Death-in-Life, straight from the frontlines, thanks to Mercy


Jay was a broken man. I could see his brokenness the first time I met with him in the county jail, before he even uttered a word to me. I knew not only that he had a broken spirit, but he was also very clearly in extremely bad physical health. Jay was charged with a federal crime, his second federal crime in just a few years and this one was a very serious federal charge. In my first visit with clients, especially my court appointed clients, I do my best to listen to them – sometimes in that first visit with a client a listening ear is worth more than all of the legal advice I could give them in the world. So I listened to Jay. Jay’s story began like that of many of my clients, his story involved severe abuse at the hands of his father. He described being beaten by his father as a young boy, he was tied to tree as his father lashed at him in a rage.

God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. Psalm 147:3

Unfortunately, in my line of work, as hard as I try, I have been unable to escape at least shades of the jaded attitude that many criminal defense lawyers develop towards their clients. I try to stay self aware, I pray for the Lord to keep my eyes open – but sometimes I catch myself disbelieving the stories my clients tell me, and sometimes I do this with good reason. Sometimes I just don’t believe them at all anymore, but there are times that I don’t need a lie detector test, or physical proof – I just know in my heart of hearts that what that person across from me is telling me is the absolute truth. In some cases the reason I know it’s the truth is the absolute evidence of human pain that I often witness as their stories unravel before me. I can feel their pain, I can see them reliving the nightmares, the terrible things that in normal life go unspoken, those are the things my clients tell me. I had no question that first visit with Jay that he was telling me the absolute truth. He HAD been beaten and tied to a tree as a young boy, and as he sat before me, a man in his early 40’s…he was still that beaten and broken boy.

Jay had been physically and emotionally abused most of his childhood. He had loving sisters, but it was clear that the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of his father had broken something in him that never really got better. Jay’s criminal career started around age 12 as he discovered the escape of using drugs. He became an addict and used and used, and was in and out of jails and prisons for the next 30 something years. He had a record to show for it too. Jay had more prior convictions than any client I’d ever seen – more than 30. Almost all of his convictions were drug or alcohol related, but this last one was something that would mean he would spend the rest of his natural born life in a Federal prison, and he was not even that sad about it. I got the impression that Federal prison was a step up from the life he’d been living prior to his most recent arrest.

Jay was HIV positive and had developed full-blown AIDS. He had been HIV positive since the mid to late 1990’s and he’d never really kept up with his medications, unless he was incarcerated somewhere. Jay told me he’d contracted HIV from intravenous drug use. However, Jay’s sisters told me a different story. Jay’s sisters later told me that Jay (a willowy small guy) had been a frequent victim in prison and had been infected with HIV from being sexually assaulted in prison. Either story was terribly sad, but I did not question the second possibility, thinking back to my first visit with a man who had the demeanor and behavior of a boyish victim.

In that first visit Jay told me of his many criminal convictions, he took full responsibility for the poor choices he’d made in his life. He told me how he’d been homeless right before his most recent arrest. He told me how he’d been having trouble navigating the maze of medical benefits that allow him to get his extremely expensive medications for HIV/AIDS…his health began deteriorating even more and he started to get desperate. While the help he needed may exist out there somewhere, he could not find it. In a moment of desperation, he broke one of his longest periods of sobriety and used meth again and robbed a bank. He told me now that he would get his HIV medications for the rest of his life. Sad that he had to get to this point to get the help he needed.

Jay accepted full responsibility for his criminal offense. He never once denied his mistakes to me – which goes against the conceptions many lay people may have of “career criminals.” Jay fully accepted his punishment, he had sadly accepted a life in prison a long time ago.

Every time I visited with Jay his health deteriorated, we had visits where I could tell he was crying in pain and doubled over in discomfort from his illness. I spoke to the warden of the facility he was housed in and found they were doing all they could, he was just a very sick man. As we drew closer to the sentencing hearing, Jay’s health became so serious that I was concerned he would be unable to stand during the hearing. It is common in a Federal sentencing hearing that the Defendant is given a chance to say a few words to the Court, Jay could not utter a word in his hearing, so I told the Judge what I knew he would say as he gripped the podium in pain, tears falling down his cheeks. Jay was a broken man, physically and spiritually.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18

Jay’s case brings up a lot of possible criticisms of our criminal justice system, our community support for victims of abuse, our understanding and treatments for people who struggle with the illness of addiction, and the medical options and resources available and the ability for people to even understand and access those options….we could argue both sides of these issues and write volumes about it.

Jay’s case also brings up an interesting new option for people with serious health problems who are dying or severely ill in prison, somewhat recently the Federal government announced a new initiative called “compassionate release.” This seems like a humane option for people like Jay. (read about it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/02/us/report-urges-more-compassionate-release-of-federal-prisoners.html?_r=0)

But more importantly than the above issues, Jay’s case brings up something more basic and deeper – it brings up the utter gravity of human pain, complete brokenness, and suffering that lies within the walls of our prisons in the United States. Perhaps Jay had committed the crime so he would end up in the place he knew better than anywhere else, prison. I cannot help but wonder what if we had other options for people like Jay, maybe if more people had been willing to listen to Jay’s story and help him, just maybe then he would not have ended up in prison for his final years.

I do not share this in a spirit of “look at what I did” but in a spirit of hope for us all to try to move with more compassionate hearts toward our brothers and sisters who struggle with addiction, abuse, and severe physical illness. Jay had 30 something prior criminal convictions – he’d had experience with close to 30 criminal defense lawyers through the decades. Tears fell down Jay’s cheeks as he told me that I was the first one who listened, the first one who he knew really cared about him. The first one who treated him like a human being worthy of my time, my efforts, and my love.

They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. Ephesians 4:18

I am always deeply impacted when my clients thank me in this way. It saddens me that our profession, a profession who should be called to help the most broken in our society has oftentimes become a sort of “plea factory.” I believe the legal profession is honorable, we are called to protect the rights of the accused and the broken – we are called to be their advocates when no one else will speak for them, that is why I wanted to be a lawyer. However, I am disheartened by a profession that unfortunately has come to treat the accused and convicted as a commodity and rubber stamp on their next pay check. These words may seem harsh, but as criminal defense lawyers we are not selling used cars or trading stocks, we are dealing with broken human lives and when we stop seeing them as such, we should maybe not do this work anymore. I have said the day I become blind to what’s around me, I hope I will stop doing this work – but I trust that so long as I pray for God to keep my eyes open to the pain and suffering around me HE WILL keep my eyes open, so long as I am willing…

I pray and hope that I will be able to see my clients like I did Jay for many years to come. I know it is a hardened profession at times, but my prayer today is for our legal profession. I pray for hearts to be softened towards the accused, particularly for the people who deal with them the most – both defense attorneys and many of the good people who are charged with the task of prosecuting them. My prayer is also for the people who never deal with the accused and convicted people – that they see them as just that, as people, often broken, battered and bruised – but made by the same loving God who made you and me.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Matthew 5:3-4


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