Monday, July 28, 2008

The Suicide "Solution"

Once, back when I was a public defender, a client told me she was close to killing herself. We stayed and called around, finding her a counselor who was very helpful and who agreed to meet with her later that day. I felt lucky because, although there was nothing more important than finding her someone to talk with, who would hopefully talk her out of it, I really didn't know what to do. Like a lot of other things, they didn't teach me how to handle the suicidal client in law school.

Then, during the middle of a trial on termination of parental rights, a different client told me that if her rights were terminated she planned on killing herself. Hearing this, I obviously tried very hard to win, but also took the threat as an indication that her parenting abilities, and addiction issues, still needed some work.

Thankfully, neither of these young women followed through on their threats, but I don't want to ever get complacent about hearing threats like these again, as it's difficult to know what's a cry for help and what's a prediction about what will happen next.

I'm concerned about the coming economic hard times and the effect they'll have on my clients especially. Many of these "indigent" people exist on the edge of disaster anyway, and economic hardships will likely trickle down on them the hardest.

I wonder, as I look back and see how many of my first clients are now dead, how many more will endure further disasters as the economy tumbles.

Along these lines,
Barbara Ehrenreich writes in the HuffPo about "The Suicide Solution:"

Suicide is becoming an increasingly popular response to debt. James Scurlock's brilliant documentary, Maxed Out, features the families of two college students who killed themselves after being overwhelmed by credit card debt. "All the people we talked to had considered suicide at least once," Scurlock told a gathering of the National Assocition of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in 2007. According to the Los Angeles Times, lawyers in the audience backed him up, "describing clients who showed up at their offices with cyanide, or threatened, 'If you don't help me, I've got a gun in my car.'..."

Offering a much better solution, she writes later:

The alternative is to value yourself more than any amount of money and turn the guns, metaphorically speaking, [Note the word, "metaphor," Rebecca!] in the other direction. It wasn't God, or some abstract economic climate change, that caused the credit crisis. Actual humans -- often masked as financial institutions -- did that, (and you can find a convenient list of names in Nomi Prins's article in the current issue of Mother Jones.) Most of them, except for a tiny few facing trials, are still high rollers, fattening themselves on the blood and tears of ordinary debtors. I know it's so 1930s, but may I suggest a march on Wall Street?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Falling Back on Old Advice

When I was in grad school, in Coventry England, I one day became upset at the debate taking place in a class. My undergraduate degree emphasized creative writing and I’d written a fair amount of poetry along the way. These feeble attempts to emulate the great writers gave me an immense respect for their accomplishments, the way even a weekend golfer respects Tiger Woods more than a spectator who’s never lined up a putt and seen it break the other way.

The professor and the students tore up the writer’s work and concluded that it was essentially worthless and this struck me as similar to spectators laughing at the last place golfer. Sure, he didn’t make the cut, but at least he was swinging one type of club instead of sitting in the other. These critics seemed to only talk about art without ever attempting it, ridiculing rather than risking, sitting at a safe distance intellectually critiquing those who tried to write artistically.

So I wrote my poetry teacher back in Nebraska, lamenting the way these critics in this beautiful university subjected “lit to crit” and seemingly dissected the artist currently on the table the way a science class cut into a formaldehyde dipped frog, tearing up the beautiful but imperfect miracle and simply tossing it aside when their own purpose was served.

So I was mad, and homesick, and probably feeling inferior to these better-educated British students. I told my favorite professor how frustrating it was to see these supposed superior scholars who’d likely never written a line of good poetry mock those who at least attempted this, sometimes sacrificing much along the way.

I’m sure my anger was apparent in my letter home, and to a long-term poet like this man, probably the hurt behind the anger as well. I’ll never forget the simple lines the poet wrote back to me:

“Subjecting lit to crit in unreasonable but human.”

Then he told me about what was new with the people we knew and with the Platte River we both love.

That’s “all” he said but it was enough for me to remember all these years in between and to still remain in my mind twenty years later.

Here’s how I took what he said:

You’re in England studying at a great University. Why are you wasting time with anger over what a few flawed human beings are saying about artists?
Why are you missing the beauty around you and the wonderful opportunity you have and being ruled by anger?
Haven’t I taught you that you can “float your sweet silver voice” over those people’s heads if you focus on the perfections of this world rather than on people’s natural temporary imperfections, which you have as well?
He of course didn’t literally say anything like this but simply pushed all my judgment off to the side and refocused me away from those who made me angry toward that which could make me laugh, learn and appreciate the opportunity that a wonderful university and an artist’s eye could give me.

