People frequently ask me what kind of law I practice. The answer I give is "the kind that walks through the door."
I'm not really trying to be funny. It's the truth. If you own your own law firm in a small town, you pretty much have to do a little bit of everything.
I also am often asked what my specialty is. I don't have one, though. Big city lawyers often do, but if you try to specialize in a small town like this, you're going to go hungry. Most attorneys who practice in south Arkansas are like this. We have to be.
But between my private practice and being a part time Deputy Public Defender for the State of Arkansas (that's mostly over the river in Bradley County, and I also do it for Crossett District Court), I probably do more criminal defense than anything else. I do and have practiced in many areas of law, and criminal defense is my favorite.
Saying that has gotten me some weird looks from folk.
The truth is, lots of people hate criminal defense attorneys. They think we live to keep bad guys from facing justice. The believe us to be amoral monsters. I have been on the receiving end of a bit of that. And I understand why people feel that way.
From a certain angle, I can see how it must look that way, but the reality is quite different.
Our job is not to help the guilty escape justice; it is to ensure justice. Our job, first and foremost, is to defend the innocent. And I'm here to tell you, Faithful Reader, that is a necessity.
Despite what many people, perhaps even you, think, if you are accused of a crime you did not commit, your innocence will not protect you. Innocent people are charged with crimes more than you think. Innocent people are convicted more than you think. Innocent people are sentenced to jail and prison more than you think.
And yes, innocent people are executed more than you think. If you don't believe me, check out the work of The Innocence Project, an organization whose work is to exonerate innocent people awaiting execution on death row. They have done plenty of that, because there are more innocent people on death row than you think.
But they don't get to all of them in time.
When I was sworn in as an attorney, I took an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States of America as well as the Arkansas Constitution. I take that oath seriously, and in few places do I carry out that duty more than in my criminal defense work. If you read the Bill of Rights, you will find that much of it was written to protect those accused of a crime. Criminal defense attorneys are there to make sure that the government plays by its own rules and that the Constitutional rights of the accused remain intact. We are the ones who keep watch. This is true even, perhaps especially, when our clients are guilty.
If you don't like that or don't believe it's necessary, well, I hear North Korea is lovely this time of year.
But there is more to it even than that. Doing criminal defense work has taught me something that I did not see coming when I started years ago.
Being a criminal defense attorney, I have defended people who have done some pretty terrible things. And one of the things that has taught me is that each and every one of us, whether or not we have ever been convicted of a crime, is much, much, much more than the worst thing we have ever done, whatever that thing is. That thing does not define us as human beings, even when society insists to the contrary.
I had a client once who wound up going to prison for something they did which was quite atrocious. I would go to see them in jail periodically as their case progressed, and as much as we would discuss the case, we would also talk about redemption, human frailty and the totality of the human person. This person really, really wanted me to see that they were more than the thing they had done, and I assured them, more than once, that I saw it.
Because I did.
Many people, in my experience, view a criminal conviction as a loss of fundamental dignity or even humanity. Being a criminal defense attorney has shown me another way. It has taught me to see with eyes of mercy.
And by mercy, I don't just mean clemency for one who has done wrong. Mercy is that, but it is so much more than that. Mercy is acknowledging and loving the human person who did the wrong rather than seeing them solely as the wrong thing that they did, even in the face of the justice they may rightly receive.
And even beyond the scope of what one finds as a criminal defense attorney, I have come to understand the truly wide breadth of what mercy really is. Mercy is mending what is broken, as much as that may be done with the world as it is. It is healing a wound or tending a need. Mercy is offering love to one who needs it. Mercy is balm for suffering and misery, however we may administer it.
Because I've learned this, it may be that my favorite of the Beatitudes has become "Blessed are the merciful. Mercy shall be theirs."
Read that with an eye to everything I've written here about the nature of mercy. Those words will likely grow much deeper for you than they were before.
Let us then strive to be merciful, and hope that mercy shall be ours.
In the end, because the world we inhabit is as it is, mercy is the only hope we have.
Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]