We both have something in common — we both tend to get vilified regularly, although I have to admit, lawyers have it worse — there isn’t a whole category of atheist jokes where the punch line is always something about how they have to die horribly. So I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge that we do need lawyers, and they deserve some credit.
So today I got letter from an ebullient lawyer and regular reader who wanted to tell a tale of triumphant justice. And I thought you might enjoy it, too. The names and details have been changed and obscured to protect the innocent.
Also, it’s about a dreadful rape case, and it does discuss some of the horrific consequences, so some of you may want to avoid it. Let me reassure you, though…it has a happy ending!
I am an atheist of 8 years, raised a Christian, and I lost my faith during my 12 years as a prosecuting attorney.
I feel compelled to write this because I can’t escape the memory of the 2011 study that said Americans trusted atheists on par with the level they trusted rapists.
As I said, I’ve been a prosecutor for 12 years – the entirety of my career as an attorney. The first ten of those years was spent in a relatively large county prosecuting serious felonies. I was then, and am now, far more drawn to cases against those who cause suffering to others, due in whole to my humanism, acquired after I became an atheist, and resulting after an intense prosecution early in my career of a man who used religious manipulation to commit sexual crimes against two girls so unspeakable that he was ultimately sentenced to multiple consecutive life sentences. I only regret he couldn’t serve it all.
In my career, I’ve conducted trials in two homicide cases with my boss and mentor, a prosecutor and man of extraordinary decency, incomparable work ethic, and possessing a career any prosecutor would envy and aspire to. Everything I learned about trial and prosecution I learned from him.
Both were cold cases. The former was acquitted by a judge. The latter was convicted by a jury and is spending the rest of his life in prison. I convicted a woman at trial of shaking a baby in her care so hard and slamming her head into the crib, that the child is permanently brain damaged and blind. She is serving 30 years in prison without parole. I’ve been to crimes scenes of unspeakable violence, including a man who shot his wife, two small children, and himself to death.
As an aside, I often tell people, that despite all the suffering I see, I believe that human beings are almost universally great. The great majority would never hurt another, and most would help another if they can. For every depravity I see, I see much, much more compassion, empathy, kindness, support, and goodness.
But my main focus has been sexual abuse and sexual assault cases. I’ve conducted jury trials against men who have perpetrated long-term sexual abuse against children as young as six years-old. I’ve tried lurid statutory rape cases, sexual assaults against developmentally and cognitively delayed victims, and cases reported by adult victims of abuse they endured in childhood. I’ve also obtained guilty pleas and life sentences on a man who raped and attempted to murder his cognitively delayed neighbor, and a man who photographed, video-taped, and distributed to others, images of himself sexually assaulting his three young daughters.
I’ve worked for the State’s Attorney General’s Office, having been hired to work in the Prosecution Services Bureau. My colleagues are extraordinarily talented and motivated, in love with their work, and possessing impressive careers and accomplishments. We are a team. Or boss is the coach. My paralegal makes me look organized and does most of my work for me. It’s an amazing place to work. I enjoy them all and count several amongst my closest friends. Our bureau’s prosecutors are assigned cases from county jurisdictions for two main reasons: conflicts of interests and lack of resources to handle major cases.
I mostly get assigned the major cases. And I mostly get assigned the sex cases. I get to work with some of the best prosecutors in the state in my bureau. I travel around the state, up to 8 hours from home, and conduct jury trials, mostly in rural counties.
In the last two years as an Assistant Attorney General, I’ve conducted three sex crimes jury trials in three different communities, two of those assisting a colleague with an absolute gift for trial, and whose career as a prosecutor started at the same time and in the same office, as mine. While we haven’t always worked together in the same office (he worked in another county for several years, has been in the Attorney General’s Office much longer than I, and has tried and won some of the most abhorrent sex cases in the state) we now, thankfully, do get to work together. He out-charms me and out-lawyers me, and I get better every time i work with him.
I’ve never lost a jury trial in a sex case. I’ve been lucky enough to assist, and be assisted by, some of the most talented and accomplished of prosecutors. When I talk about my cases, there was always another person, or two, standing beside me. I’ve never done a major case alone.
