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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Meeting Ernest and his family

Ernest had been executed just the day before, on December 6, 2002, at 2:00 a.m.  I did not witness Ernest’s execution, the only time I have not witnessed the execution of a client.  Seeing Rose’s face after she witnessed her brother’s execution was witness sufficient for me.   When Rose walked through the prison mailroom door around 2:25, she looked like she was going to explode.  Her face was beet red and as puffy as a cabbage patch doll.  I could tell she was trying to hold in her pain and anger as the tears ran down her cheeks.

Rose and I had grown close over the years.   I first met her brother Ernest at Central Prison on February 2, 1995.  When I explained who I was and my role as resource counsel, Ernest immediately directed me to Rose.  She had been Ernest’s tireless advocate since his arrest.  Ernest assured me that Rose was the keeper of all the information I sought.

Rose and her husband, Denny, lived in the small town of Kinston, about a two hour drive from my office in Durham.  On June 15, they made the trek to meet with me and my boss, Henderson.  Rose and Denny were pleasant, educated working class folk.  Rose was the most engaged and vocal of the two.  Her passion for justice for her brother seeped from every pore.  Rose explained how things had gone wrong with her brother and with his trial.  She and Denny had been all over the state in their quest to assist Ernest.  He was quite fortunate to have such supportive family advocates, a rarity in the dysfunctional families from which my clients originate.

Henderson explained how I had been assigned to Ernest as resource counsel.  My commitment was to shepherd Ernest’s case through the system after his direct appeal to insure that competent attorneys were appointed in post-conviction proceedings, to support those attorneys with my (growing) expertise in capital post-conviction litigation, and to step in whenever needed to protect Ernest’s rights.   I explained the status of Ernest’s case.  His appeal was sitting in the US Supreme Court in the form of a Petition for Writ of Certiorari.  It was inevitable that the Court would deny it.  We were hopeful that the Court would not deny it before they closed for the summer break at the end of June, pushing a decision into the fall.

Just a few days later, our hopes were dashed.  We received the order from the Supreme Court – Cert Denied.   This decision meant an execution date would be set.  I dreaded telling Ernest and his family, but faxed a letter to the prison asking for an “attorney visit.”

I drove to the thirty miles to the prison two days later.  I was pleasantly surprised to see on the sign-in sheet that Rose and Denny were visiting with Ernest.   After going through the gauntlet of guards and doors, I stepped into the ghost elevator, which is what I call the prison elevator with buttons that don’t work and which “mysteriously” takes you to your designated floor.

The guard on the visitation unit directed me to the booth in which Ernest, Rose and Denny sat, with a concrete and glass wall between them, of course.  I squeezed into the small phone booth size room with Rose and Denny and bent down to speak into the small metal grate that allows sound to travel to the inmate’s side of the booth.   “I have some bad news, Ernest.  The Supreme Court denied review of your case.”  I stopped to gauge his reaction.   Thankfully, Ernest understood that this loss was coming and that we were prepared to move into the next phase of litigation; but in death penalty work, the victories are often measured in time, and we had just lost three months.  Ernest seemed at peace.  He had faith in God, in his family and in me, even though he barely knew me.

Rose and Denny looked at me to gauge my reaction.  I was disappointed, but I smiled.  There was a lot to do, but Ernest already had a strong team in the three of us.

From Lawyer to Reverend

The usher handed me a printed program as I rushed into the funeral home.  It was only when he spoke that the mental clues began to fall into place:  “Are you the minister?”  Well, I did go to seminary, I thought to myself as I stared at the well-dressed man, wondering how he knew.  I opened up the program; yep, there was my name: Cindy Adcock, Officiating.

There was a part of me that was not surprised that I would be officiating at Ernest’s funeral.  I had prepared somewhat for such an eventuality, though not exactly for this eventuality.

Ernest’s sister, Rose, had called me the day before.   Pat and I were on our way to Laurinburg, ironically for a memorial service.  Pat’s beloved Uncle Charles had died a month earlier.  His funeral was held in California, where he had lived for decades, but he was now being buried at the McCoy family plot.  As we traveled the rural back roads, I was in a haze watching the ice-covered trees give way to a drier, but still bleak, landscape.

