As we stood in the El Paso heat, as our brother, Sib Abraham, was buried, a very well-respected 70-year-old lawyer came up to me. He had tears in his eyes as he looked at me and said:
For the first time in my life, I’m practicing without a net. As a new lawyer, the people I worked for took care of me. From the time I turned 30 years old, Sib was my net. He knew what to do, how best to do it, and how to do whatever it was as a gentleman. I don’t know what I’m going to do now.
This lawyer summed up the thoughts and fears of a number of lawyers in and out of the state of Texas. It summarized the feelings of the El Paso criminal defense bar to a tee. Every young lawyer who sought to earn his mark as a criminal defense attorney over the last 50+ years had been greeted early in his career by a gentleman (white-haired for many of those years) who stuck out a sincere hand and introduced himself: “Hey, bud, my name’s Sib Abraham. I don’t believe we’ve met. If there’s anything I can do for you, please call me.” And he meant every word of it. What each of us needed, Sib tried to deliver:
- fight hard
- never compromise your principles
- never compromise your client
- be a gentleman
Sib would not represent a snitch. He would not charge a fee to a fellow lawyer who was in trouble. When all other defense counsel in a case wanted to cut and run, Sib said, “No.” When Sib said, “No,” it generally meant that whoever stuck with him was better off than those who took a plea and turned on the others.
Every lawyer I know has a Sib Abraham story. I could write a book about mine and a lot of lawyers have as many or more. Often, our conversations began with, “I was frustrated… ,” or, “A judge won’t let me… ,” or, “My client’s gonna get… ,” and ended with, “Hey, bud, we can fix this.” And we did. I won’t bore you with those stories here (see me at the bar, however) because I want to share an important lesson I learned from Sib.
Sib and I represented co-defendants in a major white-collar case. We’d been getting banged around pretty hard by the AUSA’s, federal magistrates and district judges. We gathered at Sib’s office. My son Jeep was a brand-new lawyer and was with me. Three very experienced lawyers and my son sat down to talk. We were throwing out ideas about how to extract our clients from their legal predicaments. As usual, everyone talked at once. Jeep started to say something and I talked over him, not realizing it. Sib stopped me and said, “Hold on, what do you think, Jeep?”
Jeep lit up like a Christmas tree. After he finished speaking, Sib said, “I like it,” and Jeep’s idea became a part of the motion we filed. His idea hasn’t worked yet, but it may someday. The important thing was that Sib valued a young lawyer’s opinion and wanted to hear it. Jeep’s own father didn’t listen to him. When Sib was dying, he and I had several conversations. In one of those, he told me how much he thought of Jeep. He said, “He’s a good son, a good, young, lawyer, and he listens.”
I thought, “And thanks to you, Sib, so does his dad.” Sib listened, he thought, and then he acted.
I will miss Sib Abraham. We talked every Saturday afternoon in the fall. He was in his office and I was in mine, both working. He’d call to see what college football game I had on. I knew what he had on his TV: Texas A&M. I know I’ll still call his number this fall out of habit. I’ve already called it once just to hear his recording.
I’m not sure how heaven works, but I do know this:
- There will be a lot more acquittals;
- the Aggies will play well in the heavenly league;
- a lot of us will miss him, and will remember him when we fasten our briefcases to go to war. He’ll still be with us, however. We’ll still have a net.
He taught us all and taught us well. Thank you, my friend.
When I first met Joseph “Sib” Abraham, in Corpus Christi in the early Seventies, we were both young Turks involved in the marijuana wars, defending those citizens caught up in the government’s futile effort to stamp out drugs. “Sib” represented a pilot from San Elizario, near El Paso, and I was defending a young idealistic Mexican-American from Robstown, near Corpus. The Feds theorized they and others had schemed airlifts of weed to finance Raza Unida political efforts, and the series of prosecutions sought to dismantle those upstarts. Sib was not happy with his client, a colorful daredevil accustomed to landing on dirt roads in the Brasada of South Texas at night, guided only by the headlights of pickup trucks stationed at each end of the makeshift runways. Sib, like many of us then and a few remaining stalwarts today, didn’t represent snitches, but his otherwise courageous pilot had succumbed to the prosecutors’ threats and siren’s song, against Sib’s advice that we had a winnable case if we stuck together. Sib’s honorable loyalty to his client, in spite of the guy cratering to save his own skin at the expense of his former compatriots, impressed me, almost as much as Sib’s dignity and strength—two qualities he would be known for all his life. The pilot enhanced his story, of course, to make it more valuable to the prosecution, which had failed to reveal to me the full extent of the promises they made the pilot (surprise, surprise!), but on cross in a pretrial hearing I got the pilot to waive his attorney-client privilege so Sib was free to reveal the truth to me. We became lifelong friends after that.
Through the years after that first meeting we fought back to back in the many battles we champions of the accused experience, and there’s no one I’d rather have my back than Sib Abraham.
I could tell many stories about our trials and friendship. There was a time many years ago when a “cousin” (the huge Syrian/Lebanese community of El Paso are all “cousins”; Sib pronounced me an honorary “cousin” decades ago, a high honor, indeed) was in trouble, and Sib was just too close to handle the case, so he asked me to. But he had prepared the case to be won, and all I had to do was parachute in and follow Sib’s brilliant lead. He was a master at strategy, quietly analyzing his cases, finding the prosecution’s weakness, and honing in on it. Yet he always earned the respect, often begrudgingly so, of the lawyers he went up against.
Another time Sib and I, and several other lawyers, represented co-defendants in a giant marijuana conspiracy with origins in and around El Paso, but filed in Houston so the prosecution could gain tactical advantage. Sib won his case with the jury, in spite of the judge treating all the defense lawyers like dog shit. His victory had a lot to do with the dignity with which he handled the judge’s conduct. (I had to win mine on appeal, based in part on that same conduct.)
And there was the time recently, when he and Chick Kazen (another “cousin”) and I were representing several clients together. Though sick and dying, he never let on, traveling frequently to Austin for meetings, strategizing, confronting adverse parties and lawyers in his gentle but effective way. We didn’t know how sick he was until a few days before he died, because Sib never sought sympathy for himself, only for the Hero he represented.
I went to see him hours before he died in his own home surrounded by the family he loved. Stalwart friend and great lawyer Jim Darnell was there, and together we got to visit with Sib. He was lucid and seeking no pity, but satisfied with the life he led, ready to go. Typical of his selflessness, on his dying bed he asked about me and my family, and about another case I’m handling for him. I promised him I’d do my best.
Now he’s gone, and I have a tough time imagining a world without him. He was always just a phone call away, even though we were separated by the breadth of our great State. He earned the universal respect of everyone who encountered him, Lawyers, Judges, Prosecutors, Jurors, and especially clients, for whom he always fought with all his many talents. He was a warrior in the purest sense of that word, and he did it with dignity and professionalism. He was a true Gentleman.
His beloved son, Billy, said Sib believed that what you say and what you do must always be in alignment. And Sib often said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever.” Sib lived his life like that. We are all better because Sib walked among us.
Adios, my friend.