Heartfelt Pleas, But No Answers

It looks like today is Mother’s Day here at Simple Justice.  A comment left yesterday reminded me of the letters and telephone calls I have gotten over the years from a parent or spouse telling me about a loved one whose life or family was ruined at the hands of the system.  They seek someone to help and have no idea where to turn.  They refuse to give up, and keep hoping that the next call or letter will bring a different answer.

Every criminal defense lawyer of any repute gets these calls and letter.  I’ve gotten them from some fairly well known defendants.  I remember receiving a letter from Marty Tankleff, who has since become a cause celebre.  Many of these parents and spouses pray that someone, whether a news person or lawyer, will take an interest in their plight and elevate it to a cause celebre.  It happens.  But it happens rarely.  There are just too many sad stories.

As a lawyer, I try to help those who come to me.  But what I can offer is seldom enough.  Almost universally, they have no money to retain a lawyer, and thus depend on the kindness of strangers.  If they once had funds, they are long since depleted.  They have been reduced to beggars, but are happy to put their dignity aside for a chance at justice.

They have already been through the system.  These are individuals who have gone through the various normal stages of criminal proceedings, only to come out the other end without solace.  They have lost.  They have lost again. And again.  The reached the end of the road, but “justice”, by which I mean the outcome they desire, has never been achieved.  Their heads cannot grasp it.  It is so wrong, to the bottom of their souls, that they cannot accept it.  There MUST be something else they can do, for no benevolent god would allow this to happen.

When you speak with these moms and dads, their voices quiver.  Often, the begin to cry.  They use a lot of legal jargon in their explanation of their loved one’s fate, but show a limited understanding at best.  They try very hard to sell their hope and despair.  Sometimes, their pleas are so far off the mark that you want to shake them and tell them that it is NOT the most horrible thing in the world that junior, who almost killed some innocent child, has suffered the unbearable harshness of being convicted by the testimony his rat-bastard lying best friend, who actually told the truth this time.

But other times, the stories are indeed horrible.  They run the gamut from mistaken IDs, junk science, concealed evidence, lying cops, hanging judges.  Somehow the system failed them time after time, just like the system fails so many others.  Frequently, they hired a lawyer to represent their loved one, but didn’t have the money to hire a good lawyer and ended up with some low-rent sweet-talking lawyer who sucked them dry and then pled’em out. 

These are people who were, before the day that their baby got busted, law-abiding citizens.  They supported the cops and the system.  They were vested in the American way.  They believed the platitudes and the TV commercials that told them that our system was the best, something worth fighting for.  And they did, often giving up their sons and daughters to serve their country.  And they were proud to do so.

But the private criminal defense bar cannot provide the service that this surprising large group of loving parents and spouses require.  We may be able, and willing, to help one or two from time to time, but our rent still comes due and our children want to eat too.  Every day.  And we practice law for a living.  We want to be Don Quixote, but are not always up to the task.

And so, to Mother Carolyn, my most recent commenter, I offer the following answers:

1.  The system is not fair.  It works sometimes.  It fails others.  It works more often than it fails, but that is of little comfort if you are in the minority.

2.  Don’t give up.  I don’t know if you will achieve a meaningful end, but voices like yours are all we have to challenge a system that is far less than perfect than most people would believe.  Most people don’t realize it now, but if you stop speaking, then there will be no one to remind us.

3.  Bring the fight to your government and your elected officials.  They are vested in the system, as it pays their salaries and brings them personal prestige.  They need to believe that they are on the side of truth and justice to bolster their lagging self-esteem.  Let them know that they are not doing a good job, and that you hold them responsible for their failure to stand up for justice.  Many will laugh at you the minute you walk out the door, but maybe a couple will think about what you had to say.  It’s a couple more than we have now.

4.  The system can be better.  It has always had the potential to be better.  But it swings like a pendulum to reflect the mood of the public and the transitory fears that public voices love to use to keep the natives in line.  When the public demanded justice, the tone changed.  But the public rarely demands justice.  The public is far more concerned for their personal safety and welfare.  The sad truth is that too few human beings care about anything other than themselves.  At least today.  Let us hope that this will change.