Telling a story – Reyna Marder Gentin

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By Reyna Marder Gentin

Criminal defense attorneys get a bad rap from their colleagues within the legal profession and from the general public. The perception is that they represent the lowest of the low and are continually on the lookout for that “technicality” that will allow their clients to walk free even when guilty of the most heinous crimes.♥

There is certainly some validity to this very oversimplified view. Any practitioner worth her salt is searching for an effective way to benefit her client’s interest, even down to the tiniest violation of his rights. But there is another aspect of being a criminal defense attorney that intrigues me, as a former defense attorney turned writer, that is often overlooked.

The best criminal defense attorneys are master storytellers. Whether they are trying to convince a jury, an appellate court, or even just themselves, they need to create a narrative that explains the inexplicable. Their clients, often desperate men and women, have made choices and acted in ways that are outside the rules of society that allow people to live together in a civilized way, respecting each other’s property, homes, bodies.

The criminal defense attorney must weave a story that explains either how his client did not actually cross those lines, or, if he did, why he should not be held responsible. These stories are not fabricated from scratch; they are based on whatever facts the lawyer can pull together to support a more sympathetic understanding of the person behind the crime. But, given the very limited access the attorney has to the client’s true motivations and life experiences, there is a boatload of creativity involved.

In my novel, Unreasonable Doubts, the protagonist, Liana Cohen, is a young public defender who discovers that after several years on the job she can’t create the “why” story for her clients.  Worn down by representing hardened criminals and repeat offenders, she can no longer dredge up the empathy to search for the redeeming qualities of her clients that she needs to humanize them and present their cases most effectively. Liana finds herself yearning for a client in whom she can actually believe – someone with a compelling story that she, Liana, doesn’t have to create.

I remember when I hit that wall in my own career after nearly 20 years as a public defender. I was representing an older man with no criminal record who had stabbed to death a young workman retrieving some tools that he had left in the defendant’s apartment building. The defendant claimed that the victim had demanded money from him, threatened to beat him, and hit him in the face with keys, provoking the attack. Because the victim was dead and there were no other witnesses, there was no way to corroborate the defendant’s story – a story that made no more sense than the alternative, which was that the defendant, sober and with no beef with the victim, randomly decided to take his life in a brutally violent way.

It was a case that cried out for an answer to the “why” question – an answer that, as the attorney, I could not provide. Ultimately, it was a case that I was able to “win” on a purely legal ground – the defendant had the Constitutional right to have the jury consider his self-defense claim, and the judge had refused to give those instructions.  But it left me with a profound sense of emptiness that I couldn’t shake.

In my book, Liana tries to fill the void by actually getting to know personally the man behind the crime. I have taken a very different tack.  Through writing fiction, I have found a way to explore what lurks below the surface – the story that I as the lawyer could never really know.

Writing Unreasonable Doubts allowed me to free myself from the facts of the case and to imagine the defendant’s first love, his aspirations, his thoughts about where he might fit into the world.  And through writing the novel I was also able to revisit, through Liana, my own professional and personal commitment to pursue justice and to make an impact, in whatever small way, in the creation of a more compassionate world.  Sometimes telling a fictional story can be a better way of getting at a type of truth than one can achieve in a reality that defies understanding.

Reyna Marder Gentin grew up in Great Neck, New York. She attended college and law school at Yale.  For many years, she practised as an appellate attorney representing criminal defendants who could not afford private counsel. Reyna studies at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and her fiction and personal essays have been published in The Westchester Review and online. Unreasonable Doubts is her first novel. She lives with her family in Scarsdale, New York.

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