Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My Opposite

This, inadvertently, is somewhat of a companion piece to my wife's powerful essay, Final Hours, which she wrote in the wake of the Troy Davis execution.

We met at  a gay wedding.  I’ll call him David.  His wife was the matron of honor for one bride, my wife the matron of honor for the other.  We were at the rehearsal dinner ordering margaritas at the bar when we were introduced:

“Andy meet David.  Andy represents people on death row.  David is a cop.”

David seemed like a good guy.  I don’t think I had ever made small talk with a police officer, but I enjoyed talking with him.  He was funny and had a warm smile.  And it turned out we had a few things in common other than the fact that our wives were in the wedding party.  It was readily apparent that we were the only two Jews present, both happily married to non-Jews.  We each had two kids about the same ages.

We were seated next to each other at the wedding the next day.  As the evening wore on, the kids went off to play, our wives got up to dance, and we gingerly approached the topic of our jobs.  He wondered if it was hard for me to represent clients who had committed such despicable acts.  I explained that, on the contrary, with some rare exceptions I had built strong relationships with the men and women I represented.  I told him that one of the most compelling aspects of my work was delving into their life histories to understand how it was they ended up on death row.  I found humanity in all of them.

He wanted to know if I had “gotten any of them off.”  I said that I had just argued an appeal I expected to win.  In that case, a juror who was leaning towards a not guilty verdict had been  improperly removed in the middle of deliberations.  “So, your client would get off on a technicality,” David retorted.  “It isn't a technicality,” I replied, “when, if the juror hadn’t been kicked off, the defendant could have been found not guilty.”  He shrugged, seeming to concede the point.

“Had I ever been to an execution,” David asked.  I told him that about a dozen years ago I witnessed the execution of a colleague’s client.  I was there as a representative of the defense team in case something went awry.   Nothing did, but there I was, watching a man being put to death, a disturbing and surreal experience under any circumstance.  Coming as it did only six months after a client of mine was executed, it was devastating.

He then told me that he had been at both those executions -- as a sheriff's deputy assigned to security detail.  I was stunned.  Each of us was at San Quentin twelve years earlier -- he as law enforcement and I, the condemned man's witness -- and here we were drinking champagne together at a wedding reception.

I asked him if being at these executions had an impact on him.  I’m not sure why I did it or what I expected him to say.  Maybe I just wanted to see if we could find some measure of common ground in our shared experiences.  He broke into his warm smile, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I hate to tell you this, Andy, but it was the best.”

The deputies working executions are served good barbeque, get to hang out for hours watching the invariably peaceful crowd of protesters, and then, to top it off, “a bad guy gets killed.”  David’s only complaint was that for one of the executions -- the one I attended, as it turned out -- he had to stand in the pouring rain for hours without rain gear. 

I wasn’t sure what to say.  After a few awkward moments, I told him about my client at whose execution he had worked – a man with no history of violence and no prior criminal record who was convicted primarily based on the testimony of jailhouse informants.  The courts prevented us from presenting new evidence that could have proved his innocence because, though reliable, it had been discovered too late.  “My client,” I pointed out, “was executed on a technicality.”  David muttered that he didn’t know the facts of the case although he acknowledged that the use of informants could be problematic.  I soon went off to find my wife.

We didn’t talk again until it came time to say goodbye.  I put out my hand to shake his, but instead of taking it, David gave me a big hug and said with a little laugh, “My opposite.”  I hugged him back.


Elizabeth said...

Great story, Andy. Communication past what are seen as insurmountable barriers is a very good thing. You told "David" you had found humanity in your clients. Then you found humanity in each other.

Lovechilde said...

As I was writing it someone asked what the piece was about and I said, "Finding humanity."

Tara Walker said...

Thanks so much for writing and sharing this touching story. I can't even put into words how many emotions and thoughts it provoked in me. You have my gratitude for what you do, the courage you show and the willingness to speak, even when uncomfortable -- not just as a profession, but in your daily life such as at this wedding or on this blog.

Stephen said...

"Finding humanity." As in still in search of. . .

Or humanity found?

Take away the party smiles, shoulder pat and disarming hug, the portrait you paint of this cop is not particularly flattering. “I hate to tell you this, Andy, but [attending executions is] the best” doesn’t strike me as a sentiment of someone struggling to come to terms with your/our concept of humanity.

Are you playing Mike to the cop’s Archie? You’re polar opposites but there’s an underlying deep-rooted affections? Yes, you were both civil and respectful of one another – a good thing, for sure, especially at a wedding reception – but I’m still unclear about what lessons you’re drawing from this encounter with your opposite.

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