It was the middle of the night and Mr. James, (a fictional name) an African American man, was asleep in bed with his wife. Their baby was asleep in another room of their rented house. A man and some of his friends stood outside and shouted racial slurs and menacing taunts to scare the family. It continued for some time. When Mr. James reached his breaking point, he got his handgun and fired in the direction of the men outside from his second story bedroom window.
A few days later a friend of Mr. James who was helping him raise money for a lawyer called me and asked whether I would represent him. One of the bullets Mr. James fired had hit one of the men and damaged his spinal nerves. He was now paralyzed from the waist down, maybe forever. Mr. James had been charged with attempted murder and other lesser charges.
I had known Mr. James casually for over 10 years. He was a big man with a reputation for being kind, cheerful, respectful and hardworking. Why didn’t he call the police instead of firing his gun? Did he intend to kill or injure one of the men or just scare them away?
During the first ten years of my general practice of law, I handled criminal cases. The people I represented were children, men, women, white, black, bi-racial and ethnically diverse. The cases ranged from minor offenses to felonies. The clients were alcoholics, drug addicts, smart, intellectually challenged, mentally unstable, mean, victimized, hateful, repeat offenders and average people who made a single bad decision. Their actions were hurtful, dangerous, damaging, sometimes devastatingly so and often to themselves. They stole and destroyed. Many seemed sorry only that they had been caught.
Mr. James went to prison but not for attempted murder. Lives and families were destroyed that night. I have never been in a situation like the one Mr. James and his wife faced and I never will be as a result of my genetics or my birthplace. I am a white male firmly rooted by birth, education and genetics in the middle class without mental disease or addiction, except for nicotine addiction for twenty years. I had little in common with most of the people I represented in criminal cases.
At the time I did not understand what caused or motivated these people to do these things. I admit that privately I often negatively judged them and their actions. That was counterbalanced and, I hope, overcome, by my competitive desire to obtain the best possible outcome in each case and my belief that every person deserved effective legal counsel. My inner struggle eventually led me to stop handling criminal cases.
At the time I lacked any significant knowledge of how poverty, racial and ethnic prejudice and genetics can stack the deck against a person’s success in our country’s educational, economic, judicial and political systems. Over the years our legal system and I have gained more knowledge about the effects of these conditions on people. Looking back I realize that my personal judgments were formed, in large part, out of ignorance. I never stood in their shoes. Practicing law has taught me that I will never know enough to be anyone’s judge.