The small confines and layout of the courthouse made it impossible for me to avoid contact with the young man’s family during the trial. Pulling into the parking lot each morning I would see them gathered around waiting to enter the courtroom, seeking another day of “justice” for their loved one. During breaks we stood in the hallways together, and shared the same restroom, as we enjoyed a mental break from the tension created by the adversarial process taking place in the courtroom. I could only imagine what they were thinking as I felt their searing stares as I walked by. Eighteen years in, I had become accustomed to the anger and frustration directed toward me from the families of victims. This time was no different from any other. After all I was defending the man that they wholeheartedly believed killed their loved one.
Around day three of the trial I was in the restroom during one of our breaks. Usually full, this day the bathroom was just occupied by me and an elderly white woman. I knew she was related to the young man that died, I just wasn’t sure how. After making eye contact I smiled and greeted her. Much to my relief she did not sneer, curse, or lose it. She simply smiled and acknowledged my greeting. Staring into her eyes I knew that I could not let this opportunity pass without acknowledging her pain. I took a deep breath as I moved in closer and said, “I am really, really sorry for your loss. I know that this is very hard for you and the rest of your family.” Without hesitation she responded, “Thank you honey. I really appreciate that. He really meant the world to me…”. I then listened as she shared that the young man that died was her sweet and loving grandson and she had practically raised him. I also learned that this grandmother had suffered through the tragic loss of her grandson, the loss of her husband, and dealt with some major health issues of her own, all within a short period of time.
When she finished talking, I reached out, hugged her, and sincerely thanked her for sharing these things with me. I also offered another apology for her tragic loss. As I stepped back she said, “Sweetheart, I understand that you have a job to do. I am not angry with you. You are doing your job.” Walking back into that courtroom to resume my position in the ring, I knew that there was at least one other person in there that got it.
While I wholeheartedly believed in my client’s innocence and fought hard for his exoneration, I also completely understood that there was a family in that room that wholeheartedly believed that my client was responsible for their tremendous loss. But, I also knew there was a grandmother in that room that understood that my zealous advocacy did not mean that I lacked compassion for her family and the pain that they were feeling. What more could I ask for?