Today I arrived home after being gone for 9 days, 7 hours away, conducting a jury trial against a man who drug a woman down an alley and raped her an a rusty, abandoned truck in a small, rural, community. The community is so small, they have three men in the sheriff’s department. At the time of the offense, their sole prosecutor in the county had conducted no felony jury trials. The state investigation agency was asked to assist in the investigation and my office was contacted for assistance. I was assigned to lead the prosecution with the assistance of the local prosecutor. A short time later, the prosecutor resigned for family reasons, and I requested the assistance of a younger colleague who was assigned mainly child pornography cases. He was excited to assist, since he had only conducted one felony jury trial so far (scores and scores of misdemeanors in city court, though) resulting in acquittal. Regardless, he’s an excellent attorney, with great instincts for prosecution, and works his ass off.
The trial lasted all week. I was successful in getting the venue changed to a neighboring county, but even so, it took until 4 o’clock the first day to pick a jury that didn’t know someone involved too closely to be fair. The victim, a mother of 3, the same age as me, couldn’t talk to me for the first three months of the case. I had to communicate information on the case through a close friend.
She was shattered by the rape. Her family was shattered. It was some of my best evidence at trial.
Over the 11 months from the date of the offense to the date of trial, she and I developed a rapport and trust as I drove, many times, the 6 1/2 hours to meet with her and discuss what the criminal justice system would require of her, in addition to the police interviews and sexual assault exam she had already endured. I told her I would never lie to her and could never guarantee results, but I would fight for her the entire way.
I had to guide her through the necessary pre-trial interview with the defense attorneys and their private investigator, all hired with the defendant’s ample financial resources. Both fense attorneys (man and woman) had combined legal experience of over 50 years, but fortunately I eclipsed them in sex assault jury trial experience. My victim had a breakdown after the interview.
The defense was consent, with all the horrific innuendo and implication that goes along with it. Some of the tactics used by the defense and investigator were reprehensible. They issued and served subpoenas on the victim’s family, boyfriend, men from past relationships, and her two sons. Aside from the witness we called at trial, they called none of the witnesses to whom they issued subpoenas, some of whom were forced to drive hours to the trial, only to be told they weren’t needed.
She testified wonderfully, with such amazing strength and courage. It was the first time she had seen her rapist since that night, and she immediately broke down and wept when she got on the stand. For the next two hours I guided her through her testimony of the details of the worst thing that ever happened to her, in a courtroom of strangers, while her rapist looked on. She broke down several more times. She did amazing.
She was then cross-examined for two more hours by the female defense attorney, an unimpressive, abrasive person pretending to be nice. Twenty-four years of experience as an attorney, she conducted a poor cross-examination in a fake-nice tone, remembering to go through every piece of the victim’s clothing and to hold up her panties for the jury – the one bag of clothing-evidence I didn’t have her open in her direct testimony.
But she did amazing. My professionalism lapsed, I admit, and I whispered to lead defense counsel: “THAT’S why you should have pled your client”. Mainly a DUI attorney of decades, he laughed. Every day the defense team gloated toward their expected victory. After a few days, my co-counsel and I admittedly started letting small doubts creep in, which is normal in any trial.
My only worry was how she would deal with it after she testified. I got my answer Wednesday night. I go to bed early when I’m in trial and get up at 4 am to prepare. I woke at 3:45 and looked at my phone. I had received a text from my victim earlier that night that didn’t wake me. My heart sank when I read it. It was basically a suicide note, thanking me for all my help, but stating too many people have been hurt, and she couldn’t take it anymore. As I was reading the text, I received another text from her counselor informing me that she had been transported to the emergency room, was under a gurney, and not letting anyone touch her. She was highly intoxicated.
I went to the hospital and sat alone with her in a dark room and promised her she wouldn’t have to get back on the witness stand, her main fear since the defense reserved her for possible testimony. I told her how sorry I was to put her through his and how it was the worst part of my job. And yeah, I cried.
I went to court and cross-examined the defendant that day, exposing all the lies he’s told in the case. When he was done, he said loudly and arrogantly for me to hear, how he would love to “get right back on that horse and go again”. The man is a sociopath The defense team celebrated, including a nasty paralegal who’s response to me telling the defense attorneys that I intended to introduce evidence of the victim’s hospitalization, chuckled. My professionalism lapsed again, and I regrettably pointed out her callousness AND morbid obesity. An hour before that, I was in the ER. It pissed me off. I am seriously not proud of that second part. And believe me, no one would describe me as “slim”, a fact she rightly pointed out back to me.
On Friday, I cross-examined their medical expert and we proceeded to closing arguments. Our side of the courtroom was packed with family and friends and witnesses. The victim had been discharged from the hospital but I forbade her from coming back to court. She waited at the local county prosecutors office that was hosting us for the trial.
I argued the evidence. They argued the evidence. I kicked ass. Sorry, but I did.
The jury went out at 1:00 with pizza waiting. At 3, they signaled they had reached a verdict. I knew we won. They confirmed it a short time later in the presence of our large group.
Then I got to feel the feeling that makes me absolutely love my job. We won. She won. We all won. i ran back to the office and told her. She cried and hugged me. Hugged me! Her closest friend had tears of joy running down her cheeks and hugged me for even longer. We basked in it for a while. It was awesome. My co-counsel and I packed our things, checked out of the motel, and traveled to “the Ranch” of that closest friend, along with everyone else, and the entire sheriff’s department They made me drink two glasses of Jack Daniels on the rocks. After an hour of kind words of gratitude, an amazing thank you note signed by everyone, and lots more hugs, my non-drinking co-counsel drove us as far as we could get that night to a hotel since we were both exhausted. He has three small girls and a wife we needed to get him home to, but before we collapsed in our rooms for the night, we managed to eat two huge steaks and drink two expensive glasses of wine at a nice restaurant. My co-counsel was beyond thrilled. When we first got in the car to drive home, we blasted “Free Falling” by Tom Petty a la Jerry Maguire, and relieved the best moments of the trial over and over, laughing and celebrating. He said he learned so much. The sheriffs deputies all said they learned so much. They were all so proud of their role, and they had every right to be. Everyone contributed and supported her. Big smiles.
I dropped him off at his house this morning. His two youngest daughters were outside when we drove up and were visibly thrilled that their daddy was home. They hugged all over him while I unloaded his things. His wife came out and gave him, and me, a big hug. I whispered to her that I’ve seen prosecutors that have it and prosecutors that don’t, and her husband has it. And I meant it. See smiled and I could see how proud she was. She invited me in for breakfast, I accepted, and it was delicious.
So now I’m home. I work in an office where everyone knows I’m an atheist. I wear shirts at social events that say “atheist” and “godless heathen” and I’ve never once in my career experienced an ounce of discrimination for my beliefs in my professional life. People are great. I’m also known for a tendency toward off-color humor (can you blame me?) and karaoke. At our last Department of Justice yearly meeting with the entire department in an auditorium of hundreds of people, the Attorney General made me come up and sing in front of everyone because the “meeting was getting boring”.
In the back of mind, all day, has been that study. Atheists and rapists.
I’m not sure how to end this except to say: I’m proud of what I do and who I am and what I believe. And I don’t believe in god. None of those wonderful people I met and got to know over the months ever gave a damn what my faith or lack thereof was. They never asked. It never came up. We were all just people trying to do the right thing.
I think there’s a lesson there somewhere. I’m pretty tired from arguing. Maybe I’m tired of people thinking I and my atheist friends, wonderful people, are somehow bad because they don’t believe in things without evidence. I know I don’t like knowing that so many of my fellow citizens would have a hard time weighing their trust level between me and that psychopath who now sits in jail. Maybe I don’t like thinking of my family members whose life might go longer than mine spending that non-overlapping time thinking their brother or son was being tortured for eternity, and somehow that was a part of some good plan.
I do know this: doing good is not about the expectation of reward or punishment at some later date. It’s about the intoxicating feeling of making people weep tears of joy, of providing justice, helping to heal, and showing compassion. It’s about standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. THAT’S the feeling that keeps me going, chasing the dragon so to speak, to get it again. Only it doesn’t diminish over time with every dose, and I’m the luckiest damn man in the world for being able to do it for it a living.