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Particular Humanities: A Lesson Before Dying, A Long Walk to Freedom, and The Wire

This is a vintage Murray post in that I take the Question of the Month (favorite book or movie about the law) and, as I like to say, “tweak it” (and, as Michael likes to say, “ignore it”).  I am selecting two books, Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying and Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom, and one television series, The Wire.  I choose them because each examines what I consider a key question: how individuals maintain their humanity as they negotiate potentially unjust legal systems.

A Lesson Before Dying taught me that lawyers have to be advocates for their clients’ humanity.  A Lesson Before Dying recounts the trial of a young black man named Jefferson, found guilty of two murders.  In his closing summary, Jefferson’s lawyer compares Jefferson to a “thing,” concluding, with this sentence, “[w]hat justice would there be to take this life?  Justice, gentlemen?  I would just as a soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”  It cannot be said that the lawyer does a “bad” job here since in a deeply segregated South, this tactical argument may have been the only way to preserve his client’s life.  Of course, such advocacy denies all humanity to Jefferson (which is Gaines’ concern as a novelist for the rest of the book).  A Lesson Before Dying offered me, then, a rich account of a debate often heard in Professional Ethics: do we owe our clients more than the “best” advocacy?  Do we have additional responsibility to advocate in a humane way?   One of the great pleasures of working at Marquette, from my perspective, is seeing the work of Janine Geske and Andrea Schneider, who through their respective programs, attempt to answer these questions.

Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, outlines the way in which lawyers and law school impacted Mandela’s development as a social activist.   Mandela’s relationship to the law was a complex one: laws maintained the boundaries of social classifications within an apartheid system, while at the same time provided a means for provoking changes in that system.  Mandela’s autobiography offers a window into a perspective of a whole set of lawyer-activists, such as Thurgood Marshall, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Constance Baker Motley, who understood the law’s possibilities even when its application was unjust.  Such a vision of the law is a humane one, given its optimistic view of institutions’ capacity for change.

The Wire, with its perspective on the continual failures of legal institutions (the police, the courts, and the politicians) to address the drug trade, tempers the preceding optimism with a necessary dose of skepticism.  Well-meaning attempts to change the social dynamics of the drug trade fail again and again in The Wire.  The only saving grace in The Wire is the great humanity of individuals in the system.  Although he is depicted as a sociopath throughout The Wire,  every time I hear Marlo Stansfield’s “My Name is My Name” speech, I recall his humanity (although, unlike Jefferson’s humanity, an ugly one).

One more thing: I have found that these works are in a continual dialogue with each other.  Read them together and you are subject to this rich discussion of the ways in which change can be accomplished within the legal system, the ways in which change is thwarted within the legal system, and the way each of us in our particular humanity can be engaged by the legal system.

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  1. Chris King

    I never thought I would see a link to a Marlo Stanfield speech on this blog, but I’m glad that I did. I agree with what Professor Murray says about the failures of legal institutions as depicted in The Wire (and understand that her post to a legal blog was necessarily focused on the legal end of things), but The Wire was about the failure of all institutions not just legal institutions. In The Wire, the school system, the city newspapers, and even the drug trade all fail as institutions. The only saving grace of all of these institutions was the humanity shown by the individual members of the institutions. In condemning all institutions, the creators of The Wire emphasized that all institutions are flawed, perhaps fatally so, and that when institutions do work as intended, it is not the result of the institution itself, but because of the humanity of individuals within the institution.

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