I’m reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and today read about the author studying in England and one day watching a likely schizophrenic riding the subway who was having an angry conversation with herself. He followed her off the subway as she continued to talk to herself, angrily, and then lost her as she stumbled into his University building, ironically the location of the Mind Police in the film version of Orwell’s 1984.

Once inside, he stopped at the men’s room and, while washing his hands, “thought” to himself “what a strange woman. I’m glad I’m not like her.” Noticing that the man beside him looked in his direction, he realized he’d not only thought this but said it out loud to himself.

This made him realize that not only was he a lot more like her than he realized, with a wandering, anger-based mind, but that his ego was trying to diminish this similarity by focusing his mind on the subtle differences rather than on the striking similarities. He of course, wasn’t labelled “mad,” as the woman likely was, but the only difference was that, at least until that point, his thoughts had been contained in his head while hers were blurted out randomly.

His thoughts were likely just as angry and random as hers but he hadn’t realized it until someone looked suspiciously and judgmentally at him the way he’d looked at her.

As he describes this:

“Oh my god,I’m already like her,” I thought. Wasn’t my mind as incessantly active as hers. There were only minor differences between us. The predominant underlying emotion behind her thinking seemed to be anger. In my case, it was mostly anxiety. She thought out loud. I thought- mostly- in my head. If she was mad, then everyone was mad, including myself. There were differences in degree only.

For a moment, I was able to stand back from my own mind and see it from a deeper perspective.”

That’s what I was able to do when my teacher in effect told me to get over my anger and my overly-critical professors and try to start seeing the world as even a feeble artist does once again, to move from thinking about the world to feeling it again, to let go of anger and experience joy, to laugh in the moment instead of judge from a distance.

I learned a lot in grad school and was very lucky to have that experience. But I’ll never forget the way Don Welch taught me to focus on the beauty and potential before me rather than on the tempting distractions which will always be present. While they can make you angry, they’re also forgiveable, entirely human, and themselves a source of inspiration, if only you learn to look in the right way.

It’s easy to be angry, especially when you’re a lawyer and constantly fighting with someone for someone else. But I’ve found that while the day to day work of being a lawyer can make me angry, when I let it get the best of me I’m at my worst as a lawyer and my most miserable as a person.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Psychodrama and Spence

Just got back from a week's vacation in the Black Hills which was an amazing experience to connect with that land and reconnect with the family. We toured Wind Cave, saw Mount Rushmore and spent a lot of time talking in the car. Of course there were other not so close moments, like the time when I spoke up and turned around to see everyone else oblivious, ipods on in their own worlds. Then there was the time at Evans Plunge when I, lounging by the pool, decided to pull out a file and prep for a case. When a teenage kid did a cannonball that soaked my file, and myself, I was mad for just a moment until I realized that the site of a lawyer trying to both lie in the sun and read a file were probably the epitome of an "attractive nuisance," I let it go and laughed wondering if I would have done the same thing at that age.

I suggested this location after attending a psychodrama workshop outside of Rapid City in the early Spring. It was close to Harney Peak, the place where Black Elk had his vision, at the age of nine, that was described to John Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks. Charlie Abourezk, the lawyer and documentary filmmaker, located the site which is close to his home in Rapid City and located on what still appears as sacred ground. Psychodrama is about exploring "innerspace" and is difficult to describe but amazing to experience.

I've found one of the best explanations of the magic of psychodrama comes from Joseph Campbell who wrote described the following "pedagogical stunt:" (Diagram here)

Plato has said somewhere that the soul is a circle. I took this idea to suggest on the blackboard the whole sphere of the psyche. Then I drew a horizontal line across the circle to represent the line of separation of the conscious and the unconscious. The dot in the center of the circle, below the horizontal line, represents the center from which all our energy comes… Above the horizontal line is the ego, which I represented as a square: that aspect of our consciousness that we identify as our center. But, you see, it’s very much off center. We think that this is what’s running the show, but it isn’t”

Psychodrama teaches us that what's below the line is running the show, although we rarely see this. It's been described as "cleaning out our psychic closets," which is another way of saying that it reveals to us the fact that what's below the line between conscious and unconscious is often driving us, even when we deny it's effect.

