Eight years ago when I walked into these pages as editor of the Voice I spoke about the nature of who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Having written in our last issue about renewing our attention to our purpose as defined in our bylaws, I wanted to remind you of my thoughts on the subject. Please allow me to redeliver that message as it appeared here in 2006.
whom shall I send,
and who will go for us
Jem Finch was devastated by the conviction of Tom Robinson. His father has lost a case Jem thought surely was won. The all-white, all-male jury had taken the word of the Ewells over the obvious innocence of Tom. One of the neighbors, Miss Maudie, said to Jem: “I simply want to tell you that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them . . . We’re the safest folks in the world[.] . . . We’re so rarely called upon to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.” (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)
We have been called upon to “go for” the accused. Just as surely as Isaiah’s God asked him the question in the title, we are faced with the question of who will stand and speak for the person charged with crime. Those of us who have answered that we will, and have taken on that responsibility as criminal defense lawyers, must surely realize that in a very real sense it is a calling. We do our society’s unpleasant jobs. We fight to make it safe. How we respond to this calling defines us—not merely as lawyers, but as human beings. I don’t know if we were all born to do it, but I do know that many of the men and women I have been privileged to meet through TCDLA must have been.
So why did Miss Maudie describe our job as “unpleasant”? Why did she suggest that we are responsible for people’s “safety”? It is unpleasant because too many people do not presume innocence. It is unpleasant because too many people do not place the burden of proof on the prosecution. It is unpleasant because too many people do not respect the defendant’s right to silence. It is unpleasant because too many people do not care if we do anything about it. It is critical to the safety of our society because too many people do not grasp how inclined they are to sacrifice their own constitutional rights, and what their lives would be without them.
Atticus had said: “Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects his personally. This one’s mine I guess.”
Let me tell you about one of mine. About 16 years ago I defended, unsuccessfully, a man who was convicted of rape based on the DNA testimony of a man named Fred Zain. I remember that, notwithstanding my cross-examination, the jury loved him. I thought he was an arrogant blowhard. What I did not know was that he was either the world’s leading incompetent forensic scientist or a perjurer. Four years later when Zain was found out, I was able to get Gilbert Alejandro returned from prison and eventually vindicated. There was, of course, no way to give him back the years he had spent locked up for a crime he did not commit. This case affected me personally in two ways. First, I felt personally to blame despite the fact that Zain had fooled many juries before mine. Second, I met a brilliant lady named Cynthia Orr, because she was handling a Zain case at the same time I was dealing with mine. Through her friendship and encouragement, I got involved in TCDLA. But for her I might still be relatively ignorant of our fantastic organization. Through TCDLA I have met, and am now privileged to call my friends, a number of modern-day Atticus Finches. Just being in their presence is a reminder of the scope and critical importance of our calling. They teach me why we must do our society’s unpleasant jobs and keep it safe. They also teach me how.
So I invite each of you to become more active in TCDLA. Talk to the officers and directors in your area, and discuss how you can become more involved. I look forward to serving you as editor of the Voice. I hope that I can contribute to it positively. I may make future references to Mr. Finch. I believe there is much for us to learn from him.
Now, listen as Jem’s little sister, “Scout,” watches her father’s lonely walk out of the courtroom:
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’ voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
As you respond to the call to speak for the accused, may each of you be so blessed to have such said of you some day.