In September, 1994, Tom wrote the article for the North Dakota Lawyers following a two-week jury trial. The Defendant was charged with murdering his two-month old son. He was found Not Guilty.
Will the Clerk please read the verdict? “Tis then that the world stands still. You are too tired to even stand. You are too drained to argue. You are too frightened to even look up. It is at that moment that the entire trial flashes before your eyes bit by bit; piece by piece; it is if somebody has a slow motion control and is able to point out every mistake and misstep you have made during the preceding two weeks. Every mistake and misstep is flashed before your eyes. Every missed objection comes back to haunt you. Every fumbled examination trumpets your failures. And every armchair quarterback in the state waits on the sidelines for the post-mortem interviews.
There are moments both before and after trial when you can look back at all the positive things you have done. Brilliant legal arguments that have given you at least a glimmer of hope, the crushing cross-examination of a biased expert witness, and part of a closing argument when you became one with the jury. But those are not the thoughts of a defense lawyer at this time. Now you only see mistakes. And you are afraid. As the Court continues to read the verdict, the slow motion playbacks end and, like every other human being faced with a daunting cause or insurmountable odds, you are at last reduced to prayer. “Dear God: If you let me win this last one, I promise I will quit. I promise I will go back to the farm. I like the farm.”
“Not guilty.” And then you hear the two most beautiful words in the English language. The case is over, and you are brilliant. Pandemonium breaks out as friends and supporters erupt in jubilation; but mostly in relief. You hug your client, and you head for the door. You feel relieved that you have not done anything which is going to cause a young man to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Later that evening, you sit in the corner of a hotel room far from home and watch as friends and supporters celebrate the great victory. You sit there and try to forget how truly frightened you were at the moment the clerk stood up to read. You try to forget because in two weeks you have to do it all over again for another client in a little town in Minnesota. Because you need to forget how truly frightened you were so that when once again, the clerk stands to read the verdict, you will have the courage to listen.
And in the days that follow, your mind replays again and again a passage from a Kipling poem, memorized so long ago in a Gilby schoolyard:
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same; . . . then you will be a man, my son.”