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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: March 2024

Little Miracles

Douglas Denton Church


  • Small acts of kindness from a lawyer can lead to positive change in clients’ lives that spans decades.
  • How can the actions you take as an attorney make an impact?
Little Miracles

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Making little miracles happen is a theme that I have adopted recently to recognize the good work of lawyers that is often unnoticed by the world at large, but which has great meaning to the client/beneficiary of their efforts.  In context, it has to do with the times in the professional life of a lawyer when he/she can do something that has great significance for the client but doesn’t really break a sweat for the lawyer…just routine. 

More often than not, these purveyors of miracles are not high-profile lawyers representing big corporations or famous people.  They are in the trenches in cities and towns across the country doing the hard work of representing real people facing a major crisis in their life…divorce, criminal charges, bankruptcy, unexpected death or serious injury of a family member or friend… every day. Their cases don’t get attention usually.  The scenes of lawyers and clients meeting to plan a course of action to address the problem take place in small offices, hallways and coffee shops, not fancy boardrooms or lavish office suites.  The dockets of trial courts across the country are filled with just this type of potential miracle and thousands of lawyers deliver on this potential every day.

Many years ago, I was appointed to represent a criminal defendant charged with 1st degree murder.  She had been languishing in jail in another county for over  15 months without a hearing of any kind.  No bail hearing, no preliminary hearing, no plea hearing, nothing.  Finally, an unpaid public defender who happened to hear her story from a relative, moved for a change of venue to my county just to try to get some action for her, and, thus, I found myself appointed to represent her.  The judge making the appointment had designated me to handle a previous 1st-degree murder case which was very difficult and emotional for me and the client was convicted after a long jury trial.  The prosecutor in that case had become, as happens with opposing lawyers, a friend.  When I read the case file on my new appointment, I took notice immediately that he was, once again, the prosecutor!  

The facts of the case were straightforward:  my client had gotten home early from church choir practice and walked in on her husband and another woman sexually engaged.  In a true heat of passion, she pulled a chrome-plated 38 revolver from her purse (a gun given to her by her husband for personal protection) and shot him to death!  There didn’t appear to be any controversy about the facts of the case, and it seemed fairly evident to me that this was, at worst, a voluntary manslaughter case (heat of passion), not 1st-degree murder. 

The call from the judge making my appointment came at about 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.  After reading the file, I went to our local jail to meet my client, a very remorseful but pleasant lady in her 40s, who had never been charged with a crime before.  She had lost her job and literally had no money to make bail or pay a lawyer and her daughter was unable to come up with any money to help.  I returned to the office, and it was still before noon the same day.  I called my friend, the prosecutor, and began the conversation by letting him know that this was clearly an overcharge and that “we” needed to do something about it immediately. 

I suggested that I could encourage my client to enter a plea to the voluntary manslaughter charge if the State would amend the charge accordingly.  More importantly, under the then prevailing sentencing scheme (2 to 21 years indeterminate sentence with day for day good time credit) with credit for her time served, she would be immediately eligible for probationary release.  My prosecutor friend promised to think it over and get back to me.  His call back came just after lunch, and he said that the State would agree to my proposal.  I asked if he could come to court with me the following morning to amend the charge and allow my client to enter a plea.  He agreed and I called the Court to arrange a hearing for 9 a.m. the following day.  I then returned to the jail to explain to my client what was in store and to make sure she was agreeable to the plea.  She agreed.  I asked if there was anyone in her family I could call to let them know what was happening and she gave me her daughter’s phone number.  I called the daughter and encouraged her to join us in the morning. 

Thursday morning, the day following my appointment, I headed to the courthouse and when I arrived, I met my client’s daughter and several other family members who had come along.  They were all nervous and concerned about what might happen!  My client arrived in handcuffs accompanied by a deputy sheriff and the hearing began.  In less than five minutes, the prosecutor moved to amend the charge to voluntary manslaughter, and the motion was granted. My client pled guilty to the amended charge and the judge accepted the plea. I moved for time served to be the basis for her release and the judge granted that motion.  The judge told my client that she was free to go and good luck in her future.  I offered the same pleasantry and after making sure the family knew where to go to pick her up after retrieving her belongings at the jail, I returned to the office and went on about my day…all within about 24 hours of the appointment call from the judge. 

Nearly 30 years later, I was trying a civil jury trial in the county in which my former client lived.  After the second day of trial, the court reporter approached me and asked if recalled a case involving the reduction of a 1st-degree charge to voluntary manslaughter back in the 70’s. I responded that I did recall the case and, in fact, recalled the client’s name!  The court reporter let me know that my client was her aunt! I inquired about her life since that day so many years ago when the plea was entered and she was released. The court reporter told me that my client had returned to her job, got involved in church work, and lived a peaceful and fulfilled life, enjoying her children and grandchildren. The family would gather every Sunday for lunch together after church, and every Sunday since my client had returned home from jail, the family said a prayer FOR ME!  Prayers for me for over 30 years every Sunday!  My partner who was standing next to me during this conversation exclaimed, “That’s why you have been so lucky all these years!”  I was the instrument of a small miracle in the life of that client and her family and, in return, they bestowed the miracle of weekly prayers for me!

I have witnessed in my life and career similar situations brought about because a lawyer did his or her job.  Perhaps that’s the point:  it isn’t just a job.  Fixing problems for clients in trying times works small miracles in their lives.  We know how to solve the problems and that’s what we do, but to the client, it’s far more. Hard-nosed lawyers don’t like to think of themselves as the deliverers of miracles, but, in fact, they do just that on many occasions.  Add to your list of credentials if you are one of those, “Small Miracle Workers.”