Rose asked if I would be coming to Ernest’s funeral.  “Of course,” I answered without skipping a beat.  I had never been to a client’s funeral before, but then I had never been invited.   “I was also wondering if you would be willing to say a few words,” Rose added tentatively.   “I would be honored,” I replied reassuringly.

Perhaps it was my preconceived notions of what a funeral for a man just executed might be like, but my mind latched onto “a few” words.  I imagined a few friends and family members gathered in a small room taking turns saying “a few words” about what Ernest had meant to us.

After Rose hung up, I turned to Pat, who was driving.  “The funeral is tomorrow in Kinston.” I paused and then added, “You will go with me, right?”  I expected he would.   Pat had been my rock over the last week.  Besides, I knew he understood the importance of funerals, always attending those of friends and family.  He had flown across country to be at his Uncle Charles’ funeral.

My cellphone rang again.  I looked down at it and saw Rose’s name pop up.   Guess she forgot something.  “How do you want to be identified in the program?” Rose asked, quickly adding “Reverend?”   Hmmm.   My mind searched for meaning in the question.  I had been Ernest’s lawyer.  Would that be appropriate?  “No, not Reverend,” I responded.  In the end, I left it to Rose.

That was an odd question, I thought to myself after we hung up, but my mind quickly turned to other matters.

These Boots are Made for Talking

My first job practicing law was at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services.   My clients had legal issues that ranged from incorrect sentencing calculations to horrid jail conditions to injuries sustained from falling off of a bunk.  I liked the variety.

I also liked that my work took me to a variety of prisons and jails.  You learn a lot about a society by visiting their institutions of incarceration — and you learn a lot about yourself.    One day, I drove to a prison in the Sandhills of North Carolina, I parked in the unpaved lot, got out of my white jeep, and headed towards the front gate.  I looked for a visitor center or at least a guard station but didn’t see one.  “What’s your business?” a man yelled at me from the guard tower above.  I yelled back “I’m here for a lawyer visit.”   A bucket was lowered by a rope down to me.  I put my driver’s license and N.C. bar card in the bucket and up it went.  In a few minutes, the bucket came back down with my cards in it, and the gate opened.  I thought “what is this, Cool Hand Luke?” as I walked through the gates in my cowboy boots.

When you are a new lawyer, you think about what persona you want to project.  For some, particularly men, a dark tailored suit is the epitome of success. Men who want to project the image of a small town southern lawyer wear a seersucker suit.  In the 1990s, women lawyers were just coming into their own.   We took the traditional lawyer suit and “feminized” it as a way to project power in our own way.  Some wore blouses with bows tied at the neck.  Some accentuated their sensuality with short skirts.

To the classic skirt suit, I added cowboy boots.  Perhaps the relationship between power, confidence and cowboy boots was imprinted upon me as a child.  Many of my male relatives wore cowboy boots.   Or perhaps the brother of one of my death row clients had it right when he said to me when leaving court in 2005, “I now know why you wear boots in court:  you have a lot of crap to wade through.”

My First Brush With The Law

I obviously got beyond my reticence about being a lawyer.  My biggest hurdle in the end was my concern about the corrupting effect of power and money.  Lawyers are professionals and are (almost always) members of the middle to upper classes.  They move in circles of which I had never been a part.   Within those circles come temptations that I had never faced.

I was committed not only to serving the poor but to living simply.  Even with these priorities going into law school, I was well aware of the many intervening events that could change me and change my priorities by the time I came out on the other end. Did the risks outweigh the potential benefits?

Two things helped me make the decision.  First, I read as many stories as I could about the lawyers behind significant social change in the United States, such as the civil rights laws of the 1960s and the abortion rights cases of the 1970s. These lawyers were worthy of admiration. I could only dream of being able to follow in their footsteps.

Second, I received in the mail a notice of jury duty.  I would be able to see, for the first time, the justice system at work.

It was the summer of 1987.  At that time in Louisville, Ky.,  potential jurors were required to be at the courthouse for one week, or until chosen for a jury.  Each day, I reported to the courthouse and sat in a large windowless room with an odd mixture of randomly selected people.  There were no laptop computers, cell phones or PDAs.  The only entertainment available was from a T.V. high on the wall, and it was tuned to the Iran-Contra Hearings.  Watching Oliver North testify was now part of my civic duty.

