On February 1, 2012, Word Journeys client Richard 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.
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.
What follows is the remainder of the interview I conducted with Richard in July 2011. Note the way his description of legal cases, trials and his central role as an attorney feel like narrative, how he develops as well as tells his stories …
Q: You have a particular penchant for trying high-profile, high-stakes cases, and have built your career and reputation on it. What is it like for you when you sit down for the first time with an accused murderer, look him in the eyes, and start to sort out what you think you can do for him?
RJ: Most murders occur in the heat of passion. From all I have read and studied, most anyone is capable of going on the wrong road and committing the worst acts. I have defended over 500 murder cases at some level. Rarely have I met someone an accused person that has lacked remorse and humanity, whether adjudged innocent or guilty. None of us is as bad as our worst act or as good as our best. Few of us would want to be judged that way by God or man. I doubt you could pick out an accused murderer in a crowd from the cradle to the grave, unless someone pointed him or her out for you.
Q: Quest for Justice has a lot of remarkable stories in it, but none quite so wild and crazy as the saga of Judge Jack Montgomery. He was fearsome and fearful, yet you stood your ground to him … and ended up helping to end his reign on the bench. What is it about these colorful, outlaw judges that appeals so much to us — and, for that matter, enough to you that you tell a slice of his story?
RJ: Like with trial and justice issues, outlaws have always fascinated the public. Recently I read that a Billy the Kid original photo sold for millions of dollars. We devour books and movies on the Mob. Judge Montgomery, like many who succumbed to corruption and temptation, was a complex human being whose good qualities could not compete with his demons. We love to watch dramas imbibed with such intricacies of the human condition.
Q: Bo Cochran. Gary Drinkard. Randall Padgett. These are three of the men whose capital murder convictions and Death Penalty sentences were overturned thanks to your efforts. What emotions move through you when years of work — sometimes, 15 years — culminates with the words, “Not guilty”? What does that feel like?
RJ: As a man, I have never birthed a baby. I know what it feels as a man, but not as a woman. Being a part of a jury determination which frees one from the throes of death cannot be described in words. It is an act of grace that forever lives within my soul.
Q: The centerpiece of Quest for Justice is your firmly rooted opposition to the Death Penalty. More and more states ban it, yet we still have gross injustices, such as the recent execution of a Mexican national in Texas who never saw his consular representative. What’s it going to take to stop using death as a deterrent to crime — and how will you continue to fight for that?
RJ: I address the unworkable nature of the death penalty and its arbitrary application throughout Quest for Justice. The only guarantee for its existence is that it is incapable of fair application. It never offers closure, is not a deterrent and is unfathomably expensive! It is on its way out.
Q: One of your most celebrated cases was the initial defense of Eric Rudolph, the Olympic and Birmingham family planning clinic bomber who eluded a manhunt for five years in North Carolina and became a cause celebre. What one or two things about his personal convictions and character struck you as similar to your own when you spent time with him?
RJ: I related to and disagreed with Eric on several levels. He wanted to make a difference, but he chose the most destructive path. The ends do not justify the means. Eric wanted to be recognized, even if by becoming infamous. During the fourteen months I served as lead counsel for him, Eric demonstrated certain sensitivities most people would think consistent with his actions. Eric exhibited kindnesses and certain loyalties, even if misplaced. I mention many of these in my book. Eric also was one of the most disciplined people I have ever met. Discipline and kindness are good traits for a trial lawyer. Though seriously misguided, Eric longed for a spiritual connection, even though he caused incalculable pain to many. Unfortunately, Eric lacked guidance and healthy role models, and that contributed to the destructive choices he made.
Q: You’ve seen the highest and lowest of the human condition and human motive, defended hundreds of accused criminals, and practiced and witnessed some incredible lawyering. Which experiences particularly filled your soul with the joy of operating at your highest potential and making a difference?
RJ: I represented people such as Shannon Mitchell, Randal Padgett, Bo Cochran, Gary Drinkard, Ardragus Ford, Shay Swindle and many other innocent people who faced the death penalty and juries found them not guilty. I have represented many others whose lives would have been ruined were not for the efforts of the defense. These experiences changed my life and made it richer than all the money in the world.
Q: Do you still stay in touch with some of the men and women you’ve successfully defended?
RJ: I do stay in touch with many people I have defended over the years. I keep up with their lives as best I can, with the help of my legal assistant Meredith Gray, who has been with me for nearly thirty years. I take pride in their accomplishments and the fact that they still breathe the air and are part of families and the workforce.
Q: How will your own personal quest for justice continue once you finally decide to bid farewell to the courtroom?
RJ: None of us knows where the next road leads or how long it winds. I know it is crucial for me to continue to contribute to others and get closer to the truth that resides in all of us.