I am constantly asked, “How did you go from law enforcement to criminal defense?” or, “How can you be on the dark side?” These comments come from other present and former law enforcement officers and prosecutors, but also from friends and the public.
While I was in the police academy as a 22-year-old, a wise forensic pathologist told my class, “Before I start an autopsy, I always remember that once, this was some mother’s baby.” Those words have stuck with me through my 18 years in law enforcement and my 26 years as a criminal defense investigator.
While not always easy, in the heat of a fight/arrest I would try to remember this adage—if not during the fight, then afterwards once things had calmed down. I remembered it when I lifted up a client – a terrorist I had helped defend – from the execution table following his execution. I have investigated cases for attorneys who represent some of the worst criminals in the country. Two of my clients have been executed and several are on death row. Some of these people are not likable, and even when they are, it’s impossible to square with what they have, or are alleged to have, done.
How did I make the transition to what many law enforcement officers refer to as “the dark side?” There are several factors, but the most influential was remembering the adage of that pathologist: “This person was once some mother’s baby.”
When a child is born, absent some birth defect or disease process (often brought on by fetal alcohol syndrome or drug abuse) that child is basically a clean slate. When a mother holds her baby close to her – feeds the baby, sings to the baby – she does not imagine her child growing up to be a robber, a murderer, or even a terrorist. It’s the family, community and society in general that molds the future of that child. That child’s future and the choices they make are a direct product of other people. Remembering this has made it easier for me to deal with some horrific human beings, as well as many whose life has just taken a left turn.
Those very factors are why we, in the criminal defense field, often delve into a client’s background; not necessarily to minimize a horrible crime, but to understand and explain why a certain event occurred and try to determine the proper course of treatment and yes, punishment.
I have personally witnessed horrible crime scenes that haunt me to this day. I have dealt with young children and adults who were the victims of violent crime and sometimes murder. Nothing can erase the sights and smells that often accompany those scenes. Nothing can remove from my mind the wails of grief from family and friends of victims. And yes, as a young detective I wanted to exact revenge on the perpetrator, until I slowed down and remembered the pathologist: Both the perpetrator and the victim were once some mother’s baby. I have to think further than the obvious. While not trying to sound grandiose, I think society in general should remember the words of that wise pathologist.
When a police officer sees the defendant in the courtroom – dressed up, surrounded by attorneys, and nothing like the mad man he arrested at a bloody crime scene – I understand why that officer is angry or even disturbed. I also understand when a defense attorney, sitting next to the alleged perpetrator, becomes angry at law enforcement when abuses and shortcuts sometimes used by law enforcement jeopardize their client’s right to a fair trial. Yet, in the sundown of my career, I hope those who follow in my footsteps will always remember this perspective in their work.