Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

In her blog, one of my oldest friends commented about the current Roanoke City Council race. One of the candidates is a lawyer who recently defended an infamous white supremacist and did a really good job. My friend thinks this defense disqualifies the lawyer from serving on Council; I disagree.

I mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960; film starring Gregory Peck, Universal Pictures, 1962) to her and she said that's different - that Mockingbird was about racial inequality. We both grew up - came of age - in the 60's. She in the Chicago area, me in Roanoke. We both remember the struggles as our country worked to get away from the shame of racial inequality, and those struggles were front page news then. But To Kill a Mockingbird was much more than about race. It's about guaranteeing a fair trial for an unpopular defendant.

The time is 1936 in Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus Finch is appointed by the court to defend a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Although many of Maycomb's citizens disapprove, Atticus agrees to defend him to the best of his ability. The community backlash and personal attacks on Atticus and his family, and how they stand up to it, form the story.

The United States Constitution provides a number of guarantees. Relevant are the Freedom of Speech and the Right to a Fair Trial. The supremacist is, in my polite opinion, an asshole, but this isn't about him it's about his right to share his disgusting views. It's about the right everyone, including supremacist assholes, rag-head terrorist assholes, assassins and other scum-of-the earth have to a fair trial.

I've known and admired the attorney candidate professionally for years and am very proud to call him a personal friend. There is no way in hell he agrees with the views of his client -- in fact, the attorney's heritage has been a target of his clients venom. But the government must prove its case, beyond a reasonable doubt, according to the rules of law. And the attorney did his job.

A number of years ago I was representing an individual who (against my advice) began doing illegal "Straw-man" loans. The government caught on, there were grand juries and a media frenzy. I got interviewed, and one of the questions was how his misdeeds impacted me. My response: "One of the risks of practicing law is when your client does a belly-flop into a pool of crap, you're gonna get splashed." Many of my colleagues -- who had been "splashed" -- called to say they wish they'd thought of that line.

In the spirit of Atticus Finch, we've got a job to do and sometimes it's unpopular. But that's why most of us chose this profession.

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