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Humanizing criminal defendants by treating everyone else as human

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Many prosecutors and police (and perhaps too many judges) apparently see criminal defense lawyers as a curious mix of being part of the legal establishment — “one of us”, in the minds of many of them — who also represent “them”/”the other”/the person to be dehumanized. Criminal defense lawyers, then, are a critical gateway to humanizing their clients to judges, jurors, prosecutors, police and everyone else, and to show by example that we all are connected on this small planet.

Why do so many people try to make life so conveniently compartmentalized  by looking at life in terms of “them versus us”, good versus evil” and black and white? Most of life is shifting shades of gray. For example, how many prosecutors and cops have never driven after drinking, never shoplifted, never tried marijuana, and never substantially exceeded the speed limit?

While Franklin Roosevelt claimed to be fighting an evil Hitler, he was throwing Japanese-Americans in concentration/internment camps and leaving in place the ongoing racially segregated military, as virulent racism continued in the United States, with its loudest expression in the southern former slave states. Talk about the illusion of pure good versus pure evil.

Whether it be the cashier wearing a pink blouse clashing with her brown pants, a sales manager for Muzak, Inc., or one charged or convicted with a vile crime, and everyone in between and beyond, Publius Terence aptly underlined: Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto./I am human: nothing human is alien to me. Thich Nhat Hanh takes Publius Terrence a step further in his poem “Please Call Me by My True Names,”recognizing that but for his fortune in experience, resources, compassion and wisdom from an early age, he could have become the child raped by a pirate as well as the pirate who raped her, “my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.” Similarly, Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all related, and it is an illusion and delusion to think otherwise. There is no them versus us in the final analysis. It is all we, including our perceived and actual opponents and enemies. Connectedness with each other is not some sort of touchy-feely approach to life, but a reality that, once recognized by more people, will reduce wars, violence upon others and trespasses against others, and will bring us towards a much better world where people will open their hearts to each other and share with each other of themselves and of their resources.

Intellectually, I understand the concept that we all are connected. However, I need to internalize that into my heart, as well, to truly live this approach of connectedness.

I know that for me to humanize my clients to juries, judges, prosecutors, police and everyone else, I must first humanize everyone. The magic mirror always takes hold.

Just as I remind those who claim to detest lawyers that I was born a human being before becoming a lawyer, I need to remember that the same goes for judges, prosecutors, cops and everyone else.They came into this world without a pre-designated profession nor role in life. Eventually, their natal innocence got sidetracked by witnessing and experiencing trauma, violence, people doing the most base and vile things, and financial struggles and fears. Too many people react to such trauma and imbalance with bigotry, hate, classism, and efforts to separate themselves as much as possible from the seeming “other”. However, unless one is wealthy and ready enough to stay his or her entire life inside a fortressed home or country club, s/he will have no choice but to rub elbows with a wide cross-section of people, on the sreet, in the grocery store, and everywhere else.

In not seeing me as separate from police, prosecutors nor anyone else — and to humanize them — I am reminded of a prosecutorial death penalty appellate lawyer who started as my good and deeply inspiring friend at the public defender’s office; the former Connecticut cop-turned lawyer who used to make me laugh when we worked part-time in high school at the Thom McAn shoe store in a shopping mall riddled with Muzak (ouch!); and a former public defender law clerk and sports junkie who later became a prosecutor. I knew them all before they became prosecutors and a cop. Their donning the roles of prosecutor and cop made them no less human, and no less likable, although I did struggle over my friend who for a few years ended up urging appellate judges to keep death sentences in place.

Recently I bought Zoketsu Norman Fischer’s book Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong . Not long after buying that book, and before reading much of it yet, I happened upon a Twitter quote from Fischer’s book from @RevolutionoftheApes, which I expand further as follows: “[W]e can simply see with our eyes, just as we can see the sky above and the sun when it sets, that all of life is one sky warmed by one sun. To separate self from other is simply not in accord with what we see.” Eureka again! We are all connected on this small planet. Yet, from the day of Cain and Abel forward, too many people have caused others misery, separated into the tribalism of “us versus them”, polluted parent earth, and lived under the watchword of “hooray for me, to hell with you.” For most of my own life, I felt very separate from so many people. Fortunately, that has been changing on an upswing over the last few years.

How can we be truly delighted and loving with our dearest friends on an outing, and then in an instant erupt in uncontrollable anger when an unawakened driver splatters mud all over us rather than driving around the mud? It takes too much wasted and draining energy to process through our brains whether to be kind, neutral, or negative to the next person who passes us on the street or in the hallway, rather than to be compassionate to all and to recognize that we all are connected. Taking the foregoing approach is not weakness, but completely the opposite, empowering ourselves with positive energy, and not letting others nor external forces change our positive energy nor inject imbalance where we have balance.

It is empowering for me and my clients for me to be able to talk to everyone the same, without elevating nor minimizing anyone, and certainly without kissing anyone’s butt. This does not mean overlooking when others try to step on me or my clients. When that happens, I take to heart what Master Kan told Grasshopper in Kung Fu, even though the program was a fictional show: “Perceive the way of nature and no force of man can harm you. Do not meet a wave head on: avoid it. You do not have to stop force: it is easier to redirect it. Learn more ways to preserve rather than destroy. Avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill. For all life is precious nor can any be replaced.”