In 1990, I took out a subscription to High Times magazine in protest over a federal prosecutor’s subpoenaing the magazine’s advertiser records — as reported by Index on Censorship — in an apparent effort to clamp down on hydroponic sellers and customers, and various other suspected marijuana-related vendors. I wrote to then-attorney general Dick Thornburgh about my protest, and cc’d it to High Times; I received a reply from neither.
Shortly thereafter, I saw an article about the National Organization for the Reform of marijuana laws, including a big picture of its then-Executive Director Donald Fiedler. I then met Don in the flesh at the April 1990 Earth Day in Washington, DC, where, among other things, he was showing people items made of hemp. I was floored; I had not yet hobnobbed with those in the marijuana legalization movement, something that would change within a few months. Don and I met for lunch a few months later, after I wrote him a letter offering NORML pro bono help; this was before the days of e-mail. I next saw Don in January 1991, when, during the second weekend anti-Gulf War I march, he was marching with NORML t-shirts for sale that read "HEMP FOR OIL, NOT BLOOD."
I called up Don not long after, and told him of my desire to switch to criminal defense from my 25-lawyer corporate law firm, where I did litigation and regulatory work for financial institutions and transportation companies. Since he knew I did not want to prosecute, he recommended starting with a public defender office or opening my own firm, since salaried job openings for private blue collar criminal defense lawyers without criminal defense experience was a tough nut to crack. Within a few months after that, I had joined the Maryland Public Defender’s Office, which was a critical move for me.
Don continued encouraging me along the path. He sponsored my application to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He strongly recommended the National Criminal Defense College. which I discuss here. NCDC’s Trial Practice Institute’s admission standards were tough for public defender lawyers. I attended in 1994.
Fortunately, Don was one of my Macon instructors, for closing argument. He was at once gentle in tone of voice but firm in his belief that criminal defense lawyers have an obligation to pour our hearts, souls, and guts out for our clients for every stage of representation, including trial; I agree. He became one of my key role models for excellence in criminal defense. He was a skilled trial lawyer and actor; he would present one-man Clarence Darrow shows, which unfortunately I never caught.
I did not see much of Don after the NCDC. I did not go to as many NACDL meetings, save for the 1999 meeting in Washington, D.C.
On May 30, after getting out from the D.C. Superior Court in the morning, I visited NORML founder Keith Stroup for my first visit to NORML’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. after my 1990 visit with Don. I started telling him how I got my first full introduction to NORML through Don. Keith then told me the news I missed from a backlog of unread listserv messages for the NORML Legal Committee: Don passed away on May 15. He was sixty-five, just twenty years older than I. The sadness continues.
Don’s friend Ralph Smith puts it well: "Don was always the champion of the underdog. . . He believed marijuana helped people cope with illness and life’s problems."
Don’s fellow Omaha lawyer, and blogger, Dave Tarrell also captures Don: "I don’t know if I’ve ever met a kinder soul. I was once told that although Don gave away a scholarship to the NCDC every year, that people shouldn’t take this as a sign that he could afford it. In fact, the person told me that Don would simply give away his money if asked."
A picture of Don is here. Click the picture for an enlargement.
Don still lives on for me, which is why I started this blog entry about his life, before telling of his passing. Don’s passing leaves a great void. Thanks, Don, for you, and for encouraging me along the path. Jon Katz.
ADDENDUM: Don’s obituary says: "In lieu of flowers, Memorials to National Criminal Defense College, c/o Mercer Law School, Macon, GA, 31207."