Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Evil of Magnanimity

   Johnny* was the first guy I knew who owned a Porsche. It was the mid 1980's and Johnny was a lawyer for a plaintiff's law firm I was working for as a "gopher" (as in "go-fer"). It was the zenith of personal injury work in Texas, before tort reform, and the firm was one of the most successful in Houston. Johnny had graduated recently from my law school and was a academic and advocacy program star there. I wanted to be Johnny. And I wanted Johnny's bad ass Porsche.

   A few short years later, Johnny was dead of a self inflicted gun shot wound.

   Johnny was on my mind when I read Steve McVicker's recent story in the Houston Press about Donald Davis, a passionate, respected Houston criminal defense lawyer who took his life in the middle of the trial of a capital murder case he was helping to defend.
[Davis] was different from many other high-profile attorneys who specialize in capital murder cases; he didn't mind getting his hands dirty in the trenches. Unlike attorneys who are rarely seen except when they take center stage for high-profile cases, Davis had a nuts-and-bolts practice that kept him at the courthouse every day. He worked as tirelessly on a simple drug-possession case as he did a headline-generating murder trial.
   The wildly successful podcast Serial  devoted episode ten to Cristina Gutierrez, who defended the young man the subject of the series, Adnan Syed. Gutierrez was disbarred a year after the conclusion of Syed's trial for matters unrelated to him. Three years later she was dead of a heart attack. Her obituary from the Baltimore Sun contained the following paean to her:
Baltimore Circuit Judge Clifton J. Gordy said that when Ms. Gutierrez was practicing, she would have been the first defense lawyer he would have called if he were charged with a serious crime. 'And that's the biggest compliment one lawyer can give another.'
   These trinity of lawyers were different in demise, but common in cause. For all of you who argue Davis and Gutierrez's failures came while enjoying the trappings of success provided at the expense of others, I get it. The complete truth is, like most things in a textured and nuanced life, it is just not that simple. Complex people bring complex plights. Each was magnanimous to a profession that often shows no magnanimity in return. They lost in differing degrees a sense of themselves to the demons each wrestled.

   Many professions offer examples of stars who burned bright, and then out. I fear Davis and Gutierrez will be remembered not for the passion they brought to criminal defense, but, instead, their failures. As a society we exalt the generous, but generosity's dark cousin, pride, can take as easily as it gives.

   Johnny gave back to our law school in many ways. For example, he came back often to help out with mock trial. Once he had to listen to a particularly poor cross examination I did. His advice? "Cross on facts, argue what they mean on close." Trial Lawyer 101. Something they do not teach enough in law school. Advice I still remember and follow 30 some odd years later.

   Thanks, Johnny.

*Not his real name.

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