Friday, October 28, 2011

DECIDING TO BECOME A LAWYER


“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It seems that grownups had a penchant for asking me that question when I was a boy living in the small town of Lake Butler. I gave various answers—a fireman, a policeman, a doctor, even an astronaut. I didn’t say “astronaut,” though. I said “spaceman.” The term “astronaut” hadn’t been invented yet. It never occurred to me that I might like to be a lawyer. That all changed when I was in the seventh grade at Union County High School. My father, who worked part time as a deputy sheriff, had received a summons for jury duty. I heard him talking about the case he had been called for, and it sounded interesting. A deputy sheriff and a “ride along” civilian had been shot to death trying to arrest a man named Joe Reddish. Of course, no defense lawyer in his right mind would allow Dad to sit on the jury, and he was promptly excused from service.

The whole school was talking about the sensational trial, and large numbers of students were skipping school to go fill the galleries of the courtroom and watch the trial. I wanted to go, too, but Momma was a schoolteacher and she frowned on missing school. I tried to enlist Dad’s aid in talking Momma into letting me go, but he said that there wasn’t anything happening in court that would be interesting to watch. Dad said that final arguments were what I needed to see. He said that one of the best lawyers in the state was defending Reddish, and the lawyer was a great speaker. He said I could go to court the day that they made their final arguments. Momma didn’t really like the idea, but when he put his foot down, she usually went along with him.

As the trial dragged on, more and more students missed school, and the principal got irritated with the situation. He announced that there would be no more excused absences for kids who went to the trial. I complained to Dad that I had lost my chance, but he assured me that I would get to see the final arguments no matter what the principal said. “You let me worry about the principal. I’ll make it right with him.” He could be very persuasive when he wanted to be.

After a week of waiting, the big day came. They were going to have final arguments that day, and I was going to see them. Dad was working security at the trial, so he took me down to the courthouse very early that morning and parked me on the front row in the courtroom. “You stay there, now,” he said, “I’ve got to work.” He walked off and I was all alone in the huge courtroom. It wasn’t long before the courtroom started filling up. The lawyers came in and set up at their tables, the clerk and court reporter came in, and spectators started straggling in and claiming what they thought were good seats. I had the best seat because Dad had gotten me there so early. A deputy brought the defendant in, took off his handcuffs, and directed him to sit at the defense table. After everyone had assembled, the bailiff came in and announced in a booming voice “Oyez, oyez, oyez, the Circuit Court for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, is now in session with the Honorable John H. Murphree presiding. All rise.”  We stood as the judge, wearing his black robe, marched into the courtroom and took his seat on the bench. He looked like a man you didn’t want to trifle with.

After tending to a few preliminary matters, they brought the jury in and seated them in the box. Judge Murphree explained to the jury that the lawyers were now going to argue their cases. He cautioned the jury that what the lawyers said wasn’t evidence, but they should listen carefully because it would help them to evaluate the evidence that they had heard. When he finished, he turned to the State’s table and asked if the State was ready. They were.  Mack Futch, the Assistant State Attorney, went to the lectern and mapped out the State’s case. He was like a good schoolteacher, going over everything about the case and explaining things so that even I, a seventh grader, could understand the evidence. By the time Futch finished and took his seat I was convinced. Reddish was guilty.

Then it was the turn of the best trial lawyer in North Florida. Sigsby Scruggs marched up to the lectern and began to speak. Where Futch had been the jury’s helpful teacher, Scruggs approached the jury as a friend. He made jokes and the jury laughed. He turned somber and the jury became serious. He raised his voice to rattle the windows and he lowered it to a whisper, and the jury hung on every word. He went through every particle of evidence, finding fault wherever he looked. Some of the mistakes the police had made were humorous, some were tragic, but they all muddied the case so badly that there was no way that the jury could possibly vote to find Reddish guilty. Scruggs’ voice was so intoxicating, his cadences so lyrical, and his arguments so persuasive that he completely won me over. Reddish might be guilty, but there was no way that the State had proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt. In a 32 year career as a criminal trial lawyer, I only heard one other lawyer who ever approached Scruggs’ eloquence that day.

When Scruggs finished it came the turn of the elected State Attorney to speak. Ted Duncan was something of a legend himself. There is a story that once, when Duncan cross-examined a moonshiner, he asked the moonshiner “Isn’t it a fact that you sold whisky to the undercover officer?” The moonshiner replied, “Yes, I did. And I’ve sold you some, too.” Duncan didn’t miss a beat, “And I paid you for it, too, didn’t I?” Futch had been the clear expositor and Scruggs the eloquent orator, but Duncan was the Pentecostal preacher. He made as fiery a speech as I’ve ever heard, and if he had made it at a tent revival, there would certainly have been scores of conversions. He converted me. I voted guilty, an assessment which would later be confirmed by the jury's verdict. When Duncan finished, the judge recessed for a late lunch. Court had begun at 9:00 sharp and final arguments had gone to mid-afternoon, and I had sat unmoving the entire time. Dad took me home during the lunch break. I wanted to stay, but he told me that the next thing they were going to do was to instruct the jury, and jury instructions were dreadfully boring. Dad wanted to know what I had thought about the trial. I told him I wanted to be a lawyer, and I wanted to be a trial lawyer, and I wanted to be a State Attorney. Dad told me that he had spoken to Ted Duncan about my ambition. I was somewhat embarrassed, but Dad said that he and Duncan were old friends. In fact, Dad said, when Duncan was a very young lawyer, his first jury trial was to defend one of my uncles on a battery charge. I asked if Mr. Duncan got Uncle Romey off, and Dad said “Of course. He once convinced a judge that a mullet wasn’t a fish because it had a gizzard and only birds had gizzards.” Dad told me that Duncan had sent me a message—when I got out of law school I should come see him, I would have a job. I never got to work for Ted Duncan. He retired as State Attorney while I was still in undergraduate school, and when he retired, he was known as the dean of American prosecutors.