By Charles Carreon
March 22, 2015
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In my experience, a lawyer is often the first person to believe in the unpopular individual. I do not mean that only lawyers take up the cause of the unpopular, or that all lawyers do it. Quite the contrary – non-lawyers champion the weak and oppressed as a daily matter, and the majority of lawyers cannot be accused of that. But quite a few lawyers, especially those who represent the criminally accused, will know what I’m talking about. There’s a certain amount of social pressure that can come your way for representing someone “everyone knows” is guilty.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch, famously portrayed by Gregory Peck in the motion picture, is a lawyer appointed by the court to defend a black man who’s been falsely accused. The trial takes place in early 20th Century Alabama, so although Finch is able to save his client from lynching before trial, the man is unfairly convicted by an all-white jury, then killed in an “escape attempt.” Legal scholars have praised and questioned Finch as a role model. The Alabama State Bar erected a monument to honor the fictional hero, while an esteemed ethicist argued that Finch’s character did nothing to alter the historic balance of injustice against the freed slaves and their descendants. That may all be true – but as a lawyer who has sat in many a jail cell and heard many a sad tale there, I know what it is to be the only person who both cares about someone who needs help, and knows what to do to help him.
The Habit of Believing
The first thing you have to do to help someone is to believe in them. You may not believe what they are saying – after all, jails are full of liars – but you’ve got to believe in them. You’ve got to believe that they are human beings who made some mistakes, and got themselves in a pickle. Sometimes they’ve gotten themselves in really deep shit. But you’ve got to believe that they can get out of it, straighten up their lives, and get back into decent society. Otherwise, you really can’t help them. Really, why would you bother?
And like so many things that we repeat, believing in the worth of people can become a habit. You might want to not start, because I can attest that, eventually it becomes so strong that you start to believe that everyone has value. You even look at people who are destitute, whom you formerly have pitied because they seemed to have nothing, and you respect them for the dignity they are fighting to keep, for the self-respect that is as vital as warmth, food, and shelter. It’s really been one of the perks of the job, I might say, having served for six years as a Federal Public Defender, that it actually helped me to develop my respect for humanity.
Now I’m writing for this blog because I was immediately impressed by the work that my old friend Tom Forrest has taken up here. He’s taken it on with his usual blowtorch intensity, and that is actually sufficient to ignite my interest. And having been told many times that I’m crazy, I have an inherent sympathy for those who really are. I have the luxury of acting crazy, but actually, my mind serves me very well. When I saw the video that Tom was taking, it hit me right away. He was caring for someone, right on YouTube, someone who dwells in a completely different realm, and yet is totally human, totally worthy of care and respect.
No Crime Here
It’s not easy to help the mentally ill. I once met a total schizophrenic in jail, during the brief time period when I was prosecuting people in Jackson County, Oregon, a job I did for thirteen months and thirteen days. I remember how it happened. I had charged a fellow with Criminal Trespass in the Second Degree for repeatedly sleeping in the laundry room at the VA facility in White City. I had offered him a plea bargain on the usual carbon pink sheet, handwritten – plead guilty and walk out of jail today for time served. He hadn’t taken it. He was going to trial. The trial had to be set on an expedited basis, because otherwise he’d sit there for months. So I went over to the jail to see this guy, and find out what the hell was up. Well, what was up was that he was completely schizophrenic – I mean inhabiting a complete alternate reality. He had no more idea what was going on, why he was in jail, why he couldn’t sleep in the laundry room, than a caveman who had been teleported directly from a moonlit howling session into modern society.
When he came up for trial a couple of days later, it went kinda like this, with me playing the Prosecutor:
Judge White: Mr. Carreon, where do we stand with this case?
Prosecutor: Your Honor, I think this man needs to be in Two-North (courthouse code for the psych ward at Rogue Valley Medical Center).
Judge White: I don’t have any authority to do that. This isn’t a civil commitment proceeding.
Prosecutor: I understand your honor. And I can’t file a civil commitment proceeding.
Judge White: So how do you want to proceed?
Prosecutor: Well, I don’t think he has the mental capacity to know where he actually is, so I can’t really convict him of knowingly entering and remaining on the premises where he’s charged with trespassing.
Judge White: So you want to dismiss?
Prosecutor: Yes, your Honor.
Judge White: Case dismissed for lack of evidence. Sir, you are free to go. The court’s in recess.
This gentleman whose case was dismissed was a gentle soul, who did no one any harm. I didn’t know what to do for him, and I still don’t know what to do for the mentally ill.
What Can and Should We Do For the Mentally Ill?
For several months the crazy former defendant would drop by the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office and ask to talk to me. That was probably a first there at the office, and one that I wasn’t sure was entirely to my credit in the eyes of my fellow prosecutors. But it did give me a chance to get the drift of his crazy, something I’ve always been good at, since I figure everybody’s story is worth hearing, and there’s no one more transparently innocent than a man who believes in space aliens and thought waves. After going to Two North to check out the actual facility, I gave up on my idea to institutionalize him. Like caging a fox.
Indeed, I think Tom’s method of directly relating with the mentally ill, overcoming the wall that separates us from them, is probably the best first thing to do, once you have become infected with the caring bug. You may discover a fascinating thing, that I learned as a child sitting with the waitresses and customers in a Mexican restaurant my parents owned in the sixties, out on East Van Buren in Phoenix, Arizona. It was one of the neon outposts on Route 66 on the road to LA, and I tell you we got all kinds. And before a child’s un-prejudiced eyes, a truth unveiled. Everybody’s a little strange. They’ve all got their quirks. Sometimes those quirks get so big that the person becomes really weird, and past that line, you really can’t see – that’s real crazy. Hunter Thompson taught us that there are two types of crazy, good crazy and bad crazy. So it’s all scary. But if we care, we don’t turn away, and we reach out to the person and help them come back to our shared reality.
The Life You Save
One thing I do know is that our society has allocated very little for those lacking the razor-edged wits required to cut the mustard in the cold and competitive world of work. In this blog, I’m going to think about that fact, and share my thoughts, from a legal and a human perspective.
What occurs to me right off is that everybody gets sick. Some people’s bodies get sick, and some people’s minds get sick. We are humans because we care for those who are sick, and we stay human by caring. Tom wants to care, and to make his caring concrete. He wants to help people change their own lives. And that’s a two-way street. Like that old road sign used to say, “The life you save may be your own.”