“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.
The stories have been pent up within me for a long while. I have told many of them, but I struggle to write them. Yes, there is the busyness of life, but there is also the emotional toll the stories take. I hope to put them in a book one day, but “one day” seems to never come. So, this blog is a place for me to record them, at least for now.
For thirteen years, I represented a group of men and women on North Carolina’s death row – all of whom I first met between 1993 and 1995. Over the thirteen years, I had six clients die. The first died in January 1997 of “natural causes.” His death was, strangely, a victory for us both. The other five were executed, with the last being killed in 2005. I witnessed all but one of these executions. For the fifth, I buried him.
Lawyers are our clients’ storytellers. All the while, often unnoticeably, our clients become the shapers of our story and, often, the revealers of our character. My story is intertwined with my clients’ stories in a way that I could have never imagined when I entered the work. Thus, as I record my clients’ stories so that history will not forget, I also record the story of a little girl from the poor side of the tracks of Rome, Georgia who became an advocate for society’s most despised during one of the darkest times of criminal justice in North Carolina.
All our journeys are shaped by those who join us along the way – for ever how short a time. I am keenly aware of the many people who have left a patch — or more — on my life imagined as a quilt. I hope that those whose lives have crossed mine will contribute to the posts here and that those who have never met me will provide feedback. Maybe then, after all is said and done, a book will emerge.