This summer was my first practical foray into my chosen profession. Before this summer, I was naïve, ignorant, and completely confident in my grasp of how our criminal justice system operated. Pure logic, right? Here is the law, here is a person who broke the law, assess punishment, high fives are given for a job well done. Despite my complete lack of training, besides multiple seasons of Law and Order under my belt, I went into the office with my cup completely filled. “You never convict on circumstantial evidence.” “Cops have to tell you if they are cops no matter what, it’s the law.” “There has to be absolutely no doubt about the guilt or innocence of a person before someone can be convicted of a crime.” “The law is the law and that is it.”
I believed in every one of these completely stupid statements before this summer. But, day by day, my knowledge about how the law actually operates in the criminal arena began to grow and the antiquated concepts I used to believe with my whole heart began to disappear. As I gained real trial experience, help draft questions for voir dire, helped in investigations, witness victim and defendant statements, and conducted legal research for a capital murder case, the concept of justice within our criminal system became clearer. It’s like the Buddhist concept of kensho, not quite enlightenment, but one more lit candle to help you see the path. By summer’s end, I had become a little jaded, but wiser nonetheless. One assignment in particular stands out amongst all the rest in my pursuit of a better understanding of criminal law.
As mentioned before, I was afforded the opportunity to participate in conducting legal research for a capital murder case. I was approached by one of the attorney’s in the office after about five weeks on the job and was asked if I would help him with his upcoming capital murder case. I was absolutely elated! A real attorney asking me to help him personally with the mother of all charges! Without any hesitation whatsoever, I jumped at the chance and was on Lexis within a minute of the invitation. The attorney came into my little room and handed me the defendant’s file and told me to read up on the case and become familiar with the facts; “we may be going for the death penalty and we need to compile an entire history of this guy’s life to present to the jury on how worthless he is,” he said. So I sat there and read, line by line, about this incredibly heinous act. A son, taking his father’s life over nothing but a simple act of compassion for his daughter in-law; “you shouldn’t hit your wife in front of your daughter, a child should never see that,” were his last words before his son beat him into a coma that he never awoke from. I hated the defendant, I personally don’t believe in capital punishment, but after reading the arrest narrative I wanted this guy gone.
My research began; multiple RAP sheets from counties all over Texas, an NCIC which made you question how in the hell this guy was even out of prison to commit this act in the first place, pictures of his victims from past assault cases, statements from others who genuinely feared the utterance of this guy’s name. On paper, this guy deserved every silvery inch of the needle. I gave everything I had to come up with some redeeming quality, but came up with nothing. He was monster, a waste of humanity, a vile creature whose life deserved to be extinguished.
A few days into my research, I was given copies of his jail mail and his recorded conversations from the jail. After I read a few of his letters and heard a few of his calls, he became human to me again. His letters were filled with heart wrenching pleas to his wife to still love him regardless of what he did, letters to his daughter telling her to be a good girl and to take care of her momma while he was gone, and pictures of his daughter’s and wife’s favorite cartoon characters with his favorite bible passages attached. His voice would crackle and break every time his wife would hand the phone to his daughter. She was too young to speak or even understand anything he was saying, but he just wanted her to know that he loved her and couldn’t wait to see her again. Sitting there, I knew, given this guy’s history and the heinousness of his crime, he would never be able to touch his daughter ever again. This guy may escape with his life but he was never going to see the outside of a prison. I felt helpless because there was nothing I could do to help his situation. The prosecution’s job was not to present to the jury how much he loved his daughter but highlight his complete lack of remorse for what he had done.
I struggled with my failure every single night questioning whether my research was an integral part of deciding another human being’s fate. To ease my conscience, I tried to convince myself that it was just busy work. In the end though, my research was important and it was used to determine whether or not we were going to pursue the death penalty. By some miracle, against everything Texas stands for, we did not.
After the decision came down from the District Attorney, I decided to shadow the misdemeanor attorneys for a while and eventually ended up in JP court pursuing destruction of property charges against teenage biker kids. I guess you can say I got a taste of everything the DA’s office had to offer. I honestly would not trade this experience for anything, and TLF has my sincere gratitude for making it possible. Thank you so much.
So what did I learn? Law is a human concept imposed upon other humans to ensure the progression of society, and being a human entity, it is prone to mistakes, flaws and inconsistencies. Given these proclivities, it is our duty, as advocates of the law, to take great care in presenting and proving our cases against those we feel have broken the law and violated the terms of their social contract. But, we must always remember, despite the sometimes unyielding black letter of the law, we are determining the fate of our fellow man. Regardless of what they have done, they deserve our compassion, our empathy and an attempt to understand their actions. But once all is said and done, it is emphatically the province of a prosecuting attorney to see that justice is done, and if the hand of justice be heavy, let it rest upon the backs of those who truly deserve her retribution.