By the time I first went down to Houston to speak with the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, I was soured on criminal bar associations. I saw the ones I was involved with go from strength to weakness to pomposity, having run dry of lawyers with gravitas and reaching to find their next president, next board member. They start out fearless, with a clear vision of what they exist to do, and eventually become an organization that largely exists only to provide a line on a website and plan the next awards dinner.
Criminal defense lawyers were never really cut out for groups. We were feral cats, in a constant state of disagreement about pretty much everything, unherdable. But when I went to speak in Houston, the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association impressed the crap out of me. Not only did its numbers reflect a level of cooperation and enlightened self-interest that had long since been lost in New York, but there was a strong thread winding through this group of skill, dedication, focus.
They challenged each other to be better lawyers, and they met the challenge if they wanted to be respected by their peers. One of the lawyers at the heart of this group was the Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett, who had proven dedicated to the group and to the purpose of the group, to produce excellence in the criminal defense bar and to out those who took on criminal defense without the competence or will to do the job.
In a weird way, I watched Bennett grow up as a lawyer. He’s brutally smart, if a bit arrogant about it, and can occasionally be a bit prickly. I know, because I see him at the meetings. But no one, absolutely no one, would doubt his dedication to the zealous defense of his clients. So how then did it come to pass that Bennett, a decade later, soured on the HCCDLA as I had a decade before him?
[A] four-year lawyer named D’Angelo Lowe published, on Facebook, messages I’d sent to the HCCLA listserv with offensive truths—that Black men are, as a matter of fact, more likely to be killed by other Black men than by the police, and that “silence is complicity” is fascist bullshit. Lowe’s intention was to damage my practice by making the argument that I am racist and therefore do not care about my Black clients.
I’ve never heard of D’Angelo Lowe, though that’s not surprising. There are a lot of criminal defense lawyers out there and you can’t know them all. Unless he came on my radar for some reason, there is no reason why I would be aware of a four-year lawyer named D’Angelo Lowe. Kid lawyers come and go. He’s never done a case of consequence, and whether he’ll be doing criminal defense or whatever walked in the door by year five, who knows? Maybe he’s a good lawyer. Maybe he will be someday. Maybe not. Who knows?
But he did a few things that surprise me. First, he took the inside discussion among criminal defense lawyers and went public with it. He’s a rat. It’s not a crime, but a norm, that what happens on the listserv stays on the listserv, so that lawyers can talk amongst themselves openly and freely. But this snitch revealed communications. Criminal defense lawyers aren’t rats. D’Angelo Lowe is a rat. And a rat is a rat.
The second thing is that this kid who has barely earned the right to carry the briefcase of a lawyer who dwarfs him in experience and excellence has the infantile hubris to try to ruin him. That Lowe might disagree with Bennett is fine, if dubious. You see baby lawyers, full of the importance of their own opinion, their ideological certainty, telling their more experienced colleagues how to behave, how to do their job, all the time.
The irony is pathological, but the little shits will fight to the death over their unwarranted self-esteem and the importance of their opinion. It’s probably some variation on Dunning-Kruger, but they demand that grownups not only heed their lectures, but do as they’re told. Bennett has never been the sort of guy to do as he’s told.
The thing about criminal defense lawyers is that our careers have always centered on the reality of race in the trenches. We know who gets arrested and for what. We stand next to them. We hold their hands. We know what it does to their lives, their jobs, their families. Most importantly, we know what really goes on behind their closed doors, because that’s where we huddle and figure out how to save them from disaster. Most of the time, it’s disaster of their own making. We don’t lie to them or to ourselves about it. Nobody wins a case by being the most deluded fool in the courtroom.
Yet, here was this kid, outing Bennett for calling bullshit on this simplistic “silence is complicity” platitudinous nonsense, a low-rent manipulation technique to twist guilty or fearful white people into doing what they’re told. Everything is racist, critical race theory informs us, and so every black defendant is a victim of racism and it’s the duty of every white person, particularly every white criminal defense lawyer, to scream about it. Or else. Screw the video of the black guy shooting the other black guy for not paying for his drugs.
Here’s some more inside baseball, kids. Not every black guy is innocent, and the decision to kill rather than go to law school has consequences, both for the shooter and the shootee. We can’t afford to play the social justice game. We have real lives to save, and playing childish games is for kids, not lawyers.
But it wasn’t just that this kid who has yet to make his bones as a lawyer took Bennett to task. It was what followed.
And there were no consequences to him for this violation of the rules. The organizations’ leadership fell down on the job.
And while the organization failed to defend its own integrity from this little rat, so too did its feral cats.
I could find nobody who would agree with me out loud that “silence is complicity” is fascist bullshit.
Mobs are dangerous, and break more than they fix. Our job is to resist a mob, which usually comes at us in the guise of a mob’s democratically elected government. Popular feeling is always against us. As criminal-defense lawyers, we should worry when we find ourselves surrounded by people who agree.
So it’s clear, what he’s saying isn’t that other CDLs didn’t agree, but they wouldn’t say so out loud for fear that they, too, would be branded a racist for not adhering to the orthodoxy, as demanded by some baby lawyer based on the color of his skin.
This, sadly, comes as no surprise, given what happened with the disgraceful take by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers about Larry McDougal. But to see an organization like the HCCDLA quiver in the corner, wrapped in the bullshit of social justice rather than show some guts, is pathetic. For us, black lives have always mattered, but we never lied to ourselves about how or why.
Here’s a once-vibrant criminal defense bar association, with once-tough lawyers who have nothing to prove to anybody about their fealty to their black clients, cowed by a four-year lawyer with a fortune-cookie intellect for fear they’ll be canceled by the mob as racist. When did CDLs become such sniveling cowards, scared to death of the mob?
Thousands of black people owe their freedom, their lives, to Mark Bennett. Come back, D’Angelo Lowe, when you can say that, you little snitch. Maybe someday you’ll be half the criminal defense lawyer Bennett is.