Love isn’t easy. Faith in love isn’t easy. If we don’t nurture our faith in the good things, faith is easy to lose. Which gets me thinking about crime and courts – the dark world I perversely find enough joy in to make it the focus of my career. It’s not easy to work in the criminal justice system and keep faith in society and everyday human decency. I have often wondered which of the justice system’s participants have their faith in society challenged the most. Is it cops? Prosecutors? Judges? Defense lawyers? Crime victims? Defendants? Let’s take a look at each.
Cops are certainly strong contenders for “Faith Most Challenged.” They only see people at their worst, from drivers not wanting a traffic ticket, to bad guys committing crimes, to the victims the crimes are committed against. There’s a reason a lot of cops will look at you like you’re from Mars if you go up to them in a restaurant or shop and just say hello. Oh, and in reply to what I expect my wife to say here: It is not stalking! I was just being friendly.
What of prosecutors? When I was a D.A., I began to think that every father I came across was abusing his children, everybody standing on a street corner just west of downtown was a crack dealer, and every teenager was carrying a gun. And you know what? It was all true! No wonder I felt so cynical. Good thing I got out when I did, so that I could reacquire a brighter view of humanity. If I’d remained a prosecutor, I fear I’d have been way too jaded to enjoy subsequent anti-hero TV crime dramas like The Shield andBreaking Bad. Oh – did I leave out The Wire? Sorry – we can talk about any Wire episode you like. Let’s find one where something actually happens.
How about judges? Judges must feel like everyone they meet every day wants something from them and is willing to lie to get it. Alright…that’s a gross overstatement, overdramatization, and some heavy hyperbole. In the spirit of 24 hour cable news, let’s deem it established fact and keep going. (Actually, most folks who appear in court, including most lawyers, are honest and hardworking; the few exceptions stand out quickly.)
To a crime victim, the system can be pretty hellish, or at best, one in which you have to go through hell to get to heaven. Yet in most every case I’ve worked on, either as a prosecutor or a defense lawyer, the overwhelming majority of victims maintain faith in the system to do justice. Theirs is an inspiring example – they’ve been hurt, yet they still believe.
What about defense attorneys? It’s no “family secret” that we are a thick-skinned, cynical lot who walk into court smiling, but with fists at the ready. And why shouldn’t we be? Just yesterday, a prosecutor I’d never met before told me that if by the next court date, the evidence I’ve subpoenaed from his office still hasn’t arrived, he’s going to up his settlement offer on my client because my client still “won’t have taken responsibility.” If the prosecutor persists in his foolishness, I’ll complain to the judge, or worse, I’ll go to the prosecutor’s boss, who I’ve known for 20 years.
Finally, what of the test of faith experienced by a criminal defendant, a defense lawyer’s client? How can anyone in court be as scared and feel as powerless as the person whose liberty is threatened, and whose life is utterly up-ended until the system tires of him and spits him out? (Hey – presumption of innocence here.) How to keep faith if you know the cop is lying, but the judge and DA, and maybe your own lawyer, will never believe you? (See: Rampart scandal in Los Angeles, late 1990’s.) Why believe, when you lack the money which could buy a more aggressive defense? What of high-minded pronouncements about the greatness of our justice system, when a grand jury indicts you based only on a prosecutor’s word, and the media destroys your reputation before you ever show up to court? How do you keep faith then?
I don’t know how some of my clients have kept faith. The ones who have broken the law and against whom there exists sufficient evidence to convict usually come to a realistic understanding of the obstacles, and they focus on obtaining the right, non-excessive result. But the clients who are overcharged, or against whom a case is weak, or who are actually innocent — that’s actually innocent, not just the client saying he’s innocent — how do they continue to believe in the justice of the system? Only by getting the result they deserve. And for that, they may look to the heavens, or into the hearts of their fellow citizens. But ultimately they look to their lawyer. So I guess I’d better match their faith in society with my own. Without that, what hope have we in the fight?
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