Over a year ago, I received the call. T.J. was charged with plotting to kill someone. Worse, he had fled the jurisdiction. When I spoke with his family and friends, folks whose weddings I have attended and welcomed into my home, I shuddered. I have always wanted the ball in my ends at game time. But this felt different. The pressure was palpable. When I heard from his family that he was arrested in Arizona . . . I felt the permanent pit of stress lodge itself in my throat. It would travel between there and my stomach for one year without a break. It got worse when I learned that he was arrested while preparing to turn himself in because his family promised that I’d defend him. He had small children. A lovely wife. He faced a life without them. His wife, who had seen so much pain in her life, who always held it together for the rest of the family was having a hard time holding strong. I welled up everytime she shed tears. What must she be thinking? Such loyalty? Such faith . . .
When it seemed bad, it got worse: T.J.’s brother in law was charged as a co conspirator. The family was devastated . . . honestly, I felt guilty answering their kind questions about my family (how’s your family, Neil? enjoy your Sunday, Neil . . . spend time with the kids, okay?). The case was so tough. Both had fled. Both were witnessed by eyewitnesses. The complainant survived. T.J.’s phones were left at the scene. I laid awake at night trying to feel how he felt . . . imagining and feeling what had prompted him to act as he did.
A year of fighting — courtrooms packed with spectators and family. Standing room only, I kid you not. Every gain was followed by a prosecutor’s blitz, to borrow some football terms. District Court. Circuit Court. District Court. Circuit Court. We get the Armed Robbery charged dismissed and the prosecutor amends to Conspiracy – 1st Degree Murder: LIFE.
While we didn’t sign up for that specific fight . . . some fights need fighting. This was one. So we fought. 2 lawyers . . . 2 defendants. We fought the prejudices of the public against people who descend from certain countries and regions. We fought the prejudices about lawyers. We fought to preserve the presumption of innocence. We fought to identify stealth jurors and real jurors. 3 days of jury selection. This was so important that I feared saying “we’re satisfied” but by the end, I looked out at the 14 faces and I knew . . . these folks would decide our fate. They didn’t always answer perfectly but they answered honestly. I’ll take honest over perfect anyday.
And we were off . . . 3 weeks of trial. The jurors saw me laugh, cry, smile, frown, stutter and speak smoothly. In short, they saw a real person fighting a daily fight. Maybe a similar fight to the ones that they fight in their one lives when things are important to them. I am told the my lawyering style is a bit “jazz like” — things are moving along nicely and then something interesting, improvisational and entertaining comes along. Whether true or not, I liked hearing it . . . and then I found myself repeating my final words to the jury, ones that I have uttered so often — nothing corny, nothing silly but honest: “tomorrow, I’ll move on. So will the the prosecutor. We’ll be in some other court, fighting another battle for other people. But this is the only moment and you are the only people who can give justice to T.J. For him and you, there is no tomorrow. And I sat, spent, drained. 3 weeks of sweating and fighting hard will do that …
And we sat . . . for hours, I had to walk the gauntlet — like an emotional Tailhook — of the hallway as I walked past TJ’s children, mother, wife, friends and family. Each wanted encouragement from me . . . each wanted me to say, “it’s all right, it’ll be ok” and boy did I try. Deputies, officers, lawyers, prosecutors, court watchers, etc. would pat me on the back and compliment me — it brought a smile to TJ’s family but a not real smile if you know what I mean — they didn’t care how well I had argued, etc. They understandably cared about the result.
The verdict announcement is terrifying. This one was no different. The walk and wait between the jury reaching a verdict and them actually rendering verdict is a suspense that should not be willingly experienced by the sane. Yet I do it for a living . . . The family prays. I pace. I doodle. I rise. I hold TJ’s hand. I hear it . . . against all odds, TJ prevailed. Despite all the evidence, the flight, the eyewitnesses, the compelling testimony of the complainant, etc. ad infinitum, the jury finds him not guilty of Conspiracy to Commit 1st Degree Murder and instead only on a much, much, much less serious charge. Rather than facing straight life in prison, he will be out in only a few months. INCREDIBLE!
We had made so much of the prosecution’s evidence into our own. Using their witnesses to advance our theories and to tell our story. So valiant this family was . . . I still shake my head thinking about it. This was a trial victory against all odds — when it really mattered. When a man looked me in the eye and opened my hands with his and then closed them within mine saying, “I am in your hands”.
TJ, I felt your trust. The letter that he sent me after the trial, promising to rename his children after me (just kidding) was nice but not necessary. I know. I know how you feel . . . They tried to take you from your family and we said, “No”, “not this man”, “not this family”, “not this lawyer.” You won. You prevailed. Against all odds!!