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Home » Can a Good Lawyer be a Good Person? by Ronald Sullivan at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Can a Good Lawyer be a Good Person? by Ronald Sullivan at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Ronald Sullivan at TEDxBeaconStreet

Ronald Sullivan – TRANSCRIPT

So, when I was a law student, I read an article by a law professor who’s now a friend and colleague. But the very first line of that article has stuck with me for 25 years. It’s haunted me, in fact. The first line is this: “Can a good lawyer be a good person?” I see everybody laughs, because you’re thinking, “No. A good lawyer cannot be a good person.” Most of the time, this question comes from this notion of, how can you defend the guilty? How can you defend someone whom you think has committed some sort of crime? I’m going to tell you about one of my clients.

I had a client charged with a serious assault. I should say, before I became a law professor, I was a public defender in Washington, DC. So many years ago, I defended a man who’s accused of an assault and the major witness against him was a guy – I’ll call him John – I won’t give his real name. John was a heroin addict. It was a very, very, very close case. In the end, I gave a closing that had something to do with reasonable doubt.

So, in the District of Columbia, the definition of reasonable doubt is this, “A reasonable doubt is a doubt upon which you can base a reason.” It’s the sort or doubt – they’re pretty slick there – reasonable doubt is a doubt upon which you can base a reason. It is the sort of doubt that makes you pause or hesitate in the greater, more meaningful aspects of life. The sort of doubt that makes you pause or hesitate in the greater, more meaningful aspects of life.

So, I said something like this, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, imagine that you’re having breakfast. You’re getting your kids ready for school, you pour some Cheerios and some milk, and little Johnny and little Sally are eating away. It’s like a normal day. Then you take them by the hand, you walk them to the bus stop like you do any other day. You walk outside, but something’s different. The bus is not there.

The normal bus driver is never late. You wait, you wait, you wait. Then all of a sudden you hear the sound of tires screaming around the corner, knocking over your neighbors’ garbage can, and it comes up to a screeching halt in front of your house. They open the door, and it’s not the normal bus driver. It’s John, the heroin addict.

You look in and you say, “Where’s the bus driver?”, and the new guy says, he starts scratching, and he says, “I don’t know, I don’t know, he’s off today, I’m driving the bus.” And you look in, and you say, “Sir, there’s a hypodermic needle in your arm, are you diabetic?” And he says, “No, no, I’m not diabetic, I’m on heroin, but, but, but you can trust me.”

Ladies and gentlemen, if you pause of hesitate in putting your child on that bus, you have reasonable doubt, and you have a solemn duty to acquit.” Now, I’ll tell you a little secret, trial lawyers never tell stories unless the result is that they won. So we got an acquittal in that case.

As the introducer said, over the course of my academic career, I’ve worked to free over 6,000 wrongly incarcerated people. I worked… I worked as a young lawyer very, very hard on that case. I thought about how to make the jury understand and remembered from my law school training something Oliver Wendell Holmes said. He said that the life of the law is not logic. It’s experience. “The life of the law is not logic, it’s experience.” That means that the language of the law is all about people and our common experiences, and I wanted the jury to understand why they had to realize that there was reasonable doubt, and I did this because I was 100% sure that my client was absolutely beyond the reasonable doubt guilty.

It’s what public defenders do. Often times, they defend people who may be factually culpable of the crime. I was pretty sure that that was the case, and that’s why I didn’t give names earlier. But why do we do this? Why do we do this? I’m thinking about a young man named Willie Stuckey. It’s a case I worked on two years ago.

A kid who was arrested when he was 15 years old. 29 years later, he and his co-defendant were exonerated. That was in New York, they arrested the wrong boys, they spent a long time, just shy of 30 years in jail. And finally, they were exonerated. Willie Stuckey never got to set foot though, outside of the jail prison.

He never did because he died in prison. He died at 34 of a heart attack. He was an actually innocent client. In order for the rights of all of us, the rights of the guilty and the innocent alike to be protected, we have to live in a system where we vigorously, vigorously defend the guilty. A lot of things happened wrong in Willie Stuckey’s case.

Prosecution didn’t turn over critical evidence. But one of the things I want to focus on now is his lawyer did absolutely nothing. We have to insist that we have a system where the lawyers, who get a bad rep, I recognize, where the lawyers do everything they can within the bounds and the contours of the law to ensure each and every person, regardless of means, regardless of whether they think they’re innocent of guilty, they have to do everything within their power to ensure that they have a fair trial. You see, when I think of Willie Stuckey and the 21 other people whom we exonerated in New York, who were actually guilty, it reminds me that justice doesn’t just fall out of the sky, you know “Justice. Oh, there it is,” and it happens. Justice doesn’t fall out of the sky.

Martin Luther King once said that the moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. I want to amend that a bit and say that the moral arc history is long, if people bend it toward justice, because justice is a thing that does not just fall out of the sky; justice is something that people do. Justice is something that people make happen. So, can a good lawyer be a good person? A good lawyer can and must be a good person because lawyers have to fight for justice, and fighting for justice sometimes even means fighting for those people whom they think are guilty.

Otherwise, there is nothing that would stop more and more innocent people being wrongly convicted. I want to end with this. We had a case in New York, where we looked at what seemed to be an open-and-shut case. There was a witness who testified that, “I saw the defendant and his group inside the vestibule of an apartment building. I saw the defendant pull a gun out, point-blank range, bum! And shoot the deceased. The deceased stumbled, walked down the stairs, fell down on his back, and regrettably, died.”

The police got there, there was a big hole in the chest. They took the interviews, they arrested the person accused, that person spent two decades in jail. They asked me to review the case. And it didn’t take an Harvard Law Professor to figure out that there was a big problem.

All I did was look at the autopsy. I looked at the autopsy report; you know the big hole that seemed consistent with somebody shooting them? That was an exit wound, my friends. There was a small hole in the back, that was an entry wound. There was also a bullet hole in the ankle. We took it to the medical examiner for the State of New York. They said two things, he said two things. One, that the person would have died instantly. Two, the ankle was broken, nobody was walking down any stairs and stumbling out like in a movie. It just wasn’t true, the way that it was described. Then I looked at the pictures.

Again, it doesn’t take a Harvard Law Professor to do this, there was no blood inside the building. The person wasn’t shot inside that building. So after more investigation, we figured out that the complaining witness was not being truthful. And after about 20 years, we exonerated that poor person. But I bet you this, I don’t know this for sure, but I bet you that individual’s lawyer probably thought it was an open-and-shut case.

He probably said, “This is a bad guy, this is a guilty guy. I’m going to just try this case with one hand tied behind my back.” An innocent soul spent two decades in jail because lawyers didn’t care enough. So I leave you with this, my friends. The law is not something that exists in the abstract. It is not some esoteric set of rules. The law is something that you and I create. The law is something that you and I must make real in the life experiences of our fellows. Then, and only then, can we have something that approximates justice. Thank you very much.

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