One of the things that differentiates criminal defense lawyers from others is our ability to see people where others see only monsters. It is an ability I wish more people had.

Every person — even every person who has ever committed a crime — started life as an innocent baby, came to life full of potential similar to that of other babies for a bright and happy future. Not all of us, though, have had similar opportunities to bring that potential into actuality.

And I have heard it said somewhere that all of us are “sinners.”

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Or so it has been said. 

I am not a religious person — certainly not a Christian — but I have been told that I live in a Christian nation.

So I have been told.

I have a hard time seeing this with my own eyes.

Perhaps it is because I am a criminal defense attorney, although I do not mean by that what you might think I mean. For, again, what I am saying is that I see people, where others see only monsters.

I first realized that I was different that way when I was a student, and attorney David Mugridge, under whom I interned, trusted me enough to give me a significant part to play in a “special circumstances” murder trial. Our client, who I will not name, had killed his pregnant girlfriend. This, of course, resulted also in the death of her child. His child.

It was tragic. It was more than sad. Many thought it was an act of absolute depravity.

My job during the trial — though Dave gave me significant assignments — was obviously limited. Technically, I “sat second chair,” meaning that I was an additional lawyer, and Dave treated me as such even though I was a student. Because of his trust, I wrote virtually all the in limine motions, and argued them; I had the opportunity to assist in deciding who was selected to be on the jury (I even was permitted several minutes to voir dire potential jurors myself); I conducted a 402 hearing with a police officer witness; I had a huge part in selecting our trial theme, and in putting together the PowerPoint presentation for closing argument.

But the majority of my time was spent with our client, interacting with him and keeping him from interfering with Dave’s conduct of the trial. When he had questions, or needed to share something he thought was important, based on the testimony of whatever witness was on the stand, it was my job to lend him an ear while Dave went on with the job of defending the client.

Prior to this time, I’d not had very much contact with “murderers” or “monsters” — both labels which had been applied to our client by others — and did not know what to expect. I was surprised when I started to realize that our client was actually a nice guy.

Yeah, that’s right. He was actually a nice guy. Not something you expect to see in a monster.

The fact is, prior to the somewhat inexplicable murder of his girlfriend and their unborn child, the client — a human being, a person — had had a somewhat unhappy and drug-plagued life. If I recall correctly (it’s been years), he had been using methamphetamine every day for something like six months before the night of the murder. His brain, at the time of the murder, was virtually fried.

And I don’t remember exactly what had caused him to do what he did, but I seem to recall it was something like jealousy.

A feeling that people (and gods, I’m told) feel somewhat routinely.

And though “jealousy” is sometimes referred to as “the Green-Eyed Monster,” I’m fairly certain that monsters don’t really fit the jealous type. Monsters don’t care enough about other people to be jealous.

But I digress.

The client, as I said, was actually a nice guy. By the time I encountered him, of course, he’d been in jail for quite awhile. Sobered up, so to speak. No longer under the dominion of meth and jealousy. He was soft-spoken. Scared. And, if you ask me, he seemed to be weighed down with remorse. (We never really talked about that, so I can’t say for sure. I’m just saying that’s how it seemed to me.)

I came to realize that murder — even premeditated murder — can actually be the result of a mistake. Something the “monster” might very like to undo — and not just because he got caught.

I’m not saying that I think our client (who was convicted after a jury trial and sentenced to life in prison) should not have been punished. I’m not saying that anyone who commits a crime should not be punished.

But — and this is why I keep mentioning this stuff about religion and God — I believe too many of us forget that these “monsters” are actually human beings. And while some of these people may commit crimes for which they will spend the rest of their lives in prison, most of them will not.

Most of them will eventually come back to our communities, where they will once again live among us. With us. Right there where they can interact with us.

