We’re standing on the 26th floor of the Brown & Williamson Tower in downtown Louisville, two floors above the suite accessible only to the real lawyers and then only with a kind of credit-card key.
Donald Vish, death-penalty abolitionist and professor of Law & Literature at Brandeis, is pointing out the tobacco-leaf motif in the carpeting and the silver sconces on the wall. “They told us these were sterling silver and we said we were glad to hear that,” Vish laughed and ran his hand along the dull finish, “because we wouldn’t have accepted anything less.” It is his way of telling us this is all window-dressing and that we are here for a purpose that transcends the trappings of success.
We are a half-dozen law students with not a day of Criminal Law under our belts, far removed from any circumstance in which another’s liberty – much less his life – would be entrusted to us. We are distracted by the imminent release of first-semester grades, too timid to touch the pretzels and cashews arranged for our benefit and vaguely concerned that the soles of our shoes might leave imprints on the tobacco leaves. But a man who asks for volunteers takes what he gets, and we are what he has got.
Brandeis students are required to complete a minimum 30 hours of public service and we have volunteered to spend a portion of Christmas break crafting an amicus brief urging the state’s highest court to reconsider the death penalty.
You need not be an abolitionist to be an acolyte in the Vish cause. My own stance undergoes scrutiny from time to time. But, having come closer than comfort allowed to being drafted to witness the last electrocution the state of Kentucky carried out, I have an interest in dissecting the rationale underlying what seems to me a primitive practice. Too much is left to officeholders whose fates rise and fall on the shifting tide of public opinion and Bible-Belt juries empanelled by virtue of a willingness to dispense frontier justice, as long as they are safely removed from the distasteful mechanics of it. I know why people embrace it in theory, but I still say capital punishment in practice is a gruesome lottery nobody really wins.
In any case, we finished the work and, while I’m reasonably certain the experience will prove to have been of greater benefit to us than to our generous taskmaster, I’m richer for having had the experience. Vish has achieved that mark to which all great educators aspire, striking that tenuous balance between destroying the spirit and inflating the ego, leading the student to believe success is not within his grasp but is dangling just beyond.
I spent much of the remainder of my break reading, not in the indulgent way I typically read, but with urgency of one who is allowed candy for a fleeting moment and can’t choose between the coconut macaroon and the caramel chew and so swallows both of them whole. A law student on break has a dwindling account of hours and his choice of how to spend them suddenly takes on great import. I spent three of mine of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.That’s when I wasn’t napping, and I napped a lot.
The day before classes resume, I am still half-asleep, having been stirred awake on the sofa to the TV blaring an advertisement for a personal-injury law firm, the one where the blond attorney morphs into a raging tiger and bares her claws at the uncooperative insurance executive.
Perhaps all this conflicting exposure to crime and punishment and the wildly divergent approaches to the practice of law will acquire more clarity tomorrow when that Criminal Law class convenes for the first time. If our syllabus can be trusted, the first two cases up for discussion involve shipwrecked cannibals and the social value of confining sexual predators not for what they have done, but for what they are virtually certain to do.
I’m frequently reminded of a moment last fall when a classmate of mine sent his attorney brother a text message grousing about the inhumane pace of it all. His brother dispatched a reply containing just two words: