On February 1, Word Journeys client Richard S. Jaffe celebrated the national release of his first book, Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned (New Horizon Press).This book culminated 2 ½ years of organizing, writing, revising, re-writing and editing by Richard and me, one of the most meaningful projects with which I’ve been involved. Lisa Maine, our senior graphic designer and right-hand person, designed his official website as well.
For those who don’t know, Richard is one of the top high-profile defense attorneys in the nation. He is especially effective when it comes to murder cases when the death penalty option is on the table. His tireless work has led to the exoneration of six innocent and wrongly convicted men who spent from five to nearly 20 years on Death Row before their verdicts were reversed. That’s the most successful such record of any attorney in U.S. history. Furthermore, only one of more than 70 capital murder cases Richard has defended from the beginning resulted in a death sentence.
From his offices in Birmingham, Alabama — the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement — Richard has defended men and women from the internationally notorious (1996 Olympic Games and family planning clinic bomber Eric Rudolph) to regional celebrities and local businessmen. He has saved some of his best work for those who needed him most: impoverished men who either made bad choices or were in the wrong place, and had nowhere else to turn.
That’s where Quest for Justice hits its spiritual and narrative stride. Richard’s passionate discussion about the inequities of the death penalty, direct relationship between available money and legal options, and his sharing of the intimate details of several cases (to the extent client-attorney confidentiality allows) offers a rare, inside look at the criminal justice system from the trenches. It also spotlights a deeply caring, brilliant, spiritual man who started off his legal career not knowing it would become what it is today: a platform for his larger purpose, to make sure everyone is treated fairly and respected for their right of innocence until proven guilty.
The stories are riveting, written in Richard’s charming, detail-rich Southern style that makes him so endearing and indomitable in the courtroom. However, what I found most appealing about Quest for Justice was that it’s a compelling story about how we relate to each other — and how simple caring can go a long way. He hopes the nation’s compassion rises to the level where we do away with the exorbitant financial and emotional costs of the Death Penalty and replace it with life imprisonment for the worst offenders.
What follows is Part 1 of an interview I conducted with Richard in July 2011, after we finished principal work on Quest for Justice and New Horizon Press purchased the manuscript through the efforts of literary agent Verna Dreisbach. In it, I trust you will see the compassion, drive, gentle relentlessness and storytelling savvy of one of the most high integrity and successful attorneys practicing law today.
Question: First of all, Richard, you grew up in the heart of the Civil Rights struggle, in Birmingham during the late 1950s and 1960s. How did the events you witnessed and heard about, and the struggles of blacks to achieve equal rights, shape you as a crusader for justice?
RICHARD JAFFE: I and almost all of my friends grew up in Mountain Brook, the relatively affluent “over the mountain” area of Birmingham. Our parents shielded us from the tumultuous and violent civil rights hosing, beatings and jailing that occurred daily and especially the lynchings and killings. But the manner in which people of color were treated could not be hidden. The separate bathrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains in public places also were plainly in sight as was the unearned deference showed whites by those of color. We observed the humiliation and disrespect constantly and I knew there something inhumane about it. By contrast, my father treated everyone the same, regardless of the color of one’s skin. These observations and experiences profoundly affected my view that the majority will must be questioned and that truth to power is essential to a free society and the rule of law.
Q: How much did To Kill A Mockingbird influence you in not only your career choice, but the drama and stagecraft of the courtroom?
RJ: To Kill a Mockingbird took place in a fictional town of Macomb, but the author, Harper Lee, grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. The racially motivated false conviction of Thomas Robinson for raping a white woman, who clearly could not be believed, influenced me and most criminal lawyers in the country. Atticus Finch did not hesitate to heed the call to defend Mr. Robinson. His passion, eloquence and character served as a role model for me as an attorney who defends death penalty cases in the Deep South. My sister, Sandy Jaffe, was also significantly influenced. Her documentary Our Mockingbird (soon to be completed) highlights two of the individuals I write about in Quest For Justice.
Q: You started out as an Assistant DA and Assistant Attorney General, then switched over to become a defense attorney. What was it about defending the accused that appealed to you? Anything in particular?
RJ: Due to my background and experiences, including watching Perry Mason as a child, I always desired to defend those who the government accused of serious criminal offenses. The state has all the resources and lawyers it needs. Well-trained and devoted defenders area always needed to protect and defend someone who cannot defend himself, which often entails also standing up for their invaluable and sacred constitutional rights upon which our country was founded.
Q: In Quest for Justice, you talk early and often about cases that appear won, only to be lost — and vice-versa. It’s an unpredictable side of trial law we don’t often see on TV or movies or read about. Could you share a couple of the misconceptions we receive about trial law that simply don’t square with the real thing?
RJ: Trials, especially jury trials, have fascinated people since ancient Greek and Roman times. Trials by a jury of twelve were an intricate part of the Magna Carta in 1215. Before T.V., the criminal trial was the hottest show to attend. Now, with the advent of social media, people feel they know the characters and are a part of the drama. Yet, the outcomes of jury trials are often unpredictable. Jurors must decide the trials through the prism of age-old legal principles. The outcome of a trial is only as good as the evidence presented. We know that 138 people have been exonerated from death row. We do not know how many innocent people have been executed. We also know that sometimes, someone who is probably guilty gets off due to a lack of evidence or some other breakdown in the system. Because human beings investigate, bring and defend the charges, human witnesses offer evidence and twelve people decide what is credible or not, trials will always be unpredictable. But one thing is for sure: the only way to have a valid view is to sit on the jury that decides the case.
Q: An interesting point you make along these lines concerns the definition of “winning a case.” Society looks at it in black-and-white — an acquittal is a victory for the defense lawyer, a conviction is a defeat. Yet, you see it in layers, relative to the nature of the charge and potential worst punishment. How do you weigh “wins” and “losses” with your clients — and your own high standards?
RJ: Winning is a relative term in any context. The Government may bring over a hundred charges, but if it wins in one, the punishment can be severe. On the other hand, as in the Casey Anthony case, the jury found her guilty of lesser charges and thus the defense won. In a death penalty case, the defense lawyer may know that a life verdict is a win – saving the clients life. The prosecution may feel it lost. The defendant may also feel he lost.
(Part 2 of the interview with Richard Jaffe will post on Monday, February 13)