Did I just hear what I think I heard? That couldn’t be! As I sat there with my eyes glued on the clerk I tried to maintain my composure. I simply could not bring myself to look at the twelve jurors that made this awful decision (at least as far as I was concerned). Prior to the verdict being read, the Judge warned that no outbursts would be tolerated! While it was generally directed toward family and friends, I felt myself falling apart at this moment.
Allowing my brain to kick in because I still had work to do, I pulled together long enough to ensure the jury was polled and I entered notice of appeal. Honestly, I don’t know how I got through it because I felt as though I was floating in the clouds, and, it wasn’t getting any easier.
The Judge turned to my client, after I dealt with the formalities of trial work, and imposed the sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole. I grabbed the table and kept my head down so that the Judge and jury could not see the tears flowing. But I couldn’t stop my client from seeing them as the deputies shuffled him out of the courtroom to begin the rest of his life as an inmate with the North Carolina Department of Correction.
I knew at that point I had to make a rapid exit because I felt myself coming unglued. What had I done wrong? I was confident that this case was a self defense slam dunk. My client had shot and killed a young man who had been harassing him all night. The final straw was when the young man tried to attack him in his own home. Now, this man, that had put all of his trust in me, and, I had come to really like, was going to die in prison.
My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, had come to observe most of the trial, and knew that I had to get out of there quickly. Packing all of my belongings as quickly as we could, we dashed out of the courtroom and into the car. Crying uncontrollably, I kept repeating, “how could this happen? how could this happen?” Trying his very best to comfort me as he drove me home, he assured me that I had done nothing wrong. When we finally arrived at the house all I could manage to do was crawl in my bed and cry myself to sleep. The days following that verdict were a blur to me. I could not shake the look on my client’s face, when he learned that he was going to prison for the rest of his life, from my head. He would not be a permanent resident of our prison system if I had pushed him a little harder to accept the plea to voluntary manslaughter. But we had both believed so heavily in his defense. Had I left my cocky advocacy get in the way?
This case would haunt me for the rest of my life. Or at least I thought so. Fortunately the appellate lawyers saw what a grave injustice this was and fought hard to have my client’s sentence reduced. Thanks to their hard work and dedication he was eventually released from prison after several years.
As I was walking through the halls of the courthouse about a year ago I saw him. My heart began racing. I was frightened for him to see me because I was the lawyer that won a life sentence for him. Before I could turn and walk in the other direction he caught my eye and called my name, “Ms. Ruffin”. And, much to my surprise he hugged me and told me he was so happy to see me. He went on to thank me for fighting so hard for him during his trial. I stood there stunned! I managed to pull it together to let him know how happy I was to see him and how sorry I was about the jury verdict. As we parted ways I felt a little better knowing that justice finally prevailed, at least in this case.
*** every trial lawyer has a case or two that stays with them forever, whether the outcome is good or bad. This was one of mine.
Peace and Love