In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the great Atticus Finch played by Gregory Peck said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I’ve thought long and hard about this quote.
While this quote might seem straightforward, the devil is in the details. Philosophical questions about human nature and the human condition are deceptively simple but have broad and far-reaching implications. In a real sense, it sparks an intellectually stimulating discussion around a number of thought-provoking questions that demand a deep and thorough understanding of one’s own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives as well as their effects on others.
To stand inside someone else’s shoes requires knowledge of yourself. Piggybacking on the theme from the Atticus Finch quote, before you can slip into another person’s shoes, you need to know how big your own feet are. In other words, before you can begin to understand another person you must first understand yourself.
This is where the creative world of acting overlaps with the courtroom and I dare say, may have its most significant impact. Aristotle said that the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself. Aristotle captured the core principle of acting — the ability of the actor to use his or her imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior, creating performances grounded in the human truth of the moment.
Acting provides the unique opportunity to experience the world from another person’s point of view. To express yourself as they do. To channel your emotions through this other person and to find as much of them in yourself as you can. When an actor “plays” a character, fictional or non-fictional, he is slipping into their skin and experiencing relationships to people, places, things, and events from their point of view.
Once we are in touch with our own feelings, we become better equipped to express the feelings of another person, particularly our clients. In essence, we become sensitized responders who are capable of feeling empathy for other people. Gerry Spence has dubbed it, “crawling into the hide of the other.” He uses this phrase as a metaphor for “tapping into another person’s experience in order to see things the way he saw them and feel them as he felt them.”
To me, this means putting ourselves in our clients’ shoes and entering the matrix — the very strange and unfamiliar world that our client inhabits.
Once we slip into our client’s skin, we can see, hear, and feel the world from his point of view. In other words, we can share the emotion of the client. Doing so fosters a deeper understanding of what formed this once bright-eyed and bushy-tailed child into the man he is today and why he now stands before a criminal judge dressed in an orange jumpsuit and restrained in handcuffs and shackles. Understanding who your client is and his history is the master-key for unlocking the technical puzzle that is your client’s story. Where has he come from? What has he done? What has he endured? I can’t empathize if I don’t, won’t or can’t relate to my client’s experience.
Slowly we begin to care and as we do, we acquire the power to cause others to care. As challenging as this might be, it is not the hardest part. The hardest part is shouting out to the world — from this dark and frightening place — what you see.
A disclaimer is in order here. The hide of a defendant in a criminal case is not a warm and cozy chalet located on the foot of the Swiss Alps where you might stop for tea and trinkets on your way down. As Gerry Spence so eloquently states, “There is wretchedness there, not to mention pain and sorrow. There are always the scars of injustice and the evil mangling of the mind of the once innocent.”
As graphic as it might be, when I think of shouting out to a jury the wretchedness I see in the dark underbelly of my client, the first image that comes to mind is the mangled body of Hayden Christensen’s character, Anakin Skywalker, being engulfed by lava and bursting into flames on the edge of an embankment on Mustafar.
This disturbing scene teaches a valuable lesson for us as gladiators of the courtroom. First, the screeching cries and wailing groans that Hayden let out did not come from the script — the script did not have tears. Instead, they came out of Hayden’s own sorrow. Had he never cried before, Hayden would have never known his own sorrow. And he would never have been able to emblazon the most tragic scene of the movie — if not the entire series — so vividly in the audiences’ minds as to leave a lasting impression.
To do this, Hayden had to find the essence of that particular emotion inside himself. When an actor genuinely marries his emotions with that of the character and grounds the material to himself, something magical happens: the actor’s emotions erupt like a volcano and the character comes to life.
Second, Hayden’s heart-wrenching cries and agonizing pain can be understood as his argument.
Finally, by arguing out of his own sorrow — out of his own experience — Hayden did so acknowledging that we, as the audience, have experienced sorrow as well. Had we never experienced sorrow before, the scene would have been an abysmal failure.
Similarly, the jury has experienced emotions similar to those of your client. With the insight of how it was experienced, the jury can understand and relate to your client on a deeper level.
In this, I find the inspiration to never allow a client that I am representing to be judged on the bare fact of committing the crime itself (i.e., that he has “killed” or “raped”). The danger this poses is obvious. One who commits a heinous crime is hard to care about. Very simply, it is too easy to point and to accuse and to hate on the bare facts. To do so relieves the jury of the responsibility of understanding.
As my grandfather once said, there are always three sides to a story: “Yours, mine, and the truth.” The same applies in a trial. There is no such thing as a set of “bare facts” that tell the whole story. Two worlds always exist. One is the world that is apparent, the one we see: the bare facts. The other is the world we do not see: a world that is personal, perhaps one that is as secret as the “Forbidden Forest.” The latter is the world that our clients inhabit.
As lawyers, if we concern ourselves with nothing more than the bare facts, the trial would be nothing more than a long guilty plea. But mitigating facts always lie beneath the surface waiting to be discovered. The challenge is in finding them. And this challenge is often times overwhelming. Indeed, it can be as arduous as an archaeological dig for prehistoric rock drawings in a remote cave in the Sahara desert.
But for those willing to take this risk, there is no greater reward. By the time the jury begins their deliberations, they will have no choice but to see your client as a son, a father, a brother, an uncle, a nephew endowed with the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as every other human being in this world, not to mention all of the hopes, dreams, and ambitions that burn like a fire in the human soul. There is no better way to humanize your client and banish from the minds of the jury the crude notion that he is somehow inferior based on nothing more than the fact that he stands accused of committing a crime (for which he is presumed innocent) and has been branded with the Scarlett Letters, “D-e-f-e-n-d-a-n-t.”