Criminal defense lawyers are often accused of being callous, if not despicable, toward the victims of our clients’ crimes. We know they happen, and we may well feel the pain caused to others, but we shut that out of our mind in order to fulfill our function to our client. We have a job to do, and we do it.
But in Tarrant County, Texas, television station WFAA-8, an ABC affiliate, did something unusual. After Stewart Richardson* offered his apology, via a reporter, to the parents of young boy, 2 years old at the time he was left in a vegetative state because of Richardson’s drunk driving, the boy’s mother, Loubna Khader, asked WFAA if they would accompany her to the jail, with cameras shooting, to confront Richardson directly.
The station agreed, and the result was an extraordinary video.
The video has evoked strong reactions, causing the state to be besieged by people who thought it was horribly improper for the station to have both engaged in this ambush tactic, as well as broadcast this raw scene of a mother’s anger and hatred.
The video is, to say the least, awkward. Obviously, it was not an opportunity for Richardson to apologize, but a catharsis for Khader. To be blunt, if that’s what Loudna Khader needed, it was due her.
She charged the glass, forcefully positioning the framed photo of her son in front of Richardson’s eyes.
“Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Look at this face! Look at him!,” she furiously screamed. Richardson looked at the photos and then looked down.
“I look at him every day,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Richardson repeatedly apologized and said he prays for the family. He did not stand up and leave. He let a wounded mother pour out her rage until she could no longer continue.
“Just go now,” she finally said. “Just go.”
“God bless,” Richardson whispered.
“I am never going to forgive you for what you did to my son!,” she said, slamming the glass. “Never!”
Many have watched the video and left with the impression that Richardson conducted himself with as much dignity as possible, while Khader’s raw anger was unbecoming. Richardson has been sitting in Tarrant County jail for five years now, awaiting sentence on his plea of guilty for years as prosecutors gather evidence of his prior drunk driving convictions. Why it has taken so long is unclear.
While the notion of a set-up of this sort rubs people the wrong way, it is unfair of viewers to judge Khader harshly. What happened to her son is unimaginable to most parents. This isn’t a television drama where the heroine is scripted to comport with other people’s notion of the dignified mother. This is the real mother, suffering the real pain of her beloved son being left to linger in a vegetative state for the rest of his life.
She is entitled to every ounce of anger she feels. She has paid for it. She continues to pay for it every day of her life. Khader owes no one an explanation or apology for her feelings, even if they make us feel terrible and awkward.
In many regards, this video is a profound reminder for those of us who toil in the fields of criminal defense. Every once in a while, we need to think about the harm done, of the suffering of people at the hands of criminal defendants. It’s not to blunt our efforts or make us ambivalent about what we do. It’s to keep us honest.
We know all too well the rationale for our defense of our clients, our fight for constitutional rights. But as we ask others to see the world from our perspective, we would be hypocrites to deny the world from the perspective of Loubna Khader.
As for her screaming at Richardson, no amount of awkwardness changes the fact that Richardson is responsible for what happened to Abdallah Khader. So he had to endure a mother’s anger? It’s nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to what the Khaders endure.
And he did so, he took the heat, with dignity. Richardson offered his apologies, lame as they may appear under the circumstances, but he did what he could do. There is no adequate way to apologize for what he did to Abdallah Khader, but he tried.
While we often focus on the conviction of the innocent, the misconduct of police, the distortions of the system that give rise to anger, distrust and disgust, we must never forget that there are cases, most cases, where a real harm is done and the harm can be horrible. Never become so self-absorbed and myopic that we are unable to see the full picture of criminal law.
* Edited from original to correct my error in describing the events.