Published articles and other writings by Thomas Dickson of Dickson Law Office.

One Afternoon in Fargo

Journal Entry

It is a heart-stopping moment for the defense attorney. The bailiffs have informed the Court. The jury has reached its verdict. Everyone returns to the Courtroom; lawyers, defendant, clerks, court reporters, and the Judge. It has been a difficult trial to defend. No real settlement offer. 12 jurors will decide the case.

The jury considered 11 separate counts. Not guilty on 8. Guilty on 3. The minimum sentence is seven years in federal prison. A not surprising verdict in federal criminal trials. A not unusual sentence in federal criminal cases. The Defendant Jeffrey Ferris has been out on pre-trial release for a year. He was the sole custodian of his minor child. However, the conviction requires an automatic remand. Mr. Ferris is now going to jail. The sentencing will be held at a later date.

But then the unimaginable happens. On May 17, 2021, the Defendant commits suicide in the middle of the courtroom. The manner of death is brutal, barbaric, and effective. A Defendant dies on the floor of a courtroom in Fargo, North Dakota. It takes 4 ½ minutes. A horrifying experience for everyone. Lawyers, law clerks, court reporters, legal assistants, law enforcement, marshals, judges, everyone, …. all witnesses to the unimaginable. The ripple effects of that morning in Fargo, linger for a long-time. The clinical elements of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD) are now a part of the court record ….., and a part of the lives of everyone in the Courtroom that one afternoon in Fargo.

No one in that Courtroom will ever forget that day. No one. But suicide is an occupational hazard in the criminal justice system and more specifically for the criminal defense bar.

Our friend and colleague Ward Johnson, III ably and skillfully defended his client. This was not his first suicide. The circumstances in the Fargo Courtroom were unimaginably horrific but the suicide of a person under the stress of a serious criminal charge is not unusual. Many of us have had more than one.

Stress, substance abuse, mental illness, fear, anxiety, rage, are all elements brewed into the process. It is a toxic recipe for disaster.

In North Dakota, suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-34. In 2019, three times as many people in that age group died by suicide as opposed to alcohol-related car crashes. It has become the silent epidemic.

Lawyers themselves are not immune to suicide. Credible research indicates that lawyers experience substance abuse and depression at higher rates than the general public. It doesn’t take much of a leap to reach the next step.

We recently had a well-liked and well-respected lawyer in Bismarck commit suicide. Another 48-year-old lawyer drank himself to death. Both left families behind. When that happens, we all avert our eyes and move on to the next day. What is not mentioned, never happened.

But the truth is, that it happens more then we admit. It happens more then it should.

In many ways North Dakota is a small town and in small towns many things are shared. Meals are shared. Baseball uniforms are shared. Rides to ball games are shared. Garden vegetables are shared. But not everything is shared. Suicide is not shared. It is born only by one family. Alone. Heartbroken. Hopeless. Everyone else looks away ….., looking to get away from that moment when the unimaginable turns into the unmentionable.

SBAND has a Lawyer Assistance Program. We have it for a reason. Please never be afraid to call.Telephone: (701) 255-1404

Email: info@sband.orgIronically, but not timely, on June 10, 2021, the United States Supreme Court in Borden v. U.S. ruled that reckless conduct no longer qualifies as a “violent felony” under Federal law.Mr. Ferris would not have been remanded if the Borden case had been decided three weeks earlier.

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