The table is large and round. The food is good. The conversation is warm and inclusive. We laugh a lot. Some of the laughter is directed at each other. Some of it is directed toward the unspeakable matters with which we deal every day and which we can’t share with the people we love, the unavoidable dark humor of those who see the worst in humanity and manage, somehow, not to fall into the abyss themselves.
It’s just dinner, but after a long day of cerebral exertion on matters as weighty as the death penalty in Georgia, it is more than that. It is a safety net, a pressure valve, a decompression chamber. It is a couple of hours in which to forget the darkness.
A couple of days later, on the final morning of the conference at which we receive the continuing education training that the State Bar mandates, the speaker concludes his presentation by showing a clip from "To Kill A Mockingbird." It’s not the first time any of us have seen it. It is a staple in such presentations, but it is particularly appropriate this year, the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book by Harper Lee.
The jury comes in and delivers the unavoidable and unexpected verdict. The judge, not quite as stone-faced as he might like, offers not word of thanks for their service, but simply says, "This jury is dismissed." The defendant is taken off, silent, in handcuffs while his lawyer – Atticus Finch, the only man in town brave enough to take the case – says something to the defendant about talking to his wife, making an appeal, receiving no response save a blank stare.
The courtroom is empty now and Atticus carefully places his papers inside a battered briefcase. Every person in the balcony stands in respect for the man as he walks out without looking at them. And I, of course, cry. It is what I do every time I see Tom Robinson convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Every time I see Atticus Finch walk out of that courtroom alone. Every time I take long enough to reflect on why I, why we do what we do.
Many of the juveniles that I prosecute have mental evaluations performed to ensure that they are legally competent to address the charges against them. The standard form of those evaluations includes inquiry into the role of the various players and I always read these evaluations with some trepidation. The juveniles are generally pretty good at relaying the role of the judge ("Decide if I did it or not.") and their attorneys ("Help me tell my side of the story."), but not one, not one in the ten years I’ve been doing this work, has ever gotten it right when it comes to what I am there to do. They say things like "She there to send me off." Or "She want to make the judge believe I’m lying."
My job and the job of every prosecutor at every level of the judiciary system is the same. We are charged with one thing and one thing only – to find the truth. And if the truth is that the man or woman, boy or girl charged with a violating the law did not, in fact, violate the law, then we are delighted to see that person walk out of that courtroom. If he or she did violate the law, then we are there to make sure that the appropriate consequences are meted out.
I look around the conference room at the hundreds of men and women from across the state who do what I do every day, who read those same evaluations and know that we are often misunderstood and not always appreciated and I see that I am not the only one with tears in my eyes. Despite the evil and violence and destruction to which we bear witness every day, we are still touchable. It makes me sigh with relief.
There are a lot of reasons I became a lawyer. One of them was a real young man named Sam Brannen who came to Career Day at Statesboro High School, leaned against the teacher’s desk and, as he talked, made me think, "I could do that." And one of them was a fictional young man named Atticus Finch who, brought to life by Gregory Peck, made me think, "I have to do that."
So I did. And 29 years later, I am reminded that there are a lot worse ways to spend one’s days than looking for the truth.