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Defense Attorneys: More Sisyphus or more Don Quixote?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Top criminal defense attorneys are an intense group. They care passionately about what they do. When they blog about the work they do, the result is often emotional, passionate, and downright amazing. Jeff Gamso (a criminal defense lawyer in Toledo, Ohio) writes Gamso For the Defense blog. His writing is often beautiful as befits a former English professor.

But as befits a blog about criminal defense, the content is gritty, often depressing, usually sad, and always intensely felt. I tend to imagine him writing in a darkened room after a long day of work with a strong drink next to him and fingers pounding at the keyboard in search of relief from the strain of seeking justice for his clients. For all I know, he writes laboriously and with precision (editing as he writes) in a sun-drenched room with a large mug of steaming black coffee. I’ve never met Jeff Gamso. But I read his thoughts regularly.

In the recent past, we have been living with the false confessions literature while working on a false confessions/wrongful convictions case. I was impressed by the volume of the literature and the regularity with which it emerges. Just in the past couple of weeks, for example, NPR did a story on what happens after jurors get it wrong and Pacific Standard wrote a terrific piece called “Why can’t law enforcement admit they blow it sometimes?”.

And as I studied the literature, and then our mock juror data– all the while reading Jeff Gamso’s blog–it was clear how defense attorneys get hooked on the process. The stakes are the highest, and the implications of errors are horrible. The justice-seeking is lengthy, convoluted and often, fruitless. But it’s the right thing to do. So they do it. Very recently, Jeff wondered aloud (well, actually in text) if defense attorneys were more Sisyphus or more Don Quixote.

“It is clear, I hope, why we who toil in these trenches, who stand beside those who hear the words that will send them away or free them, those who may never see another sunset or hug a loved one, we often see ourselves as Sisyphus.  

Our job is to fight.  Our fate is to lose.  And yet, as Camus concludes,

One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I prefer the image of Quixote, the mad knight of La Mancha.  Wrapped in his psychosis he is the romantic figure.  Not dashing and romantic.  Not capable and brilliant.  He is no Lancelot.  He hasn’t the purity of a Galahad.  

What he has is his madness.  His insistence that the world be as he wishes it, that it be a place where one such as he believes himself to be might exist, and even flourish.  He will love she he declares his Dulcinea [in case you’ve forgotten, she is the object of Don Quixote’s affections], because that is what a knight does. He will tilt at that windmill, no matter the consequence, because that is what a knight does.

He will, of course, no more tame the world than Sisyphus will tame his rock and mountain.   But he’ll go forth to battle the windmills anyway.  Convinced, as always, that this time he will win.”

This post reminded me why I have to read Jeff Gamso. The writer, the lawyer, the philosopher, and perhaps the poet. And then, shortly after that, he wrote a post on the experience of exoneration–here’s what he said in the introduction:

“A few years ago in Cleveland.  Maybe 6 or 7 of us were walking back to the hotel after a dinner party for speakers at the seminar for capital defense lawyers.  All but one were lawyers.  The one was Ray Krone, the 100th person to be exonerated from death row. 

He’d been convicted of kidnapping, raping, and murdering Kim Ancona in 1991.  In fact, he’d been convicted of it twice. Except Ray didn’t do it. It was, instead a guy named Kenneth Phillips. Ray was wholly innocent. He’d been convicted based on junk science by an incompetent self-proclaimed forensic dentist.  And he was at the seminar to tell his story, to remind the practicing lawyers there that we were dealing with real people with real lives.  And that, at least sometimes, they were really truly factually innocent.  Ray does a lot of these speaking gigs now.  He talks to lawyers and activists and legislators.  Telling his story.  Standing up, as the organization he helped found says, as a Witness to Innocence.

Anyway, we were walking back to the hotel when some guy came up to us looking for a handout.  Maybe he had a story.  Maybe he said something about needing money to feed his family.  Maybe he just wanted cash to buy a bottle of something or some controlled substance. Maybe he just stuck out his hand at this bunch of guys walking together and talking, looking much better off than he did.  I don’t remember.

Here’s what I remember.  Most of us were set to just keep walking.  Ray reached into his pocket and gave the guy something: a five or a ten or a twenty. Whatever it was, one bill and more than a single.  And as if on cue, the rest of us reached into our pockets and matched what Ray had done.  I’m pretty sure the guy didn’t know just how he’d hit the mother lode, but he knew he had.

See, for Ray Krone it’s not theoretical.  He’s stared right at the gates of hell.  Shit, he entered.  And he’s one of the comparatively lucky ones who came out the other side.  And by his example, he shamed those of us who do this work, care about the work and the guys.

Because it’s not just our clients and our cause.  There are lots of people who need help.  Who have been beaten.  Who are lost.  There’s only so much we can do, but there’s always more.”

And that’s just the introduction. There is always more when Jeff Gamso writes. The point of the post is really to talk about what happens after exoneration and how people who have been wrongfully convicted put their lives back together. Or not.

It’s powerful. It’s Jeff Gamso at his best. It will make you cringe and catch your breath at injustice. And just maybe, it will make you want to act.

Thank you, Jeff.

***We appreciate being included in the ABA Blawg 100 for the third year in a row! If you like our blawg, take a minute to vote for us here (under the Trial Practice category). Thanks! Doug and Rita***

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