Teri Kanefield

“How can you defend people accused of heinous crimes?”

Every defense attorney is asked this question.

(I suppose the same question could be asked, “Why do you sometimes write about unsavory people?)

For thirteen years, I had a private appellate law practice dedicated to representing indigents appealing from adverse rulings. In other words, my clients had no money and were in big trouble.

Mostly I filed appeals for parents accused of abusing and neglecting their children. Many of my clients were uneducated, victims of domestic violence, or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many were abused or neglected during their own childhoods. Many suffered from mental illness.

I represented such parents on appeal because I believe, with the A.C.L.U., that when the rights of society’s most vulnerable members are denied, everybody’s rights are in danger.

I represented such parents because I can see – even if county agencies often don’t – that the “best interests of the child” standard is culturally biased.

I represented such parents because too often poverty is confused with neglect.

Most of the time, I couldn’t help my clients much. Appellate courts do not reweigh evidence. They rarely accept new evidence, and they give great deference to trial court decisions. Appeals drag on so long that appellate courts are reluctant to remove a child from the new caretakers with whom he or she has forged new bonds—even if an injustice was done to the parent. As a result, the success rate for appeals in these kinds of cases is less than 3%.

My job, essentially, was to write my client’s story, from my client’s viewpoint. Very often, the only papers filed with the court were reports authored by government lawyers trying to remove the children or incarcerate the parent (or whatever the government was trying to do) which meant, very often, that my client’s story had never really been told.

This didn’t mean I could ignore the facts that were bad for my clients. I couldn’t. I had to include the bad facts as well as the facts that humanized my client. My job was to present the story accurately and help the court see the story from my client’s point of view.

Before law school, I taught English at the college and university level. I noticed that the majority of my students were quick to judge literary characters, but slow to sympathize with them. It was John Updike who said that the purpose of literature is to enlarge our sympathies, and it seemed to me it was the ability to sympathize which makes us human.

It never occurred to me to work for the prosecution, or to defend a governmental agency because I believe that to prosecute is to judge, whereas defending is an act of sympathy.

I write my biographies the same way. I tell the whole story, as accurately as I can, while striving for fairness and balance. It’s a good rule in life, as in literature: Before you criticize, make sure you understand. Before you judge, find a point of sympathy.