Since 1985 I have worked as a criminal defense attorney to the poorest, sickest, most loathed communities in our country. I listened to their stories and I tried very hard to keep the power of the government from totally destroying them.
I have always believed that if a government is going to charge a person with a crime then that government should also afford that person the best defense possible. Otherwise there is not justice. And that word does not mean "just us".
It means to equitably and compassionately treat each and every person who comes before the court. The mentally ill, the poor, the physically and mentally disabled--everyone should be treated with the same care and support.
Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't.
But there are people that I will never forget.
The first that comes to mind is a young man who is sitting on death row in San Quentin prison.
There is the mother of 2 who spent 8 years in prison for killing her abusive husband.
A young man from LA who protected his 16 year old niece from her other uncle.
A father of 4 who tried to stop a parolee from attacking him.
Those are just the first murder trials that come to mind. Only one was convicted of murder. One was completely exonerated. The other two were convicted of lesser charges. And of those two only one went to prison.
I tried about 15 cases like that.
From 1986 to 2000 I worked as a Public Defender. I was not given a lot of respect for the rest of the legal community. To them my job was dirty. But it is the one that I believe deserves the most respect. It is difficult but very human work.
It was trench warfare. Always trying to protect my client from the powers that would put them away for life (or worse) if I didn't do my best. Days full of courtrooms. Nights full of research and writing or just plain thinking. Rare were the times when a case did not come home with me in my brain.
Firmly in trenched in my mind was that for our system to work properly the government had to PROVE its case. No hiding evidence, no relying on someone's belief. It required proof. And my job was to challenge that proof. To make sure it was proof.
It was not a matter of guilt or not. It was a matter of PROOF.
All tolled, I tried over 250 felony cases. I have no idea how many misdemeanor trials I did. I used to say I had tried everything from illegal fishing to capitol murder. And that is true. I won some and I lost some. If the system was working properly, I should have lost around 90 percent of the time. But I won more than my fair share of cases. Which to me meant I had to keep doing my job until everyone got it that accusations were nothing without PROOF.
I fought with judges, District Attorneys, probation officers, witnesses, clients and myself. And I persuaded a lot of jurors.
I stayed awake at night and paced through my days.
And I loved it.
I loved the game. The theater of it all.
And then, I didn't. The fire in the belly was gone. Exhausted.
I began losing my temper at DA's and judges. I lost patience with my clients. I lost more sleep than usual.
I began to show to others the disrespect that I perceived that I had received from them or others in their positions. I have always been a bit arrogant but I was crossing the line at this point. And I didn't want to be doing that.
I began to dread going into the courtroom. It wasn't fun anymore.
I had proved that I was good. Very good, in my humble opinion.
I proved to myself that my parents would have been proud of me.
I proved that I could stand up to those in power and speak truth to them.
I proved to myself that every person on this earth is a human. And that there but for the grace of God......
I understood, finally, that my upbringing was a thing to be cherished. It was a thing that few of my clients could ever imagine.
I understood, finally, that having my advantages in life was a gift not to be squandered. Because there but for the grace of God....
And I FINALLY, FINALLY began to see that my existence, my identity had little or nothing to do with being a lawyer.
I am who I am.
The struggling to become a lawyer and providing for my child made me who I am today.
The struggle to be good at my craft made me who I am today.
I stand tall, sure in who and what I am because I BECAME a lawyer. Not because I am one.
The profession taught me to do what I could and leaving the rest.
And so, I am leaving the rest to those who still have the fire in the belly. To those who want to make their mark. To those who are willing to and able to fight the system from within its borders. To those who can still listen to the stories and not lose themselves in them. To those that can, and will take my place.
As of June 1, 2014, I will no longer be a regular in the courts. I am retiring on that date.
I will take a case or two now and then just so I remember all of the above.
But that case will have to wait awhile.
I need to spend some time with the spouse and with myself.
But when the fire begins to kindle again.....well, the young'uns can use a bit of training from the old lady!