Conflict, Conflict, Conflict

The mid-1990s were bleak for attorneys working to save the lives of inmates on death row.  The death penalty had become a popular symbol of toughness on crime and of justice to murder victims.  In North Carolina, the attorneys at my organization, the North Carolina Resource Center, were about as popular as our clients.  “Tough on crime” politicians, including judges and prosecutors, saw us as obstructionists, responsible for endless and senseless appeals of convicted killers.  Many criminal defense attorneys saw us as threats to their livelihoods and reputations.  Many in the public saw us as lying, blood-sucking leeches, paid to do the devil’s work at tax-payer expense.  Murder victims saw us co-conspirators with our clients.  Heck, oftentimes, our clients – suffering from a range of mental illnesses and mental disabilities – didn’t even like us, sometimes accusing us of conspiring with the government to kill them.

I had followed my passion to help the dispossessed, the downtrodden, and I knew that throughout history persons who dedicated themselves to such work were commonly disliked and persecuted.  But I was beginning to realize a personal fault that could threaten my work:  I liked being liked and hated to be hated.  For this reason, I also disliked conflict.

To be an effective advocate for death row inmates, you cannot be conflict avoidant.  I was reminded of this one day as I was driving the back roads of North Carolina with a junior associate from a law firm in Washington, D.C.   We were searching for persons identified as former friends of our client.  In the course of making small talk I declared, “I hate conflict.”  The attorney looked at me in disbelief, “You do death cases and you hate conflict?”  “Odd, isn’t it,” I said as I began to ponder the apparent disjunction.

Why I did the work was easy to explain.  From a Christian perspective, at least my Christian perspective, there was no work more clearly morally righteous than to stand up for justice for those condemned to die.  How I managed to work continuously outside my comfort zone, in the face of hatred and suspicion, was harder to explain.

Conflict surrounded me; for by 1994, my colleagues and I were fighting not only for our clients but for our jobs.  Our office was part of a national network of Resource Centers, which had been created in the late 1980s at the urging of the federal judiciary.  Federal judges wanted trained lawyers in federal court to insure that all legal claims were raised adequately and timely.   It did not take long after the creation of the Resource Centers for conservative politicians to notice that having trained lawyers advocating for death row inmates meant fewer executions and at a slower pace.  On both the national and state level, these politicians organized to shut us down.

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An Unexpected Path

“How can you do that kind of work?”   I look at and listen to the questioner intently for the cues, how much emphasis and on which word.  Is the questioner’s face one of sympathy or of horror?   These cues, along with my mood at that moment, determine my answer.   “It is the most morally pure work a lawyer can do, to save a human life,” I say.  Or “The clients get you through it, along with their family and friends.”   Or I just smile.  Perhaps the more authentic answer to the question would be . . . “I can relate,” but that answer would require too much explanation.

I never planned on being a lawyer.  In high-school, I “walked the aisle” of my Baptist church and dedicated my life to “full-time Christian ministry.”   I wasn’t sure what kind of ministry, but I was committed to following my calling.  I had good grades in school, but was shy, with a serious fear of public speaking. Shaped by a variety of experiences in my young life, I was prepared to be brave, face my fears, and lay down my life if that is what it took to serve God.