Our tendency to classify criminals, or, at least to treat them, as if they are monsters can be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they are actually people, our treatment of them can impact what kind of people they become. Our “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality is turning large numbers of people into people who don’t really have a chance of co-existing with us as productive citizens.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s that way because we make it so. We take someone, for example, who robs a mini-mart with a taser — a crime where no one gets hurt and where, if someone had, it would not likely have resulted in a fatality — and we lock them away for up to a third of their natural life in an environment that is hardly the vacation spot many of you seem to think it is. There, they are exposed to being raped, beaten, transformed into more hardened people. And when they get out, they not only don’t have the skills to survive in a regular society (i.e., a non-prison environment), but they generally cannot ever get a job. They’re doomed to commit new crimes.

And who does that to them? We do.

Because you can take any human being, including you or me, and put them into the kind of environment that we sentence these people to live in, and the same thing will happen to you or me when we are returned to the outside world.

So who’s really the monster here?

6 comments

  1. Exactly right, Brenda. Too many people are empathy-impaired and incapable of recognizing that many of the crimes people commit are one-off crimes that could be committed by anyone who got just a little off-course with their life for a minute or three.

    Obviously, the guy I wrote about made a terrible mistake, and a woman and unborn baby paid for it dearly — as has he. But many crimes will be of much lesser magnitude, although, these days, significant in the punishment.

    And I think the punishments just get worse and worse for the same reason that people with credit cards go deeper and deeper into debt: it’s just numbers. To those who cannot see the human beings — the people — impacted by our draconian policies and sentences, it’s all just numbers.

    We can’t even see that those numbers are intertwined with other numbers — our budgets — and we’re bankrupting ourselves, or foregoing useful services, just because we are unable to think about what we’re doing to others.

  2. Exactly right, Brenda. Too many people are empathy-impaired and incapable of recognizing that many of the crimes people commit are one-off crimes that could be committed by anyone who got just a little off-course with their life for a minute or three.

    Obviously, the guy I wrote about made a terrible mistake, and a woman and unborn baby paid for it dearly — as has he. But many crimes will be of much lesser magnitude, although, these days, significant in the punishment.

    And I think the punishments just get worse and worse for the same reason that people with credit cards go deeper and deeper into debt: it’s just numbers. To those who cannot see the human beings — the people — impacted by our draconian policies and sentences, it’s all just numbers.

    We can’t even see that those numbers are intertwined with other numbers — our budgets — and we’re bankrupting ourselves, or foregoing useful services, just because we are unable to think about what we’re doing to others.

  3. Rick – I know how most people perceive this type of defendant, and it’s not with any sort of humanness. I appreciate your conviction in writing about such a topic. I’ve thought about this before when individuals perceived by the public, generally through the media, but also due to the particular gruesome or socially unacceptable “facts” of the accused crime (sometimes the public reaction may only come from the name or stature of the alleged victim) , are found guilty of a lesser crime or even found to be not guilty of any crime (due to the lack of evidence or other wrong doing by the investigators or prosecution). Whether one sees it as a sign that our system’s checks and balances are working, or that a monster “got off” because of a “technicality,” seems to always depend upon which side of the fence one is standing at that particular moment. I think our perception of “those monsters” stems from the government’s effective propaganda, as well as our own drive to distance ourselves and disassociate ourselves from such an act; “That would never happen to ME……I am not like THAT person!”

  4. Rick – I know how most people perceive this type of defendant, and it’s not with any sort of humanness. I appreciate your conviction in writing about such a topic. I’ve thought about this before when individuals perceived by the public, generally through the media, but also due to the particular gruesome or socially unacceptable “facts” of the accused crime (sometimes the public reaction may only come from the name or stature of the alleged victim) , are found guilty of a lesser crime or even found to be not guilty of any crime (due to the lack of evidence or other wrong doing by the investigators or prosecution). Whether one sees it as a sign that our system’s checks and balances are working, or that a monster “got off” because of a “technicality,” seems to always depend upon which side of the fence one is standing at that particular moment. I think our perception of “those monsters” stems from the government’s effective propaganda, as well as our own drive to distance ourselves and disassociate ourselves from such an act; “That would never happen to ME……I am not like THAT person!”

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