Law in Contemporary Society

Deliberate Indifference

-- By JohnOMeara - 09 Apr 2016

Good Men

The lawyer who I admire most built his practice on bloodshed and theater. He compels people off the street to join him in court, and he tells them stories. If these people come to venerate him as I do, he can make a lot of money convincing them that government agents sometimes murder people just like them. I’ve seen him spellbind. And in quieter moments, he contributes to public radio. He is kind and yet, if mid-stream, punctiliously gruesome lunch company.

When I last sat down with this lawyer, his callousness upset me. He wetted the corner of his mouth and grinned as he told me a story about a man whose mind disintegrated for ten days before killing himself in a jail cell. “It’s a good case, and there could be so many more,” he hoped, quite a bit too loudly, no longer looking at me. He put his hands behind his head and leaned back, virile and proud. Conversation segued to his daughter’s birthday party, and then back to suicide again.

Two days later, I met another lawyer, one who will rent me for the summer. When he told me about the Marysville-Pilchuck school shooting, he unclasped his hands, as if done praying, and his head lolled on top of his neck—I recognized the affect; it was swagger. “John, man, we got the case.”

Cry, At Least a Little

These lawyers peddle corpses. Yet I want to work for them, to learn from them. Their work is off-putting, but I’ve engaged them in order to grapple with demons. I will struggle to accuse administrators in order to tax county coffers. I’m told that sting will dull with experience. What is more challenging is looking into the eyes of someone I respect dearly, face unflinching, as he waxes the horrible details that he will wield in court to gin up more money. It hurts me to see traces of joy in these moments. Cry, at least a little, before licking your chops.

I want to work with these lawyers because they stand on moral grounds in messy territories. I hope to blaze a similar path, but I don’t yet have the confidence of purpose that comes with experience in uncomfortable places. In the wake of unjust death, these lawyers deal in damages and remedies—damn the nauseating facts, to Hell with hesitation. If their cheeriness in imminence of death and pain is misguided, at least they are on the good side of a bad story.

The doctrinal term these lawyers will bring to court is “deliberate indifference.” Deliberate indifference to an incarcerated man’s well being. Deliberate indifference to a troubled teen’s threats. In preparation for trial, their enthusiasm either fuels or belies conviction.

Summer Disassociate

Eighteen months ago, a small town Homecoming Prince-to-be text messaged his closest friends to meet him in the school cafeteria for an early lunch. A few minutes later, he texted an apology to his family, including a rough sketch of what he hoped his funeral might be. A family member immediately called the school’s security guard. The guard stayed in his office.

Several minutes after the call to security, the Prince approached his friends’ table with a Beretta, shot seven times and killed himself with the eighth bullet. All the victims were classmates: freshmen in their sixth week of high school. Witnesses say the Prince stared blankly until the moment he shot himself. The only adult who intervened was a first-year teacher named Megan.

News outlets described the killing as senseless, methodically cruel, and a reflection of Indian subordination in the Pacific Northwest. Locally, it is a tragedy we’d rather forget than face. It is not something I would bring up at dinner parties without choking on a little bile in the back of my throat.

Two months after the Marysville-Pilchuck shooting, a Colorado sherriff’s deputy arrested a 40 year-old man for suspicion of DUI. Finding un-prescribed painkillers in the car, the deputy booked him for DUI and simple possession. At the jailhouse, the man indicated that he’d been taking large doses of painkillers and Xanax. He received methadone for opiate withdrawal, but the Benzodiazepine in his system went unbuffered. During the jail term before arraignment, Benzo withdrawal progressively disintegrated his association with reality. He devolved to violent hallucinatory outbursts, so jail guards put him in solitary. In the ensuing ten days, guards never requested medical assistance or evaluation. Instead, guards beat him when he lashed out manically, and they left him alone except during meal deliveries.

A forensic coroner examined the man’s corpse. His skeleton was mangled. He had ten cracked ribs, a dislocated wrist bone, splintered knuckles, and multiple facio-cranial fractures. It was not clear which injuries were self-inflicted. He used a microwave cord to asphyxiate himself. Bruising patterns indicated multiple hanging attempts. But he was well fed.

Presence, Absence, and Deliberate Indifference

My work this summer will involve blood. It is a challenge for my sensibilities. These lawyers understand that they were in my position once, but I don’t easily submit that I will similarly desensitize myself. I hope to do better: to feel it all, to let my emotions rise and fall with the narratives of my clients without distracting from the exigencies of litigation. This will require exercise of judgment, willpower, presence and absence.

When I spoke with these lawyers about these cases, I saw a different form of deliberate indifference: not inaction, but rather the stolid mask that allows action. The depth of pain and disgust buried in their caseload could be overwhelming. They need to remain an arm’s length away from their emotional cores. If I can excel in this field of work this summer without sacrificing empathy, then I believe I can pursue any career in law.

What a gift, what a present.

These are both fine essays now. We'll see.


Webs Webs

r4 - 05 Jun 2016 - 20:54:47 - EbenMoglen
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM