Lawyers and atheists

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.


  1. says

    I guess that is happier than him not being convicted, but she will still be dealing with this forever. Especially when her community is so small- there are probably tons of people making excuses for the guy already.

  2. marksletten says

    Wow. Just wow…

    Should be required reading for conservatives who believe God is the source of justice and morality.

  3. Steve LaBonne says

    Now that one really hit home- I also help put rapists and other violent criminals away where they can’t hurt anybody else (and just as importantly help prevent the same fate from befalling the innocent), in my case by way of running a forensic DNA testing lab. There really are few better feelings than getting up every day to go to a job you know really makes a difference. Fictional pie in the sky is a joke compared to the very real rewards of that.

  4. Akira MacKenzie says

    marksletten @ 5

    I doubt it work. Fundies usual reply that atheists either operate on their “Christain upbringing” (assuming they were Christains to start) or that atheist only ape moral behavior that they would abandon if they knew they wouldn’t get caught. Smarmy apologist Doug Wilson loves to us that one. He’ll freely admit that doesn’t have a problem with Moses’ apocryphal genocides because he believes his omnibenevolent god ordered them for a “good” reason, then he’ll smirk “but atheists don’t have a problem with genocide either.”

  5. DLC says

    somebody change the dust filter, I got somethin in my eye too.

    One of my close friends was a lawyer. He used to crack lawyer jokes himself, and he knew all the funny ones. But at the same time he was a brilliant advocate for his profession, and quite skilled at arguing before the bar.
    He’d have been proud of your letter writer, and probably offered to buy him a drink. Unfortunately he died some years ago. damn but I’m old.

  6. neko says

    You’ve got me puddled up. Such hard stuff to have to deal with on a daily basis. I’m so glad there are compassionate folks like yourself at it.

    thank you.

  7. mildlymagnificent says

    but she will still be dealing with this forever.

    With a good outcome like this though, it’s a lot more like recovering from other bad events.

    You can have a lot of warm gratitude for emergency and medical workers even though you have to live with a limp or other permanent reminder of a nasty accident.

  8. soul_biscuit, attorney at LOL says

    What a triumphant story. Being a lawyer never feels beter than when you’re able to make a meaningful difference in someone’s life.

    As an aspiring public defender, I believe strongly that every accused person is entitled to a vigorous defense. Without that, the legitimacy of every prosecution would be suspect, and no small number of innocent people would be found guilty. (Far more than already do, in any case.) But I don’t know how I would handle a case like the one at the heart of this story. Consent may have been the defendant’s best shot in this case, and if he were insisting on going to trial, his attorneys would be obligated professionally to try to show it.

    I won’t have to worry about that for a while. Anyway, I take some comfort in knowing that I would not be so vile as the author describes the defendant’s attorneys to be. Cross examining a weeping victim for two hours? Showing her panties to the jury? (Maybe a “clothing = consent” type of argument? Those are illegal in my state, but an unscrupulous attorney might skirt the line and make allusions.) These don’t just demonstrate failure as a human being, they strike me as bad trial strategy.

  9. ibyea says

    Although personally, it is not really a happy ending. It is more of a bittersweet one. Nevertheless, I am glad justice got served.

  10. ibyea says

    Oh, and seeing the cases he/she had to deal with, like the guy who videotaped himself doing… O_o Holy shit.

  11. Tony says

    PZ — I think you should do what you can to get this guy as a speaker at any humanist/atheist conference to which you can get him invited. Awesome story!


  12. Rip Steakface says

    @20 Tony

    It’s clear that he wishes to remain anonymous. We should respect that.

  13. CobaltSky says

    I cannot add much to the conversation, but this story does warm my heart. All the way through I was expecting a bad ending of sorts. That nearly always seems to be the way with these things.

    It is just good to know that justice can be served. That hope is there and that with people like this around we can be assured that the fight isn’t over.

    Thank you Anonymous Lawyer.

  14. davem says

    This is a tale of two sorts of lawyers – him the good one, and the defence lawyers, who seem to be the sort that cause lawyer jokes.

    For me, what comes out of this story is that for the victim, the adversarial justice system makes the trial as bad as the crime. Also that this sort of pressure put on rape victims could cause ‘not guilty’ verdicts for rapists who are obviously guilty.

  15. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    *watches as the Pullet Patrol™ does an synchronized bow to the Anonymous Lawyer, then raise their tiny tankards in salute*

  16. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    Uh, any reason why you’re assuming the lawyer is a man? I’m not seeing any clues to gender.

  17. psanity says

    I guess that is happier than him not being convicted, but she will still be dealing with this forever. Especially when her community is so small- there are probably tons of people making excuses for the guy already.

    This is true, and his conviction won’t erase her pain, but at least she knows that she was heard and believed. At least, they put the guy away.

    And, there’s a legacy — look how elated the sheriffs were, glad they won, glad they learned so much. The county this woman lives in is going to be much better off with a sheriff’s department that not only knows more about dealing with this kind of crime, but has confidence that these cases can be won.

  18. Amblebury says

    JAL, he describes himself as the luckiest man in the world to be doing what he does for a living – at the end.

    It’s a great story. I teared up too.I’m glad they won, I understand his feeling pleased they did. I’m also grateful there’s graphic evidence of what rape victims have to go through. The profound emotional and psychological impact, to the point of suicide. Trial, with some smirking horror holding up your panties, for god’s sake. And yes, they won, but that victim gets to live with all that for the rest of her life.

  19. says

    A nice story which almost restored my faith in lawyers except for my experience with what passes for a criminal justice system.

    A few years back I was in court supporting a friend who had been assaulted by two other women. She had managed to give the two of them some minor injuries and they staged a pre-emptive strike by calling the police and accusing her of the assault. The police promptly arrested her and interrogatedher after telling her off camera she couldn’t have someone present duirng the process. I watched the video of the interrogation and was disgusted at the way a clearly distressed and innocent victim of assault was treated. Her attackers were given nothing but sympathy and kind treatment by the same police and the prosecution. This extended to the 17 year old attacker being allowed to give evidence via video link to spare her the distress of appearing in court.

    In court the prosecutor successfully moved to disallow the evidence of the one defence witness who had witnessed the attack and had intervened to stop it. In spite of offering to give a statement at the scene the police told him it wasn’t necessary.

    On the advice of her lawyer my friend pleaded guilty to a lesser offence and her lawyer produced evidence of her good character and asked for her to receive probation. The prosecutor objected and sought a guilty verdict and a prison term. Fortunately the judge was compassionate and granted her a good behaviour bond and ordered that no conviction be recorded.

    Shortly afterwards I spoke to a lawyer friend of mine. I pointed out that the whole process was not about justice and truth or guilt or innocence. It was about winning and losing. He agreed with me.

  20. Lyn M: dropping the f-bomb since 1962 ... of death says

    This was inspiring to read. Anonymous Lawyer, way to go. You are kicking ass, indeed.

    I do worry that you seem to be working 24/7. I hope you fit some personal time in there or we may lose you far too early. Remember to feed your own psyche or you will have nothing left to put into the work. It’s a principal of triage and it applies to life quite aptly. If you are not strong and well, you can’t do your job. [Speaking as another prosecution side lawyer who had a heart attack, so do as I say not as I did.]

    <bitter sarcasm
    I was also struck by the athiest/rapist poll. It seems to me that it is further evidence of rape culture. The whole religion thing is far more important than what happens to "some chick". Rape is no big deal, is it?

    /bitter sarcasm.

  21. ginckgo says

    I think you are the embodiment of one of my values: No matter how much I may dislike another person’s beliefs, nobody deserves to suffer, especially not at the hands of another human being. We may not be able to always prevent it, but you have ensured that several people know that such behavior is not acceptable.

  22. michaelpowers says

    If I were accused of a crime I didn’t commit, I would no doubt prefer an atheist – someone who required proof before making a determination – as a prosecutor.

  23. John Morales says

    michaelpowers, personally, I would prefer someone with a history of competence and scrupulousness, regardless of their religious faith-status.

  24. zb24601 says

    Very touching. I know these horrible events occur, but it is good to hear about a case where the system works. One thing that comes to my mind is that the woman in this case may not have been the rapist’s first victim, but he will not be able to victimize more people as long as he is segregated from civil society. So, while the author’s skill at his job may have helped smooth the victim’s road to recovery somewhat, probably many more people will not need to embark on that journey to recovery. For all of that, I thank the author.

  25. says

    Great story! Got dust in my eye, as well.

    Standing up for victims of crime is one of the noblest things you can do, I believe. All too often the victims get victimized a second time by the criminal justice system itself. Prosecuting a case like this takes more than skill, it also takes heart. Sounds like PZ’s correspondent has both.

    Three cheers for the anonymous lawyer.