I regularly represent people facing extremely serious criminal charges. I stand with them, help them understand the case and their options, and support them emotionally. I see my role not just as the person who gives my client legal advice, but the one person in the world that they can fully trust in the criminal justice system. That trust entails not just giving them accurate legal advice but helping them (and often their family) through a stressful and anxiety-filled time in their lives. I am used to heart-felt “thank you’s” from my clients and their family members when the case is over. Last week I got an unexpected “thank you” from the family of the victim in my client’s case. It’s happened before (several times) but it’s always surprising and powerful.
First a little background: my client was charged with the murder of his long-time significant other. The woman who lost her life left behind a grieving family that included three children under 18 years old. When we conducted the sentencing hearing, four family members testified in what are called “victim impact statements.” These are meant to give victims and their family members an opportunity to speak their mind and get some closure. They sound good in theory, but pretty much everyone who works in criminal law will tell you that they don’t like victim impact statements because they often don’t work as they’re intended. Whereas they’re intended to give the person testifying closure and promote healing, they often rip open the emotional wounds and can devolve into shouting and even violence. Personally, I think too much of the time these impact statements end up doing more harm than good to everyone involved. Going into these impact statements, I was holding my breath and expecting the worst because of all the bad experiences I’ve had with impact statements.
This, however, was a notable exception. A lot of the time the person giving the impact statement will be – understandably – filled with anger and resentment towards the defendant. This can lead to shouting, insults, and even violence. From the very first impact statement in this case, however, these were different. The first witness started off by saying she forgave my client and hoped that he could learn to forgive himself. Just that statement by itself was powerful. She went on to say that she hoped that his time in prison would give him time to become a better man. The children testified next. Each expressed their hurt and their loss, but without the normal venom. These children’s statements hit me hard because, while they had lost their mother at such a tender age, I lost my father unexpectedly when I was 13 years old. I remember the hurt and shock. I could see myself in their faces and hear myself in their words. It was powerful.
At the end of the hearing, I told the grieving family that I wished them the best moving forward. It was a simple statement offered from the heart. I didn’t think much of saying it, just that it felt like the right thing to do. I’ve made similar statements to the victim or their family members in cases in the past in some of my cases. You see, I fight hard for my client, but that doesn’t mean losing my humanity and my capacity to empathize with my fellow human beings in their times of struggle. While my client’s life and struggle must be foremost for me has his/her attorney (it’s my professional duty to my him/her first) that doesn’t mean I have to treat the other side harshly or without kindness.
After this case, I had to unpack my feelings. I regularly deal with heavy subjects and, like everyone who works in the criminal justice system, I have put up emotional distance between myself and my work so I can continue to effectively do my job and help my clients. Usually, things involved in my cases that would hit most people hard don’t affect me much because of this emotional distance. This, however, was different. Seeing those kids struggling with the loss of their mother hit home for me.
While I was unpacking my feelings over all this, I received an email from a friend of the victim’s family who had been watching the live stream of our hearing on the internet. Evidently he looked me up after the hearing. He thanked me for what I do, acknowledging that I have a difficult but important job protecting the rights of those accused of crimes. I was pretty blown away. It takes a lot of character and emotional strength to not get swept up in your anger and grief and lash out at the lawyer representing the person accused of hurting you by taking the life of someone you love. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to thank that person for their work and acknowledge how hard it must be to do that job day in and day out. I responded, thanking this person for their kind and heart-felt words. I then got another email, this time from the sister of the victim (who had started off the impact statements by forgiving and wishing my client well). She echoed her friend’d sentiments and thanked me for what I do. She told me that the kids wanted to visit my client if he was willing. I talked it over with my client and, with his agreement, set that up for them. I hope it gives both the family and my client some much needed closure. Again, all of this was profoundly moving.
I share all this because this is who I am. I try to be “a different kind of lawyer.” Fighting for my clients is, of course, very important to me. I pride myself on standing up for them, on fighting back against injustice. But I do not, however, have to be a caricature of a junk-yard dog lawyer rabidly attacking the other side. I do not have to forget that all the people – the accused, the witnesses, the family members of both sides – are human beings and should be treated with respect and dignity. I do not have lose my humanity. My commitment to my humanity is part of what makes me who I am.
I have been thanked and complimented a number of times by the families and loved ones of the victims in cases I’ve handled. This is the second time a loved one in a murder case has thanked me for my work representing someone accused of taking away the life of their loved one – in protecting and fighting for the rights of my client. It never ceases to amaze me when it happens. It makes me proud of what my entire team, what we do, and how we do it.