Home » Blog » Persuasion » Addressing Violence; Humanizing Criminal Defendants Charged With Violence

Addressing Violence; Humanizing Criminal Defendants Charged With Violence

Call Us: 703-383-1100

Ever since I was in my single digits in the 1960’s, I have been bombarded with images and details of some of the most heinous violence by humans against humans. Life magazine came to my parents, and I recoiled in horror at such photos as the daylight, on-the-street summary execution captured in 1968 by photographer Eddie Adams, and the 1972 napalming in a Vietnamese village that resulted in the image of a naked girl, Kim Phuc, running desperately for safety but still getting severely burned by the napalm. On top of that was the 1968 My Lai massacre.

When the foregoing images arrived onscreen, I had little context in which to place all the violence in Vietnam other than hearing one or more anti-war folks say that the United States had no business getting involved in the war there.

As I later learned, the Vietnam War was hardly the first time that acts of such heinous levels (not limited to any one side, either) had taken place, but it appears that no previous war involved so much free rein of news photographers to capture the rawest of raw war images, and I was there in my earliest years suffering psychological trauma from such images, but certainly not nearly as traumatic as the people experiencing it firsthand.

As a criminal defense lawyer for nearly two decades, I have defended more than my share of clients accused of violence against others, running from a few punches to the face, to rape that sometimes added additional horrors, to murder. I am sure that at least some of my clients committed such acts.

How do I jibe my strong opposition to violence and strong leanings towards pacifism (but not total pacifism) with my representation of those charged with violence? There are many reasons, which I believe I have blogged about before, including that nobody’s rights are sufficiently protected if those charged even with the most severe crimes (even those who seem clearly guilty) do not get effective representation at such critical stages as the setting of bond and pretrial release conditions, the preparation for trial, settlement negotiations, trial itself, any sentencing, and appeals. I also do it out of compassion for each human being, although I have some real difficulty reaching compassion for some people, including Hitler, Pol Pot and David Duke. Additionally, I do it because I think that the existing criminal justice system is excessively unjust, in general, to criminal defendants.

How do jurors accept the artificially-seeming (to many) legalism of innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? That probably is not easy at all. Most jurors also have been traumatized several times in their lives learning of (and sometimes experiencing firsthand) horrific violence caused by humans against humans, and may wonder how violence is going to ebb and how violent people are going to get stopped if such “niceties” (as some jurors might see it) as “beyond a reasonable doubt” and the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule let alleged monsters hit the street again to perpetrate more monstrosities. In that regard, the criminal defense lawyer must humanize the defendant and try to show the jurors and judges directly or implicitly how they need not worry that the release of the defendant will result in any harm to anyone; that takes tremendous skill, empathy, compassion and sweat equity.

How do I most effectively spread the message of non-violence? I think that ending violence starts with each of us, even with small steps at first. Each person who hits his or her children must stop doing so. Each person who sees others hit their children should be ready to speak up when that might make a difference, even if that might expose the witness to ridicule at the very least. Everyone should think twice before arming themselves, hopefully resulting in not doing so. Violence begets violence. Who can legitimately dispute that?

How do we deal face-to-face with those who have committed violence? A good lesson comes from Thich Nhat Hanh, who met an American Vietnam veteran who admitted having booby-trapped a sandwich that a child ate, causing the child to writhe in pain (and die, if I recall correctly). With his amazing height of compassion, Thich Nhat Hanh responded that the veteran now had a chance to help children in need who were still living.

When will human-on-human violence cease or dissipate? It will never cease. It can dissipate.

When will psychological trauma over life events stop? It will not collectively stop. Even if human-on-human violence stops, people are still left to cope with disease, old age, death, depression, psychoses, neuroses, and natural disasters. Incorporating such harmony-building practices as meditation, yoga, t’ai chi, and non-attachment/non-dualism into one’s daily life can help reduce the trauma.

How to handle the psychological trauma of human-on-human violence? For starters, it is critical to try to understand what motivates people to cause the violence to the point of reversing roles with them, and to try to find compassion for them. That can be very tough. For a lawyer defending criminal defense clients, that is essential.

ADDENDUM I: Recently at Simple Justice, Jdog commented  that the man executed in the above-detailed summary execution was a Viet Cong officer, named Nguyá»…n Văn Laem, and he was executed by Nguyan Ngac Loan, a general of police in South Vietnamese. You might google for ˜Eddie Adams’, who later regretted having taken the picture. NPR has this story on Eddie Adams and his Vietnam photography.

Here is a video of the summary execution, which looks chillingly nonchalant “- as if the executioner was no neophyte — to add to the chills of the summary execution itself. Executioner Nguyan Ngac Loan’s 1998 obituary in the New York Times related that Loan later emigrated to the United States — without evacuation help from the United States government — and ran a pizza restaurant around twenty miles down the road from me, until 1991 (my fifth year in the Washington, D.C., area), when business took a nosedive after he was outed.

The transition likely has not been easy for plenty of people moving from the stimulation (no matter how violent) of participation in war to the daily banality of running a pizza restaurant, or the boredom of a former Viet Cong fighter relegated to a home in Vietnam for the wounded, without a leg. I understand that not merely a small number of American soldiers signed up for additional year-long tours of duty in Vietnam, to delay the tough transition back to life “- or just to relative boredom —  without army-against-army war in the United States.

ADDENDUM II: Here is more about executioner Loan from his New York Times obituary:

As a close friend of Nguyen Cao Ky, the swashbuckling pilot who became Premier in 1965, Mr. Loan, then a colonel, was put in charge of the national police and gained an immediate reputation among Western reporters for his temper and rages at the scenes of Viet Cong attacks on civilian targets.

“Mr. Loan insisted that his [1968 summary street execution] was justified because the prisoner had been the captain of a terrorist squad that had killed the family of one of his deputy commanders.”


ADDENDUM III: Three years ago, I blogged and linked here about the atrocities during the Vietnam War. The 2001 First Kill documentary on that war chillingly includes an interview with a Vietnam veteran who enjoyed killing what he called “gooks” (see here for my commentary on that word), said he even killed children to get a higher dead body count, and wants to return to Vietnam not to see the place but to kill again. The same documentary extensively covers journalist Michael Herr, confirming that he got stimulated experiencing the war close-up, and presents Eddie Adams saying that with the above-addressed street execution, not only did he not suffer any emotion over it, but he grabbed some lunch soon after. Adams said that he was seeking to present stories, not to change the world.

Ron Haeberle photographed the Mai Lai atrocities as a military photographer, although he says he did not witness the rapes and tongue cuttings. He took so-called safe photos with his government-issued black-and-white camera, and more disturbing photos with his personal black and white camera. He did not release any of the color photos until returning to the United States, lest those photos be confiscated and destroyed in the days before digital imaging and email. He said he bore some responsibility for the My Lai massacre, not having done anything to stop it, which apparently informed his decision not to release photos that showed the faces of any of the offending American soldiers.