It might not have been the first day I started at the Public Defender’s office, but it certainly wasn’t long after. I knew nothing about the day-to-day operations of a criminal defense attorney (law schools don’t teach such things). I was about to be turned loose into the confusing, complicated, chaotic world of juvenile delinquency court and my new boss was trying to boil my role down to terms my inexperienced self could easily grasp.
“Sometimes,” he said, “your job is to be the only person in that courtroom willing to say something nice about a kid.”
When you’re a PD in delinquency court “sometimes” comes often. There are kids- many kids- who’ve burned every chance (and more), ignored every one of the wishes of their parents and probation officers, and happily run through every stop sign the judge has put up. When their day of reckoning comes, sometimes all you can do is say something nice about them. Even if it’s impossible to find that nice thing.
Dylann Roof was convicted on all charges today and now faces the death penalty. Obviously I don’t condone his actions or motivations. As I read the news earlier today, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if I couldn’t come up with something nice to say about him on this day- a day when absolutely nobody else will.
Of course I could write something generic about him being a human and likely being affected by mental illness. I’m sure there’s something in the Bible or Constitution I could pull to lend some worth to the kid’s existence. Or I could scour the internet for something nice somebody who knows him has said in the past and echo that- I’m sure somebody from his youth is on record as saying that he was a “nice, quiet” kid in grade school.
Hearsay niceness and generic thoughts pulled from historic texts are disingenuous, and I’d rather leave that kind of thing to other outlets.
On the other hand, Dylann Roof has his death hearing on January 3, 2017. Between now and then there’s a defense team that’s not going to sleep, will work through the holidays, and will be operating under an amount of stress likely not appreciated by anybody outside our profession. All those folks are trying to do is find something (anything?) nice to say about a guy that the world hates.
While I may not know Dylann Roof, I know enough about this job and what his attorneys are doing to know them well enough. On January 3rd they’re going to walk into a courtroom crowded with people either wanting to put Roof to death, or people dying to report the gore to those also thirsty for his blood.
Despite the hostile environment, they’re going to button up their suits, run into the lion’s den and go to war. Their efforts will leave them vilified by many and negatively affected should they ever run for public office. People will see defense attorneys looking for “technicalities” or loopholes.
I’ll see grit. Tenacity. Bravery.
That’s what courage looks like in real life.