Here’s the biggest whopper told to journalists every day: “When this is all over, I’ll buy you a beer and tell you all about it.”
That promise to a criminal justice reporter usually comes at the end of a private conversation with an investigator, a prosecutor, a defense lawyer or a judge. And the topic always is that final bit of information that would have satisfied any lingering curiosity about the case.
Truth is, the promise was a genial brush-off. And when the case wrapped up, the reporter already was running on the next story.
I never got those beers, and time to collect them has expired.
My retirement begins today. It’s a happy development, but in the bustle to clean out desks and offices, my reflections on 38 years in journalism and 17 years in the courts are scattered.
So in place of final wisdom, let me offer thoughts to two parties at the heart of every criminal case.
To criminal defendants: Listen to your defense lawyers and appreciate them. They really do know more than you about the prosecutor, the judge and how the law applies to your case.
And, please, never represent yourself in court. Here’s what will happen:
1. Your judge will be unfailingly polite, which you’ll mistake for things going well.
2. You’ll be convicted.
3. You’ll likely get sentenced to more time because you didn’t accept responsibility and wasted too much time.
Still, defendants who represent themselves at trial are endlessly entertaining to reporters. But that probably wasn’t the benefit you expected.
To crime victims: Please do not expect the criminal justice system to provide you with “closure,” whatever that means. Of course, giving you “justice” is one of the court’s priorities.
But those priorities also include applying the law the way the legislature and Congress require, sentencing the defendant in a way that doesn’t offend an appeals court and, occasionally, listening to jail and prison administrators complain about overcrowding.
Justice is a cold supper for someone who hasn’t reflected deeply and done the hard work of working through trauma.
Forgive, if you can, and reach out to friends and family for loving support, which really isn’t in the courts’ job description.
Now I expect that as the months go by, my reflections on life in the courts will lead me to deeper and more profound revelations. But I’ll no longer have this forum with which to share them.
That’s OK, though. Just give me a call.
I’ll buy you a beer and and tell you all about it.