Chapter & Verse: Defending in the Name of Hope

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My Dear and Beloved Defenders,

Today I am reading TCCP 1.051, the next nibble in our attempt to eat the law whole. Right to Representation by Counsel. And then 1.051 (c), especially close to my little public defender heart: An indigent defendant is entitled to have an attorney appointed to represent him in any adversary judicial proceeding that may result in punishment by confinement and in any other criminal proceeding if the court concludes that the interests of justice require representation.

If the interests of justice require… that’s the part I’m thinking the most about today. The “interests of justice” part. Something I wonder about in the minutes of quiet during this quarantine is my role in the interest of justice. Sometimes I struggle with the part we all play as defense counsel to the damned. The further we climb into this system, the more apparent it is that it is rigged, that the game is predetermined, and the dull and powerful will win every time.

Grant Gilmore (who knew a lot about Hell because he was one of the law professors who drafted the Uniform Commercial Code-remember that?) wrote in the New York Times in 1977: “The worse the society, the more law there will be. In Hell there will be nothing but law and due process will be meticulously observed.”

I wonder if my appearance as counsel helps to legitimize an illegitimate system. If I know that the deck is stacked, why am I playing the game? I’ve thought about this many times in the seven long and strange years I’ve done this job, and more than once I’ve almost walked away because of it. 

When I was in law school, my aunt fought breast cancer. By the time they caught it, it had already metastasized and there was little hope of her survival. She had also struggled for many years with drug addiction, and she was the first person I knew who went to prison. When I was eight years old I visited her there in TDCJ. She wrote me long letters on yellow legal pads and drew the intricate and beautiful designs the women in her cellblock would weave into each other’s hair.  Later, when I was 17, I would bail her out of jail. I would sit up with her and pray that she would not go to prison again. I would try to sneak in stamps and perfume in the pages of letters I mailed her and help her come up with spread recipes from the prison commissary lists.

Later, when I was 29, I sat in a hospital room, trying to chat casually as the doctors dripped slow, thick poison into my tiny aunt’s veins to kill her cancer. I complained about law school. I complained about the idea of being a lawyer. “But at least you… have a chance,” she said, “and I…” she trailed off. That was as close as she ever came to admitting her disease was terminal, that she knew she was mortal. Soon after, as my aunt lay dying in her tiny apartment, my mother would lift her sister’s frail body, hollow-boned and aching, from the shallow bathtub and I heard her rasp, “I’m not going to die in that bed.”

 “I’m not going to let you,” my mother said, firmly, in this voice that I have always believed. “I won’t let you.” And I know she believed it, fervently, they both did, even though they also both knew that my mother, as powerful as she was and is, had no real control over life and death. And though I didn’t see it, I imagine my mother patted my aunt’s narrow arm as she lifted her up into the bed that she would in fact, two days later, die in.

I think of both of those women, and I know that I can’t be a spectator to all of this. That even if I know the result, that I know my client’s fate is sealed, that even if my whole job is palliative care, I have to do it. That as I have faced terrible things in my own life, I have wanted someone by my side to pat my arm and believe fervently that there is hope.

Oh friends, I love you, and I revel in your victories that are healing and restorative, that push past hospice and into recovery. But please know that in your defeats you are just as meaningful, and sometimes more so. And whether or not justice will exist for your client, and whether or not hope is justified, please know that that is why you are there, at the feet of the dying, because if there is hope it is in your advocacy and your representation, and you are called, by the interests of justice, to serve.

Love always and wash your hands.

TCDLA
TCDLA
Allison Mathis
Allison Mathis
Allison Mathis is a criminal defense attorney in the post-conviction writs division of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in Houston, Texas. She has defended the public from the spurious claims of the government in various places, including Aztec, New Mexico, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in LaConner, Washington, and the Republic of Palau. She serves on TCDLA’s board of directors and is a founding member of her office’s extraordinary Knit Club. Before she was a lawyer, she was a superlative late-night diner waitress and an aspiring literary critic, but mostly she drank wine. You can reach her at .
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