which Seth Rich wouldn’t mind my thinking about him, nor utilizing his story as a springboard to sharing my thoughts with you.

Thank you for reading. Whether you enjoyed this post, or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts about all this in the comments below.



Footnotes
  1. I still just really don’t like that word all that much, but I guess it’s not all that much more odd than “blogger,” and it does have a bit of precision to it. 
  2. This is actually one of the primary reasons I blog. Writing is a way of thinking, learning, clarifying what I know and believe. 
  3. I suppose that’s what my Comments section below is for you to criticize, or praise, me for, among other things. 
  4. And, yes, for years—about a decade or so—I did play Santa Claus for an annual party for a women’s shelter, so I have a handle on “naughty, or nice.” 
  5. They don’t always, of course, but that’s for another blog post
  6. They aren’t always, of course, but see that last footnote. 
  7. Of course, the Socratic method is not much in vogue these days anymore, either, as it tends to trigger Social Justice Warriors. But because of its importance to learning, understanding, and practicing law, some law schools still pay it homage through a less-triggering watered-down version. 
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