Monday, June 9, 2014

The Bear Has a Great Catholic Job

The Bear loves being a criminal defense lawyer. It is a very Catholic thing to do.

Catholics get sin. The Bear can't help but see beyond the crime to the sin, and beyond the sin to the wounded person.

Yeah, the Bear really talks like that. Out loud. Ursus arctos isn't a solitary creature entirely by preference. Frankly, people think he's weird. How can you represent a person like that? is the question everyone asks, or, rather, the accusation everybody makes.

The Bear understands. Once he saw an accused child-killer on the evening news, and had the same reaction you would have (or did; the Bear has been involved in a couple of cases that received national attention). Instant, visceral condemnation. The following day, he was called upon to defend the very same man. With no more information than a news segment presents, it is easy to condemn the person along with the crime. But the more you get to know a person, the less easy it is to judge them.

Of course, the crime becomes all the more horrible the more you learn, and see. What is seen cannot be unseen. Ironically, a criminal defense lawyer comes to know, and (usually) care for the victims far more than someone seeing their smiling picture flashed on a television screen. He sees them in their ultimate humiliation. Dead and naked on the slab. It is probably psychologically damaging to have to push that empathy for the victims aside to get through the autopsy photographs, and trial preparation, but the Bear does not know.

Evidence is evidence and it has to be that way. It is not a job for the squeamish.

We can agree that a crime is terrible, and leave room, perhaps, for the person behind the crime. This is a lesson that hardly anyone but the criminal defense lawyer is privileged to learn. That is why it is such a great Catholic job.

Criminals are losers, most of the time. Poor, badly educated, unemployed, their lives the sum of a thousand bad choices, not all of them theirs. Most criminals stumble into crimes drunk and stupid, with no thought for tomorrow. (That, incidentally, is why the death penalty does not serve as a deterrence.) In fact, it is a characteristic of criminals that they are incapable of thinking beyond a few hours into the future. The Bear speculates this is a real defect of cognition: the horizon of the future ends in front of their noses.

Perhaps being caught in the moment is a characteristic of sin. If we all hoped for the future and remembered our end, all the time, perhaps we would sin less. The Bear frequently must step before the imposing judgment seat of a federal judge when his client is sentenced. This never fails to awaken a sense of dread about his own judgment. See what a great Catholic job being a criminal defense lawyer is?

The Bear can remember only one case where the State could point to evidence that murders were intricately planned ahead of time. Who kills someone with no idea of how to get rid of the body? This would seem to be a serious oversight, but time and time again the Bear has seen murderers fail to carry out the most basic planning.

Most murderers are not the stone cold killers or masterminds portrayed in dramas. They are complex human beings, a mix of good and evil. They are very much like us. To know murderers is to be struck not by how different they are from us, but how similar we are to them. Their bad deed is a matter of degree, not kind.

This is why Jesus said that everyone who hates his brother is a murderer. See what a great Catholic job being a criminal defense lawyer is?

Murderers can be forgiven, too. They can repent, go to confession, and receive absolution just like we can. Then they are in the same state of grace as we are after confession. What an amazing sacrament! How great is our God! See what a great Catholic job being a criminal defense lawyer is?

If a person kisses the sores of a leper, he is called a saint. If a person kisses the moral wounds of a killer, he is a criminal defense lawyer. The first is praised, the latter is reviled.

The Bear wishes he could do more, because the law's tribunal is nothing compared to falling into the hands of the living God. But his professional duties do not admit that sort of counsel and closeness. Perhaps by showing simple dedication and compassion, he may awaken a path to grace.

The best criminal defense lawyers the Bear knows are Catholic. Oddly, they all, without exception, say the rosary.

That can't be a coincidence.

See what a great Catholic job being a criminal defense lawyer is?


  1. Very interesting piece my friend. Much food for thought...and for the soul. Thank you.

  2. Awesome post. I have much more respect for the job after reading this. One thing that bothers me though. How do you justify getting murderers/rapists/etc. off on technicalities?

  3. Willard, that very seldom happens. In fact, I have never been so "lucky." What people call technicalities are, I am assuming, the suppression of evidence because of police misconduct. Let's say a criminal confessed, but the police did something we don't want police doing, like beating him, or denying him access to a lawyer. (This seldom happens; police interrogation techniques are so sophisticated nowadays they do not need to resort to such crude methods.) In order to deter police, the judge has the power to throw out illegally obtained evidence. In reality, less than one percent of all motions to suppress a confession are successful.

    So it hardly ever happens, and when it does, it is for in illegal action by police. So, in the rare case you're talking about -- people imagine it happens far more often than it does -- you should agree that it is a good thing, because we don't want police operating outside the law.

    Another reality is that there are very few "OJs," getting away with crimes it looks pretty clear they committed. In a long and storied criminal defense career, the Bear has only had one not-guilty verdict at a jury trial (so far). As far as the Bear knows, the defendant really was innocent. There was a videotaped confession, but the Bear was able to demonstrate to the jury why it was not to be relied upon. (False confession is a fascinating topic, and one in which the Bear claims a modicum of expertise, having worked with two of the top experts in the field, Richard Ofshe and Richard Leo.)

  4. The Bear should have said "one not-guilty verdict at a jury trial IN A MURDER CASE." There have been more in other kinds of cases.

    Anymore the Bear only does murders and sex offenses, aside from whatever the CJA panel throws his way in federal court, mostly meth cases. It is a wise bear that learns it is better to sell a few very expensive jars of honey than many cheap ones. (Although that is a poor analogy, since the inventory wouldn't last long on the shelf.)

  5. Thanks for setting me straight Bear. You have a thankless job in the mind of the public but I'm sure Our Lord appreciates your service.

  6. I'm sure Our Lord and Our Lady indeed value your work, Bear. I'm curious, though - are the defendants usually grateful?

    1. If I was in this business for gratitude, I would have died in the first six months. In a word: no.

    2. There's the "Client Curve of Gratitude," that goes like:

      I'm a goner, I hope I find a good lawyer.
      My lawyer is pretty good! Maybe I'll get out of this!
      I have the best lawyer in the world, well worth the fee!
      My lawyer wasn't too bad, but the case was pretty easy.
      Wow, I sure blew a bundle on that stupid lawyer.
      That shyster cheated me!

      On appointed cases it's just as bad. They all want a "real lawyer," not a lawyer appointed by the court. (The irony being, of course, that the Bear is in high demand by paying defendants for serious felonies and has an excellent reputation in his niche.)

      Nobody appreciates what it free. And, let's face it, if a defendant happens to be guilty, he is, after all, a criminal :-) That often comes with certain social and cognitive impairments LOL

  7. Bear, I'm truly curious do you feel when you get someone off (or a very short sentence), and they go out and do it again to another innocent soul?

  8. I can't say that that has happened, although I have had people get amazing second chances and blow it. I do feel that's a shame when that happens.

    I have a role to play, one that calls for pure advocacy by the rules. I'm comfortable with that, nor do I see why I shouldn't be. It isn't any of my business what someone might do should they not serve time. If the prosecutor can't prove his case, then a not guilty verdict is perfectly appropriate. I suppose I would be disappointed in my client, and I would feel bad for the victim in the sense you feel bad for any crime victim you hear about.

    But I take it you mean do I feel bad that my God-given skills may have provided an opportunity for someone to hurt another person.


    If an emergency room doctor saved that same person's life a month before he killed someone, should he feel some sense of responsibility? Of course not. To make the analogy more perfect, what if someone informed the doctor that the patient was a bad man who had just recently been acquitted in a murder case? Should the doctor refuse to treat him? Of course not. As professionals, we all have a role to play, and there is room for God's Providence, too.

    I sometimes think people imagine being a defense lawyer is like Matlock, where every week another client walks free. The real world is not like that, and even a good, active criminal defense lawyer can count the number of straight-up murder acquittals in an entire career on one hand. Modern police work tends to produce very good cases, hard to beat. You've all seen CSI, right? (Okay, maybe not completely realistic, either.) So it is a rare treat to experience the thrill of a "not guilty" verdict. There are just not that many opportunities to second-guess one's role in a case. But if it happened, I would not feel guilty. A lawyer isn't responsible for his client, and, by the way, being compassionate is not the same as being someone's friend. The Bear has seen weird relationships between lawyers and clients, and that is never a good thing.

    1. "a shame" that this happened....

    2. It appears that this defendant had a criminal history, and had been to prison. The question I was addressing was whether I would feel guilty if a client acquitted by a jury went on to commit some other serious crime.

      There is a real problem with people being *convicted* (not acquitted, which is a rare event) and reoffending as soon as they get out of prison. Whatever else prison is doing, it is not rehabilitating people. I'm not sure people can be rehabilitated unless they sincerely want to be. Prison is the last place in the world to learn how to be a good person. God knows there are, and the Bible is full of, people who are simply bad. Short of life sentences for three strikes, or the death penalty for nearly every offense -- like in England back in the day -- and even then, bad people are going to do bad things. You can't blame the lawyer, the prosecutor or the cops, or even society. We probably don't want to live in the kind of society where we were kept 100% safe from people like this miserable soul.

      St. Meinrad was called a "Martyr to Hospitality." He died providing Benedictine hospitality to two men who killed him. St. Seraphim of Sarov (a Russian holy man) comes to mind as another beaten and left for dead by brigands. Priests and religious have always been targets. Yes, it is a shame. Now we have a dead priest and a soul stained with murder. Abel's sacrifice was acceptable, too. How little ground we have covered since creation.

  9. Such a cool topic. Do your clients ever tell you they are guilty? Do you ask? Do you work as hard for someone you know is guilty as someone you think is innocent?

    1. It seldom comes up and doesn't matter. The job is the same, and I work the same for everybody. If I suspect someone is actually innocent, it is more stressful, I think, but I imagine that is a very rare occurrence. It does seem to me that of all crimes, one or two types have the highest number of innocent defendants. Perhaps surprisingly, murders may have a higher percentage of wrongful convictions due to the pressure to charge and convict a suspect. Police interrogations are very effective, and a false confession is powerful evidence. (Much to be said about those, beyond the scope of a comment.)

  10. My pride pricks me to state that my dismal record in murder cases is seen in a better light when you realize most of them started out as death penalty cases and not one defendant landed on death row. The only case that resulted in a death penalty was one I prosecuted (later commuted, so no harm no foul). Death penalty defense was my vocation. Fortunately or otherwise, my career outlived capital punishment in my jurisdiction, leaving me A Bear Without a Mission.

  11. I don't see it as a dismal record. I see it more as the system working. Even murderers should get a fair trial but I would hope that we all want them duly convicted and punished. I remember being so mad at the outcome of the OJ Simpson trial and doubly-mad at the Casey Anthony outcome. How that jury couldn't see she killed that sweet little girl still makes my blood boil when I think of it.


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