By Carmelene Melanie Siani
For a little over ten years, over two episodes of employment, I worked for a criminal defense attorney in Tucson.
I came to him fresh from knowing all about criminal defense and what it was like. After all, like millions of other Americans, I had watched Perry Mason, hadn’t I? Of course, my young (arrogant) mind was opened when I realized that in fact, I didn’t know a thing about criminal defense—or what criminal defense attorneys actually did.
I remember clearly the day soon after I’d gotten the job when I sat with my shorthand pad on my knee, taking down B’s dictation and chatting with him in between letters about this case or the other. “But, B,” I asked, “how can you defend so and so if you know he did it? How can you defend someone if you know they are guilty? You ask them first don’t you, and then decide?”
I worked for B for seven years the first time, then—after a 25 year hiatus, when he and I were both thinking of retiring—I went back and worked for him for another four years. It was during that second stint, while B was gone on vacation and I was cleaning and straightening out the office, that I came across a small, black leather box on the bottom of one of the book shelves.
Inside the box, was an award.
“We hereby award this…. for Defending the Defenseless…”
My immediate reaction was that the award should have been on the wall, not on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. Thinking however, that B must not have wanted to give it such a public venue, which was why it was still in its box on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, I quietly folded the gold-leafed paper, put it back in the box, and returned it to its place among the books. Strangely enough, I had vividly remembered the case that the award had mentioned, as I had worked for B throughout that entire case.
I remembered how B had been excoriated in the press, how there would be ugly letters in the mail, how I would answer the phone only to hear somebody threaten me with something vile having to do with some kind of body part. I remembered thinking to myself that it was that exact case that caused me to feel so proud of working for B and how it taught me about integrity and about commitment and how that was what criminal defense work really was.
See, that day early on when I had asked B whether he had to know if someone was guilty or not, he’d told me one simple thing in response that I have never forgotten.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether people are guilty or not, Mel,” he said, calling me by the nickname he always used for me. “I don’t defend people. I defend their Constitutional rights.”
I had to stop and let that sink in. “That means, you’d even defend me?” I finally joked to cover a plain fact that I really and truly should have realized on my own. He laughed and said with that incredibly quick mind of his, “No, Mel. That means I’m already, always defending you.”
So, you know those guys in Charlottesville? The ones with the torches and the swastikas and the automatic weapons, one of whom might be charged with murder? The ones who walked down the street shouting horrible things about Jews? You know. Those guys.
Well, B would be one of the first ones to say that they deserve a defense—not only a defense, but the best defense. And because he was an attorney who defended the defenseless, if it worked out that way—that is, if he were still here and still walking those courtroom floors in front of all those juries—he’d represent them.
I bet they’d be glad to have him.
Even though he was a Jew.
The truth is, those guys in Charlottesville owe the fact that they could demonstrate there in the first place to a lot of lawyers—including Jewish lawyers like B who, since our Constitution’s inception, have been doing what B did…
Defending the defenseless.
Editor: Dana Gornall