Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Tale of Two Lawyers. Well, Three, Actually.

During my last two years of law school, I clerked for a criminal defense firm in downtown Philadelphia. There were only two lawyers in the firm. They were both former public defenders in Philly. Our whole office was the two of them, me, and our legal secretary. We were right down the street from City Hall, where the Court of Common Pleas sat. We represented anybody and everybody. I loved working there.

The two lawyers I worked for were polar opposites. One was tall, black, smooth, and urbane. We'll call him Greg. His father was a renowned photographer for Ebony magazine, who snapped an iconic photo of Coretta Scott King at MLK's funeral. When I was working there, his passion for being a trial lawyer seemed to have cooled somewhat. He was dabbling in managing and promoting music, and when he found out I could rattle off all the lyrics to "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, he knew they had made a good choice in me.

The other lawyer was the reason I was working there in the first place. He was, in is own words, a "crooked-faced Irish kid". We'll call him Mike. Brash, a little loud, we had met when I was tending bar before I decided to go back to law school. But he was also incredibly well-read and fiercely proud of his Jesuit education. We struck up a friendship and he urged me to return to law school. When I did, he immediately offered me the opportunity to come work for them.

As I alluded to earlier, working there was glorious. We represented everybody: mobsters and drug dealers, petty thieves and murderers. I was tossed in head first, drafting memos, interviewing clients, tracking down witnesses. In my third year I routinely represented indigent misdemeanor clients. Working with Greg, I was meeting with local music producers and club DJs, trying to get new artists recorded and heard. Law school taught me how to go to law school; Mike and Greg taught me how to be a lawyer. (That tension between law school and work almost torpedoed my law degree as well, but that's another story for another day).

Mike was a trial lawyer. Period. Utterly fearless, possessed of a stamina and appetite for his work I have rarely seen. My last year, we undertook the capital defense of a black, male student at Lehigh Unversity charged with the rape and murder of a white, female Lehigh co-ed. Mike and I spent a night in a prison cell with our client, keeping him awake playing chess and talking about our families, in order for him to undergo a stress-related EEG. The trial was big news in the Lehigh Valley and tensions were beyond high. Mike never took a backward step. He fought every issue, every minute, every day. Every walk to the courtroom, every break, there were glares, insults, and threats of retaliatory violence. He never blinked.      We lost.        And the very next day he was back in the office working.

But he had his demons. As I mentioned, he was a hard drinker. He'd have occasional stretches of sobriety, but they never lasted. More than once, I had to have his back as we teetered on the edge of a bar fight, invariably outnumbered. And he was terrible with money. He got into cases for far too little money and, truth be told, probably couldn't afford to pay me or our great secretary Linda as much as he did.

They were great to me. Both of them. When an issue came up involving my Dad (again, another story for another day) Mike leaped in immediately to help. When my Dad died, Mike was there, tears in his eyes. "You're father was a great man", he told me. When I had the dust-up with my law school that I mentioned before, Greg, who was an alum of the same school, did not hesitate to throw his support behind me with the powers-that-be.

So. Two good men. Two lawyers. When I knew them well, one loved being a lawyer. Lived and breathed it. The other was more ambivalent. I graduated law school and Joni and I decided to move to Charlotte. I kept in contact for a time, with Mike more than Greg honestly. A few years after I moved, I heard that they had split and that Greg had been appointed the U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware. I was so happy for him. When I had seen Greg work, he was an excellent courtroom lawyer, and now it seemed clear that he was back in the law. A few years later, Bill Clinton appointed him to be a Federal District Court judge for the District of Delaware. He eventually became the Chief Judge and is now Senior Judge for the District. He was the first African-American to hold each of these posts in Delaware. By all I'd read and heard, he'd performed in each of these positions admirably. Clearly, whatever, ambivalence about the law might have once plagued him, he'd grown past it and fashioned a laudable record.

Mike continued to slug it out in the trenches. I would occasionally take note of a high profile case he would be involved in. I smiled a few years back when I heard that he had been threatened with contempt for refusing to back down from a judge in the midst of a heated motion hearing. But then, late last year, I heard something else. Mike had been indicted. Charges of money laundering and witness tampering in conjunction with a drug operation whose main architects he had represented. At first I was convinced it was a prosecutor with a grudge, trying to strike back at and silence a formidable foe. But as I read the indictment, I could see that he was in serious trouble and it was clear the government had some serious ammunition. He went to trial on it. I knew he would. There was no way in hell he was cooperating. I am certain the thought never entered his mind. And he lost. Sentencing lags behind trial in Federal court, sometimes by a couple months. I dreaded looking up what he'd get. Just the other day, I forced myself to do so and found out he'd been given forty-two months. He's at Fort Dix Correctional as I write this. I'm going to write to him. If he'll let me, I'd like to go see him. He had my back and my family's back for years. It's the least I can do.

There's no moral to this story. There's not some great philosophical insight. But two men who had a great impact on me and my career have come to two very different end points. People are not just one thing. They are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Life is complicated. There are good men who sit as judges. And there are good men who sit behind bars. You have to know their stories before you can decide. I felt the need to write this for a reason I can't even fully articulate. Maybe it's as simple as the old saying that we are neither as good as we are at our best, nor as bad as we are at our worst. But a good man is in prison. He did wrong. He made a terrible mistake. But it doesn't change the fact that he's a good man.

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