January-February 2009

What book, legal or otherwise, has taught you more than any other?

Trey Hill, Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Lubbock County

Being a cradle Episcopalian, growing up with Roman Catholics, and going to college with Baptists and Church of Christ folks, I have experienced the liturgical rituals, incense, smells and bells, bowing, kneeling, and hand-waving, foot-stomping revivals of several religions. I find many extra-Biblical books to be enlightening and helpful. Three in particular, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Life of Christ by Bishop Fulton Sheen, and The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel have influenced me and taught me more than the others.

The Screwtape Letters was truly my first reading of anything by C.S. Lewis. It affected me quite a bit, making me conscious of the spiritual warfare going on around and in us. This book helped me to be more aware of how easily I (and all of us) can slip into ungodly thoughts and actions.

I picked up The Case for Christ on a whim. It details an unbeliever’s investigation into the truth and plausibility of Christianity’s claims. The author articulated very well the bits of information and insights he came across through his interviews of scholars, which caused him to move from faithlessness to belief. When I debate Christianity’s truth with antagonists, I often use some of the discoveries and revelations Mr. