Sunday, July 30, 2017

Gray Heads and Glory

As I entered a post office one day, I saw a reflection in the glass of someone walking behind me with a slow, stooped step.  I held the door open and as I looked back, I noticed that he was an old man wearing a U.S. Army uniform and that he was a captain.  I further noticed that he was carrying several bags and, being in no particular hurry, I offered to help carry some of his load.  Of course, he handed me his entire load and began, in the way of old men, to tell me some of his life experiences.

The Captain was born during the Great Depression and he came of age during World War II.  To his immense regret, that war ended before he was old enough to join up.  However, he enlisted as soon as he was of age, and finished training in time for the start of the Korean War.  He came away with a hatred of both MacArthur and communism, a love for military life and Korean culture, and the unshakable belief that he had been fighting against a great evil.  He stayed in the army after hostilities ended, met a pretty Red Cross volunteer while home on leave, and swept her off her feet.   He re-enlisted as soon as Vietnam began to heat up and served several tours of duty.  His health began to give him problems and he was medically discharged before the conclusion of the Vietnam War.  He tried to rejoin for Desert Storm and Desert Shield, but was denied.  He is still angry with Bush '41 for not granting him a waiver to serve in Iraq.     He built a successful business, raised several children to adulthood, and now spends his time doting on his grandchildren and volunteering extensively with veteran support groups.  In fact, I was helping him carry in several dozen support packages he was sending to our men and women serving away from their families.

I asked the Captain about the uniform.  He lit up at the question and explained that his body is failing him.  His doctors have only given him so long to live. There is little they can do to stop or prevent his impending death.  Therefore, he decided that if death was coming for him, he was going to meet it on his terms.  He possesses two uniforms.  After getting his diagnosis, he made the decision to always be wearing one of them because when he goes, he wants to go out wearing the uniform so many of his friends died wearing.  Death is not dignified, but the Captain has chosen to meet it with all the dignity he can muster.

I met with an older attorney recently who had some information I needed for one of my clients.  He was funny and passionate and quickly took a shine to me because I greatly enjoyed listening to his stories from his long legal career.  He told me that after graduating from law school in the 1960s, he walked away from several offers that Memphis big law firms made to him.  He settled near his hometown in Middle Tennessee and hung out a shingle, hoping to correct an apathetic court system that perpetuated injustice and an apathetic society that turned a blind eye to the rampant poverty in its midst.  A few weeks into his practice, an elderly woman came to his office and begged for him to save her from eviction.  She offered him twenty or so dollar bills and he was moved to look over her case.  He realized that she had a rock-solid legal claim and he decided to take it on, but not to take her money.  He won her case and many years later, his client died peacefully in her sleep in that home.  Several years before her death, she came back to see him about a potential medical malpractice case.  He took it on and she received a multi-million dollar settlement.  His cut was so large he could have retired right then and there and still be spending it today.   He did not retire.  He is an old warhorse and still fighting the good fight 50 years later.  He told me that I made the best decision possible in choosing to go solo and he continued to regale me with stories of his fierce, passionate life.  He impressed upon me his belief that I will end up having the same impact that he himself has had.

Both these men have been on my mind a lot since our respective encounters.  The Captain found a cause and an institution he believed in and he served it with all his heart and at the risk of life and limb.  He saw evil in the world and he acted.  In his twilight, he looks back and finds the courage for what lies ahead.  The older attorney forsook a comfortable, lucrative job and blazed his own path.  He saw the injustice and the blanket poverty in his community and he devoted his life and his career to fighting both.  They are both heroes, fighters, idealists, and inspiring.  As their heads have grayed, they have increased in glory.  Every time I face fear or the temptation towards apathy, I think of these two and I remember their pride.   When confronted with their examples, it is impossible to give in to fear or to embrace apathy and it is entirely possible to make the daily choices to live now as they have.  

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Our Finest Hour

Lawyers are an opinionated, argumentative bunch.  There are over a million of us in the United States and there are over a million opinions on the greatest moment in legal history.  Most of them are wrong because the greatest moment was John Adams's passionate defense of the British soldiers who fired on civilians in the Boston Massacre.  As I have now definitively resolved this debate, I would like to tell of my personal greatest moment.

I was appointed by the Court to represent a young man who had a long history of drug use (but no prior drug charges) and whom the state suspected of dealing drugs.  He was finally charged with possessing a large amount of meth with the intent to resell in a school zone (a felony in Tennessee), two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia, and public intoxication (both misdemeanors).  Based upon the amount of the drugs and his proximity to a school, he was looking at seven years in prison. I soon realized that he was entirely innocent of the charges.  The statement provided by the arresting police officer specified my client was passed out drunk in the near vicinity of the alleged drug deal.  The other individuals charged with the crime were friends of his, but there was no evidence that he was aware that anyone had any drugs in their possession, nor that there was a drug deal about to be transacted.  Prosecutors like to charge as many people as they can with a crime and see what sticks.  So, he got lumped in with everyone else.

I was a pretty green attorney at this point, but even I knew we had a pretty good case.  I quickly convinced the DA prosecuting my client that the drug charges would not stick at trial and I was working to convince her that the paraphernalia charges were not worth pursuing.  We were negotiating while in court, and we took a break when the judge adjourned for lunch.  I stepped out and an older woman flagged me down and introduced herself as the grandmother of my client.  She asked what I thought about the case, and I proudly told her of the successful negotiations and of my conclusions that the evidence against my client was rather weak.  I expected relief.  I got tears.  She calmed down after a few minutes, then gently told me that she and her family had been praying for me to lose her grandson's case.  They wanted him in prison because he has been living on the streets constantly hunting for his next fix.  An inmate is not homeless, is not going hungry, and is not living one hit away from a fatal overdose.  They had tried every rehabilitation and treatment option they knew, but he was uninterested and they had been living for the last two years wondering if every phone call and every knock on the door would be announcing news of his death.  If he was in prison, they would have the comfort of knowing he was safe.

After lunch, I had my client moved into a jail visitation room and I crowded into my side along with his grandmother, his mom, his baby mamma, and his toddler.  It was hot, stuffy, and cramped.  His family told him how they would prefer he go to prison than to continue in his current lifestyle.  They all cried.  It was long.  I worked hard to persuade him to plead to the misdemeanor charges and agree to court-ordered rehab.  After a few hours, we had not gotten anywhere.  I finally told him that I would do as he asked and negotiate to get his other charges dropped, but I did say that I thought he was man enough to get clean and I knew he was up to the task.  He broke down and cried.  He said he wanted to get clean, but he did not think he could do it.  Everyone was crying at this point and his family all strongly affirmed their love for him and their commitment to shoulder through this journey along with him.  The DA readily agreed to drop the possession with intent to sell charges and to take his plea on the misdemeanor charges without requiring any further jail time plus mandating that he complete rehab.  I walked out more exhausted than I had ever been after a day's work, but I knew even then that this had been my finest hour as a working man.

I ran into him a while back.  He is working hard and he is clean.  I did not recognize him initially because of how healthy he looked.  His daughter is very blessed to have a champion like him in her life.  I have been thinking about him recently.  I tried to help a recent client get the help he needed, but he did not want to be helped.  He died of a drug overdose the other day.  Another client was incarcerated and went into withdrawal.  She became so despondent that she attempted suicide.  When it comes to dealing with the drug addiction, the stakes are high; they are life and death.  I genuinely believe that the client I helped persuade to go into rehab is going to make it and that his decision to seek help and treatment saved his life.  That was a great moment, and I consider myself privileged to have fought alongside those warriors who loved him so fiercely.  Drugs have a powerful hold on those addicted to them, but love is more powerful still.

Gray Heads and Glory

As I entered a post office one day, I saw a reflection in the glass of someone walking behind me with a slow, stooped step.  I held the door...