Sunday, May 27, 2018

Grace in the Strangest Place

One of the facts of life when you work as a criminal defense lawyer is that you are going to, quite often, be the object of anger from a large part of the general public and, especially, the family and friends of crime victims. Indeed, the title of this haphazard blog comes from a question, more an accusation really, that has been posed to me a few times. It comes with the turf, and you have to learn early to tune it out. I actually go further and embrace the feeling that everyone in that courtroom, at the very least, wants me to fail and often actively wishes harm upon me. It motivates me, to be candid. There is a not-insignificant part of me that, in some regard, relishes being hated. But that's a far deeper dive than I will impose on you right now. I have been threatened (both overtly and more discreetly), cursed, damned (lots of times) and glared at on a regular basis over the last twenty-plus years of working in the area of murder and mayhem. To be fair, if there's a Hell, the people who have urged that I go there and those who have advised that that is where I am destined to reside are likely correct, although I would disagree with their reasons. All of that was turned on it's head this past Friday afternoon in a way that I was not expecting.

I finished a fairly lengthy trial on Friday afternoon. My client was charged with four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder arising out of two incidents roughly forty-eight hours apart. The case had attracted a fair amount of notoriety in part because a quadruple murder trial is pretty rare, but more because one of those killed was a young woman who had been a contestant on the reality TV show "America's Next Top Model".

My client's co-defendant had actually gone to trial and lost last year on these charges, and I had watched most of that trial. In almost all murder trials, one of the first witnesses will be a family member who identifies the decedent. It is often emotionally charged. At the trial last year, when the Assistant District Attorney was questioning this young woman's mother, she recounted how they had come to the U.S. in the 90's when the girl was an infant, fleeing the hideous war and genocide that was wracking that country and the surrounding areas of the former Yugoslavia. I am of Croatian descent and have Bosnian friends who fled to the U.S. under the same circumstances, so I was far more interested in this testimony than I would normally be. When the ADA asked the woman what her daughter's job was, she pointedly answered that she was a cashier at an eating establishment. No mention of a modeling career. When asked how long she had  been living where the incident took place (she was residing with her new boyfriend who, not coincidentally to the case, was a heroin dealer with lots of cash) the mother again made the point that her daughter had moved there from their home two weeks prior and over the objections to and without the permission of her parents (the young woman was 19 at the time).

Flash forward to our trial. The mother again testifies, still obviously torn up a the loss of her daughter three years ago. Again, she refuses to mention anything about modeling, again makes it clear that her daughter worked a job as a cashier, again makes it clear that her daughter moved over her objections and concerns. As the trial played out, she was there for every moment of the two weeks, often with tears in her eyes. And I never saw a glare towards me or my client. Not in the courtroom, not in the hallways. Even during the two long days of jury deliberations, when it was clear the jury was struggling in their decision. After over eight hours over two days, the jury came back at 4:00 p.m Friday with a verdict.  They acquitted my client in the incident involving one murder and one attempted murder, but convicted him of the three murders in the second incident, the one involving the woman's daughter. None of the family chose to speak at sentencing.

After court was adjourned, I took my time packing up my files and exhibits. I always shake hands with the prosecutors and thank the deputies, clerk, and court reporter. I spoke for a few moments with my client's family about issues like appeal and where and how he would make his way through the prison system. They thanked me and left. Eventually, I made my way out into the hallway and over toward the elevators and took a few minutes to check my messages and emails. When I looked up, the young woman's mother was walking up to me. She put out her hand, and I shook it. In heavily-accented and somewhat halting English, she told me that she understood what my job was and that she bore me no anger. There were tears in her eyes. I told her I was truly sorry for what had happened to her daughter and we found that (unsurprisingly, as the Bosnian community in Charlotte is fairly tight-knit) she knows the Bosnian friends I have. And I told her that I understood what she and her family had faced, and that they thought coming to America would save them from that horror, and how that must make all of this even harder. And she cried a little more and said "yes", and shook my hand again. And thanked me. And that's when I realized I had tears in my eyes too. I've been doing this a long time. That's the single most gracious encounter I've ever experienced. I cannot imagine having the strength to do it myself. I'll never forget it.