Why Do You Do Criminal Defense?

The first time I ever thought deeply about the law was when I was eight years old, when the State of California strapped my cousin Foster to a chair and made him breathe poison gas.

I was told Foster had shot his wife as she slept. He held a pillow against her face and pressed the gun against it so the noise wouldn’t disturb his two kids sleeping upstairs. It woke them anyway, and the police found Foster kneeling on the floor, his arms around them, rocking back and forth, Foster’s shirt soaked with their tears and their mother’s blood.

I learned this through my own mother’s tears as she stood bending over the kitchen table, staring at a newspaper clipping that told about Foster’s execution the day before. She said Foster was a good man who had gone insane. I read the clipping again and again. How could they take his life like that? Could they take mine when I was grown? Could they take my son’s? If he really was insane, was it right to kill him? I didn’t know, and no one else was even talking about it.

Three years later another man sat in the same chair where my cousin Foster had sat, and everyone was talking about it. His name was Caryl Chessman.

I decided then to become a lawyer, and find out why Chessman’s life was so championed, and Foster’s so forgotten.

My first law partner was Richard Milner. Our firm was Rosmarin & Milner, though if you asked Dick Milner about it, he might remember it as Milner & Rosmarin. We two lawyers were going to slay every dragon of injustice, give voice to those who had none, and make the world better. Those at least were our dreams. I was 13 years old.

Sometimes, bad things happen. That same year my mother died; our family fractured. So did Rosmarin & Milner: there was no money for law school.

Instead I worked three jobs to pay my way through college, and persisted despite setbacks that saw me graduate well after most of my fellow freshmen had earned their degrees. Though I put aside any idea of being a lawyer (in part because I discovered a small talent for writing), I never lost the zeal for justice and fair treatment. As a college journalist I investigated what seemed the unfair denial of tenure of one of my professors. The series won the William Randolph Hearst Award for College Journalism.

I turned full-time professional six years before graduation, and continued to pursue the kind of news reporting I felt could make a difference in the community. I continued to win awards, for investigations of unfair business practices, of corruption in local government, of organized crime. Beyond that kind of formal recognition for my work, I took no less gratification in certain expressions of unsolicited appreciation offered by the subjects of those news stories:

• the crooked owner of a waste disposal business who wrote to object to being called a “trash magnate.”

• the planning commissioner who—after being indicted and convicted partly on the evidence uncovered by my work—as he was being led off to prison, turned and shook my hand, and said I had been fair and had done a good job.

• the spokesman for a commercial real estate giant in California who was overheard by a colleague to say that I was ruthless when I saw injustice and would never give up.

• a trio of heavy-set “vice presidents” of a diamond business, run by organized crime, who followed me around in hopes of intimidating me from featuring their company in my newspaper. Their associates had successfully discouraged an Arizona reporter the year before by blowing him up. We featured them anyway, I stayed intact, and they moved back to the desert.

Then came the ‘80s. The “but enough about you, let’s talk about me” ‘80s. I was as guilty as anyone else: I wanted to make some money, and I discovered I could make a lot more of it writing advertising than I could chasing crooks with a typewriter.

Advertising filled my wallet but not my soul. In 1986 I enrolled in Naropa Institute to study psychology, and to work with people in crisis. As an intern, later an employee, of the Emergency Psychiatric Service of the Mental Health Center of Boulder County, in Colorado, I saw people at their worst, and helped them find their way back to their best (or at least their not-so-bad). What I learned of human nature there, and what I was able to give back of my own human nature, was useful and of value to me (and I hope to others), and I trust continues to be now as a lawyer.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I wanted to tell you what brought me to this beloved and reviled profession.

Sometimes, good things happen. I met a woman, loved her, had children with her. The years before law school I spent nurturing those little sweethearts, work that was, and continues to be, at least as nurturing to me. When both of them had started school, and were beginning to find their own voices, I was reminded of my own childhood aspirations.

And so I remembered Foster, and what I wanted to be.

Life is long, its experiences rich, and a human being may be many things: a journalist, an ad man, a therapist, and, some scant few decades after that boy declared his heartfelt intention, a lawyer.