Every few hours, a clerk would come in the room and call out names.  For three days, I waited for my name to be called.  Dozens of others were called and disappeared never to be seen again.  I stuck it out with Ollie.

Finally, on day four, the clerk called out “Cindy Adcock.”  I was thrilled.  Finally, I would see some action.  The next step was voir dire, the process through which the attorneys for both sides select jurors.  I was selected to hear a receipt of stolen goods case.  The defendant had been selling stolen tennis shoes out of the back of his truck on the city sidewalk.  The case came down to whether the defendant knew the shoes were stolen.

At the time, I had not seen the movie Twelve Angry Men, but I can now report that our jury deliberations were very similar.  Most jurors thought the case was a slam dunk: he had to know they were stolen.  But I wasn’t so sure:  isn’t it just a stereotype to say that a black man selling goods on the street must have known the goods were stolen?  I had reasonable doubt.  A few joined my position.  The twelve of us went back and forth.  It was clear we could not agree.  We summoned the bailiff and sent word to the judge.

The judge called us out into the courtroom.  “This is not a hard case, folks” he said, trying not to yell.  We were instructed to go back to the jury room and work it out.   We didn’t work it out, and the trial was officially hung.

My four days at the courthouse were instructive.  The hustle and bustle of the courthouse was interesting.  I found power in the jury system.  And I decided that I could do as good of a job as the lawyers I observed.  Neither resembled Perry Mason nor the lawyers on L.A. Law.

No, not me

The more I worked with the poor, the more I ran into the law.  I didn’t know how the legal system worked. I had never been in a courtroom or event met a lawyer. Thus, I didn’t know how to advise battered and abused women or the homeless people that attended my church how to get the help they needed when “the law” seemed to be an obstacle. And looking at the bigger picture, I wasn’t sure which law reforms to support in order to bring justice to those most in need.  My ignorance was frustrating.

“What about going to law school?” my husband suggested. No way!  First of all, law school is too hard; I could never pass a bar exam.  More fundamentally, being a lawyer was against my religion.  Seriously, lawyers are unscrupulous.  As zealous advocates, they have to lie and be willing to hurt others.  I had seen those movies in which a lawyer tears apart a rape victim on the stand, dragging up her past, making her the villain.  That was not me.  I was too gentle, too kind, too shy.

I was never one to speak up in class.  Standing in front of people made every part of my being tremble. My mouth would become as dry as a desert. A friend of mine invited me to “preach” at his church one Sunday morning.  He convinced me that his small congregation needed to hear a woman preach.  “Only by seeing a woman in the pulpit will they begin to realize that gender does not matter,” he argued.  They needed to know that God can speak through anyone, and I could help break through the prejudices standing in the way.

I agreed to do it.  After all, it would be good for me too.  One bible story gave me reassurance:  When Moses believed that God was calling him to be his mouthpiece to the Israelites, he replied, “But my Lord, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence, either before or since you have spoken to your servant. I am a slow speaker and not able to speak well” (Exodus 4:10).  But God’s call was relentless and, I told myself, “Look at the good that Moses did!”

God may be able to speak through anyone, but I am not sure her message got through the day I preached to a small congregation in rural Kentucky.  I didn’t keep a copy of the sermon, but I recollect that it had to do with something about the feminine side of God.  I still feel embarrassed for those people in the congregation, who were extremely gracious.  How they must have suffered through that sermon.  I certainly did.

So, no, I could never be a lawyer.

Setting Off on My Own

Neither of my parents, who divorced when I was five, went to college.  I was a good student and was determined to go.  Rome had two colleges and a junior college, and there were many colleges and universities in the region.   Most of my classmates headed to those or to the big state universities.  I headed to a small private Baptist college in the mountains, Carson Newman College.

I worked three of my four summers in the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains, two dipping ice cream at a Baptist conference center and another working at a glass shop at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tn.  I never would have imagined that I would return to those mountains years later as a lawyer.