But every time I try to describe psychodrama, I end up getting strange looks. When I described this at the workshop, John Nolte, who sees more than anyone I've met, described writing or talking about psychodrama to describing what an apple tastes like. In other words, words won't do the experience justice. A thousand words couldn't describe what it's like to experience the "live event."

Gerry Spence devotes a chapter to his book "Win Your Case" to psychodrama, and discusses how the courtroom can be like a psychodrama on his new blog, but I still think there's no substitute for biting into that apple yourself rather than reading about it.

It's great to see Mr. Spence writing a blog and I hope he keeps it up better than I have these last few months. I remember picking up an audiobook at the library called "How to Argue and Win Everytime" and listening to it while I jogged in the country shortly after my now 14 year old daughter was born.

I'd picked up several audiobooks in the past but this was the first one in which the author read his own book. (Eckhart Tolle and Daniel Gilbert later read their own) Hearing the author not only read his own material but sound like he believed in it strongly made the material all the more persuasive.

I later bought the hardcover and, after a few reads, finally decided that law school, and representing real people, was a new goal and a distant dream, at least at that time. I especially love the chapter on "Arguing in the Love Relationship" and have thought of it often as I deal with my own family.

Check out his blog. I've been moved and influenced greatly by his books, his trial lawyer's college, and his belief in the power of psychodrama. I love the way he's thinks not only of locks, but of keys, of not only events but of thinking of these events as "gifts," a subtle shift that changes the mindset and becomes, to paraphrase Twain, like the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Crime Lab Chief Exonerated By One Question

I wrote previously about the Douglas County Crime lab chief who found blood matching a defendant's DNA in a car belonging to the murder victim. As I wrote then,

Case closed, right? How is the defense lawyer going to demonstrate that the DNA isn't the smoking gun, in other words?

The only problem for Commander Kofoed was that shortly thereafter, two Wisconsin teens were arrested for the murder and a large amount of DNA evidence was once again found in their vehicle

As I said before, the stunning part of the investigation involved this description of Kofoed's explanation regarding the blood:

Kofoed could not be reached for comment Tuesday but has said previously that the microscopic amount of blood found in the Sampson car argued against the cousins being involved. Had they played a role in the slayings, he said, there would have been much more physical evidence in the car.

In past interviews, Kofoed said he searched Sampson's car a second time on his own initiative because the other outside law enforcement officials insisted it was the getaway vehicle, even though his lab's initial forensics probe indicated otherwise.

Let's go over that again:
(1) The prosecutors and the police develop a theory that the dead couple were killed by a relative and arrest two, slow-witted cousins.
(2) After initial crime lab tech find no evidence to substantiate this theory, the Crime Lab Chief is brought in for a new search.
(3) Amazingly, a drop of blood matching the suspect is found in the car.
(4) Other people are later implicated in the crime and DNA evidence ties them to it.
(5) The Crime Lab Chief then claims that the relatively small amount of DNA found by him actually is exculpatory and likely the result of an officer's inadvertent contamination.

I'm sure that's what he would have said if the later arrests weren't made, don't you think?

Right before a busy holiday weekend, the results of a polygraph are revealed and the Crime Lab Chief is cleared of wrongdoing:
As the World Herald describes it:

The commander of the Douglas County crime lab has been cleared of wrongdoing in connection with a murder investigation near Murdock, Neb.

David Kofoed will return to work Monday, said Marty Bilek, chief deputy sheriff. He was placed on paid suspension June 10.

Kofoed voluntarily submitted to a polygraph examination Wednesday. Sheriff's investigators John Pankonin and Brenda Wheeler reviewed Kofoed's responses and determined that he was truthful in his answers, Bilek said today.

Kofoed was asked if he planted any blood evidence in the investigation of the killings of Wayne and Sharmon Stock and if he knew of anyone who did.

In both instances, Kofoed said "no." The polygraph results were reviewed by two examiners to determine their reliability, Bilek said.

"I have had the utmost respect for David Kofoed in the past, and nothing in this investigation leads me to change that view," Sheriff Tim Dunning said. "The polygrapher confirmed that all responses were truthful."

Sounds like an objective evaluation by an independent investigator, doesn't it?