If I were a drinking man, I'd know just what to do. I'd grab me a bottle of something strong, Dewars, maybe, or Tanqueray, and I'd start doing shots, one after another until the edges ran a little smoother. Today was one of those nerve jangling days trial lawyers dread.
It started easily enough. I woke up at about dawn, and checked to make sure my rifle was loaded. Then I took it downstairs just to make sure the man who threatened to kill me over the weekend hadn't dropped by for a visit. He wasn't there, so I plopped down in a bathtub to think through the day ahead. I then gathered some papers and headed off to court.
My client had rejected a sweet plea offer that carried the possibility of a walk out the door. He wanted trial. So I cross-examined the state's witnesses against him last week; there was one more witness to go today. We'd give closing arguments today. I was ready. Never mind the confession he'd made to his girlfriend at the time. Or the confession to his best friend. Or the testimony about his being seen heading toward the scene of a residential arson with a Gatorade bottle of gasoline moments before a house burst into flames. These were facts I was prepared to argue away.
I reviewed the argument as I drove to court. A cellphone call relayed that the man who wanted me dead was in police custody. I breathed the first sigh of relief on account of him in several days. Funny how in an instant I was rooting for a high bond. Lock 'em up and throw away the key, said the defender of crimes far worse than a mere threat to kill. The state, suddenly, was a protector; I marvelled that I could be grateful for it.
We argued the arson case today, and at day's end, a knock on the door. A verdict. I knew in that instant in was guilty.
In all my verdicts I've noticed the following: A not guilty verdict is almost always preceeded by the sound of laughter after a jury finishes its work. They are about to deliver good news. An acquitting jury has an easy gait as it enters the courtroom. This jury walked in as though attending a wake.
And a wake it was. My client broke down in tears. His father sobbed. His mother stood in alabaster shock. His friends were teary eyed. It was my role to face this sorrow and pain with equanimity. I had hoped to guide the man to safety. Instead, I stood silent vigil, a Charon guiding folks over the river of death.
When the tears were shed, and my client had passed his belongings to me, I went to meet his family in the hallway. They were gracious. They thanked me for a job well done. I told them I was sorry. I had done all that the law permitted me to do and there was nothing more I could have done. We tried the case we wanted tried, over the state's objections. "I know," the client's step-mother said, and she tried to console me.
But I would not let her. The loss of a case, much like the winning of a case, is not about the lawyer. Today, I ushered a young man of twenty to the gates of Hell. Later he will be sentenced. He could spend a decade or more behind bars. My vigil is to prepare others for sorrows I see only secondhand.
Funny how where you stand determines what you see. I want the man who threatens to kill me to spend the rest of his days behind bars. Only then will I feel truly safe. As to my client convicted today, I have never felt threatened by him. He is a simple man who gave me nothing but gratitude.
I drove home feeling like a whipped dog. I must have looked it, too. When the police officer pulled me over with lights flashing I was suddenly I suspect. I sat stock still, being sure not to make furtive or quick movements with my hands. Trouble starts in a flash. The registration to my car expired months ago. Frankly, I hadn't noticed. I was too busy tending others' sorrows. The officer sent me on my way with a warning. I was transformed from suspect to recipient of a reprieve. I wish my client had received one today.
When I got to the office this evening, a local police chief had called. I dialed his number. He wanted to assure me that the man who threatened me was behind bars. I thanked the chief, joking that a department I had long and often attacked now had my back. The chief asked me if I remembered representing him long, long ago when he had faced trouble all his own. We reminisced about that.
At the end of a wearying day I have known many emotions: fear, sorrow, anger, gratitude and now, as the Sun sets, more than a smattering of wonder. I played many roles today, perhaps none of them well. When tomorrow comes, I am summoned to yet another contest, another role. We give all we have each day, even unto death. That commitment felt especially real today.
My pride is wounded, but I always recover. So long as I am alive, I am fight. I began the day fearing death and end it grateful to be fully alive to life's terrifying possibilities. This is, after all, the life I have chosen.