Monday, September 28, 2009

On Not Going to the Synagogue

This is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Jews, even those who are not the least observant, tend to mark this day. They will fast. They will go to the synagogue. Yom Kippur is, I was taught growing up, the holiest day of the year. That seems apt, especially for people like me - by which I don't mean Jews, I mean criminal defense lawyers.

We're neither Perry Mason nor Matlock. (Well, Matlock is Matlock, but, as Lee Marvin said in an altogether different context, that's an accident of birth.*) We rarely represent the innocent and don't much want to. We see the underside of much, deal routinely with the ugly. Our clients, many of them, have done unspeakable things, yet we speak about them.

We spend hours with drunk drivers and bank robbers, with gang bangers and just thugs, with burglars and rapists and child molesters and killers and with kids who just didn't know what they were doing. And with the seriously mentally ill. And we see in them, in the worst of them, some spark, some point of contact.

Some are truly remorseful for what they've done, but it will happen again anyway. Some have no remorse. Some just don't remember. And for some, maybe a lot, the event was an aberration, a one-time thing; it will never happen again, but the cost is overwhelming.

There is much to mourn, and we do. There is much to stress over, and we do. There is much to explain and account for, and we try. And there is much for which our clients should atone. And sometimes they do.

Atonement is something akin to remorse, which is akin to regret, but it is more. For atonement involves trying to make amends. It involves apology but also some sort of restitution, and effort to repay the loss, correct the harm.

We urge that on clients in an effort to temper a too-often unforgiving justice system, an Old Testament system overseen by a frequently vengeful judge who demands sacrifice as payback and proof of fealty. Yet even in a New Testament world of forgiveness and mercy, atonement counts. As it should.

For our clients, and for the rest of us, too.

I do not fast today. I do not spend the day in the synagogue. I do not practice the faith of my parents or any other. The Day of Atonement is for me a day of work. But that work is, at some level at least, about atonement.

*One of the great lines in filmdom.

In The Professionals, a Western directed by Richard Brooks, Lee Marvin as Rico Fardan has been hired to lead a band into Mexico to retrieve Maria (Claudia Cardinale), the kidnapped wife of J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy), from the revolutionary Jesus Raza (Jack Palance). When they return to Grant with Maria and the injured Raza in tow, they learn that Raza and Maria are lovers and that Grant bought Maria but she had escaped and made her way back to Raza. Marvin and his men refuse to kill Raza and refuse to turn Maria over to Grant. Which leads to this exchange:
Grant: You bastard. [Which was daring film language in 1966.]

Fardan: Yes, sir, in my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you are a self-made man.

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