The year of our Lord 2012 saw the passing of two gifted men, each of whom practiced their craft in the criminal law courts of Bexar County, Texas. This thanksgiving season, I reflected on my experience with each man. Each lifted the spirit of the room they occupied; each earnestly advocated his position with integrity, passion and a unique set of skills; each exemplified what an attorney should be. This thanksgiving season, I gave thanks for Jimmy Parks, Jr., and Charles "Chip" Rich, III. As I pondered about their lives, however, I received an unexpected gift . . . a different perspective on justice.
Much has been written and said about each man since their respective passing. Each life commendable; memory of each deserved. Though each worked in the same courthouse and the same area of law, their lives did not often intersect. They were not social friends, insofar as I know; nor did they attend the same church or share the same close friends. What they did share were remarkable, good qualities in their passion for law and justice; they were both outstanding attorneys; they both loved their children and families immensely; they both were strong in their faith; and they both carried the name of their respective fathers.
What stirs me, however, is not their similarities, but rather the crossroad that the proximity of their deaths has brought me to. As I have reflected on these men, I realize that it is not their qualities that have had the greatest impact on my life. Rather, what jumps out to me as an enlightening aspect of their existence and the proximity of their deaths is the juxtaposition of the spiritual force that guided them against the diametrically-opposing positions they each advocated. They each traveled down near-parallel tracks in our criminal justice system, consistently taking adversarial positions. The near-parallelism of their advocacy ostensibly was to arrive at a crossroad of justice. But now, after thinking more about their faith as it was applied in their careers, I began to wonder whether the crossroad of their lives and deaths is meant to steer me to see justice in a new light.
Jimmy Parks, Jr., was 61 years old when he passed away. As many have written and as I know personally, Jimmy was a warrior extraordinaire. He took the defense of citizens-accused to a form of art. Having fought alongside him in many battles and shared many conversations about life, I know the passion he held for constitutional principles of fairness, burden of proof and presumption of innocence. His very existence constantly called out for justice.
Charles "Chip" Rich, III, was 46 years old when he passed away. By all accounts, he too was a warrior extraordinaire. As a felony prosecutor in the District Attorney's office, he passionately and tirelessly argued on behalf of victims and against the ravages of crime. Having worked against him and listening to similar stories of others, it is clear that Chip held an unbreakable conviction for righteousness, fairness and the rule of law. Similar to Jimmy, Chip's very existence constantly called out for justice.
I attended the funeral services of each of these good men. I left comforted in knowing that each was a faithful man, passionately devoted to living the word of God. They each gave of themselves outside of law, living out the type of life God desires of us. As Christian lawyers, they must have pondered the meaning and breadth of chapters 61 and 56 of the Book of Isaiah, where scripture teaches that God "loves justice" and we are to "maintain justice and do what is right." How did they respond? How do we all respond in the way we "pursue" justice?
After Chip's funeral, it stirred within me the juxtaposition of two devoted followers of Christ choosing diametrically-opposed tracks to search for justice.Of course, all trial lawyers know that our judicial system is built on two opposing sides vigorously advocating and defending their respective position. We are taught to conclude that such a clash of forces births justice. In zealously advocating his position, it's reasonable that Jimmy and Chip each believed they were fulfilling his role in God's will. Heck, we all do. But is it reasonable to conclude that justice is borne through such a system? Should we leave the dying of these men with the simplistic notion that two solid warriors for justice now will rest, and life in our criminal justice system will ramble on as before? Or can the duality of their lives and deaths cause us to re-think our notion of justice and advocacy? That is, is it enough for opposing lawyers to continue to travel parallel tracks separated by a chasm, fiercely advocate for their respective positions and trust that "justice" is the inevitable destination? If so, how do we rationalize the seeming dichotomy of attorneys such as Jimmy and Chip who are devoted followers pursuing the same Biblical "justice"? Is this continued parallelism the best route to "do right" under the law?
I'm not so sure. Probably a bit crazy, but I'm unwilling to dismiss the proximity of the passing of these opposing warriors as happenstance. The duality of their deaths has led me to consider the possibility of a different way. The crossroad where the spirit of these two devoted followers and adversaries met encourages me to envision a new path. A path where the spirit of justice that each man embodied can live as one. I'm led to envision a place where me and all of us could actually become the embodiment of one spirit of justice where one can zealously advocate for a client, yet still understand, empathize and wrap herself within the spirit of the other's position.
I sat as a prospective juror in a jury selection a couple of months ago, and watched and listened as two opposing lawyers attempted to drive toward justice. The prosecutor carefully and meticulously worked to diminish the level of proof required to reach "proof beyond a reasonable doubt". Despite this standard's position as the highest burden of proof in our land, if not the world, "reasonable doubt" was cut to shreds. By the time it was over, any citizen-juror who lacked experience in the law was left to conclude that some degree of doubt was the inevitable result in any presentation of evidence, and that it would be absurd to think no one could be convicted in the presence of such doubt. In his explanation, the prosecutor made no distinction between "reasonable" and "unreasonable" doubt; rather, he suggested that elimination of all "doubt" is impossible. Interestingly (and in my opinion, tragically), the "defense" attorney sat silent. The prosecutor then asserted that we were there as jurors to ultimately decide if the defendant was guilty or "innocent" (which, of course, is a wrong statement of the law). Again, the defense attorney sat silent. As a former prosecutor, I wondered why this prosecutor felt it necessary to minimize his burden of proof and cut against what clearly our forefathers felt was necessary to protect against injustice. Why not embrace the spirit of justice that is the foundation for this standard of proof, and confidently assert his proof is more than sufficient to prove guilt?
I wondered whether the "win" we all pursue becomes more important than the principles on which our country was built; the principles on which our Bible was written. Principles such as that found in Genesis 18 and Exodus 23 where the system of law prioritized the protection of the innocent from punishment; the same principle later reinforced by our forefathers John Adams ("it is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished") and Benjamin Franklin ("it is better 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer") and recognized by our nation's Supreme Court as a principle inherent in our Constitution. It would be good if my experience in jury selection was unusual, but unfortunately I've seen an antagonistic, adversarial approach many times before. We hear prosecutors and defense attorneys sarcastically and derogatorily referring to the other as a member of "the dark side," even though both faithfully seek light and understanding from the same Bible and worship the same God. An attitude of antagonism, distrust and opposition too often pervades their dealings and affects their arguments in court. All too often opposing attorneys travel down the same parallel tracks toward a perceived goal of justice, separated by a chasm void of understanding or empathy.
But today, the juxtaposition of the deaths of my friend Jimmy and the honorable Chip, their faith, and their passion for justice is too much to overlook. I believe the crossroad where their spirits met this year is a place I should seek - - a place where we all should live in our advocacy. I want to continue to examine their lives and work and passion and faith in the conjunction, and know that it has a lesson for me. A lesson about advocacy; about life; and about Biblical and American justice. A lesson that life in our criminal justice system should not just ramble on as before.