President's Message: Loss - By Samuel E. Bassett

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Saturday, November 21st, 2015

As criminal defense lawyers, we find ourselves in the midst of tragedies of life that redefine families, futures, and perspectives. How we learn to handle the emotions and practical effects of this aspect of our work can make all the difference in our effectiveness, our happiness, and our contribution to those we represent.

First, I’d like to talk about the loss a family suffers when their loved one is arrested and charged with a crime. Often, an arrest follows a downward spiral in a young person’s life tainted by poor decisions, substance use/abuse, and mental health challenges. It is easy to fall into the trap of blaming that person’s family or friends. However, I’ve had dozens of hard-working, caring parents in my office whose children have done some terrible things. Often, the answers on what to do are complicated and not simple. The solution is often a long-term treatment plan, either as a term of probation or following incarceration. One of the great joys in our work is when we see a struggling young person battle through challenges to come out a more caring, loving, and effective human being as a result of an arrest. We should hasten that process as their counselor at law.

Second, I’d like to talk about the loss that loved ones of a crime victim suffer, particularly in a serious felony case. As the lawyer for a person accused, there is nothing like the feeling you get when seeing the family of a deceased victim look at you and your client. How do you respond? Obviously, these answers are different for everyone, but my experience teaches me to make sure that you demonstrate sorrow in as professional a manner as possible. All the while, you must understand that they may be wholly unable to appreciate your empathy because you are associated with a person who has inflicted enormous pain on them. Do not be critical of them if they lash out, as you must understand they are acting in an instinctual and emotional context. It is always my hope that as they reflect on the process later, they will remember you as someone who always treated them with empathy and respect, even if there were disagreements about what should happen to your client. Don’t ever forget that your job and allegiance is to your client and you must do your job. A few years ago I was having dinner with a friend and noticed a familiar-looking woman walk in and look at me. I could not remember who she was at that moment. Soon, the waitress brought a drink over to me with a handwritten note: “It’s good to see you, Sam. I hope you are doing well.” It was signed by the mother of a murder victim, and I had been the lawyer for the defendant. I walked over, hugged her and we talked. I will keep that note forever.

I’d like to finally comment on how our system handles these difficult issues. In today’s criminal justice system, there are infrastructures within district attorney’s offices, police departments, and volunteer organizations to assist loved ones of crime victims. I believe that this is an improvement over times in which victims were essentially ignored in the process. I am also wary of the well-intentioned counseling of victims that a harsh punishment can assist them in finding peace. The allocution process now required can be healing, but sometimes I’ve seen it as unnecessarily divisive and hateful. I’ve given wide latitude to any loved one’s comments during an allocution. However, judges and prosecutors should do a better job of preventing tragic situations from evolving into a media circus. In a recent case in Austin, jurors were literally chased down the street by media who wanted to cross-examine them about their decision following an emotionally charged trial.

Each of you should take care of yourself and your own pro­cessing of these difficult situations. We are a profession that is more susceptible than most to depression, substance abuse, and difficulties in our personal lives. I have found that I do much better when I find healthy outlets to cope with the intense stress that can occur when we are dealing with difficult cases. To help others, you must first take care of yourself.