Tales from the Courthouse: Learning lessons from the families of murder and rape victims

Growing up in the church, the elders used to always speak about the importance of having an “umble” (humble) spirit. Years later, when I was pledging Kappa Alpha Psi, “humility” was an attribute that I was often strenuously reminded to have in my interactions with the Brothers.

Those who know me well can attest that while I am confident about my talents and skills, that I am a humble man, a humility that has helped me to interact well with the families of victims in criminal and civil cases.

As of yesterday, I have tried 154 criminal cases in my 19 year career. But among these, as the title of Florida’s Capital Punishment seminar suggests, “Death is Different.”

Indeed, as a defense lawyer, when your client is charged with heinous offenses like rape, armed robbery, aggravated battery, kidnapping and the like, trial days or weeks can be stressful because whether in the courtroom, corridors or cafeteria, you WILL run into the victim or their families during breaks in the proceedings; it is simply inevitable. Some victims and their families, still quite angry, raw or fearful of your client, will glare at you, as defense counsel, for representing someone who has turned their lives upside down. Such animosity, truly, is understandable…

But with death being different, when you represent a person accused of manslaughter or murder, the interactions can become all the more intense. Two years ago, when I represented Casey Cason in a first degree murder case in Live Oak, Florida before an all white jury, one where Casey, who is black, was accused of murdering her white best friend, I slept with my then brand new .40 caliber handgun next to me the entire week because of death threats.

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When the jury rendered a not guilty verdict in the Cason case, fearing violence due to the death threats and racial stratification that had one side of the courtroom filled with white supporters of the victim’s family, while the other side, shown below behind me in the selfie, filled with black family members and supporters of Cason, the sheriff had dozens of deputies surround the courthouse and assigned deputies to escort me and my staff to the county line.

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While that was one extreme, being a humble man, the reverse is that I have had a number of instances in which the fathers of rape or murder victims actually thanked me for not denigrating the memory or character of their loved one.

In 2009, Dr. Irv Hoffman, father of TPD informant Rachel Hoffman, 24, a young woman killed in a drug deal gone bad, grabbed me in a bear during the nearly two full days that the jury deliberated over the fate of my client, Deneilo Bradshaw, who was facing death row.

(Deneilo Bradshaw, left, during his capital murder trial and Dr. Irv Hoffman, right, with his daughter Rachel the year before her death. Bradshaw was convicted and sentenced to life as opposed to a death sentence).

While complimenting me for my advocacy, Hoffman thanked me for not being a “pompous jerk” during the three-week trial; I told him that as a new father myself, that I could not begin to imagine what it is like to lose a child in this fashion. Then, as Dr. Hoffman sobbed for what seemed like an eternity, we embraced–defense lawyer/father and father of a deceased child–totally oblivious to the optics of conventional wisdom that would suggest that we should be enemies.

Along those same lines, a similar event happened yesterday during the nearly seven hours of waiting for a jury to render a verdict in a double DUI manslaughter trial near Tampa, as two family members of the two deceased victims expressed how they understood that I had a job to do, but that they harbored no ill will towards my client. They expressed how a tragic accident like this could happen to anyone and that if he was found guilty, which he ultimately was, that they hope that his sentence, which has yet to be handed down, is not too harsh. I was pleased that the family felt comfortable enough to approach me as I stood in the hallway nervously peeling an orange anxious to learn the result.

Whatever the ultimate outcome is, I do know that being humble not only has helped me in the past, but it continues to help me in interactions in court by allowing me to learn about grace, mercy and forgiveness from families who have every right under the sun to be bitter about their loved ones deaths.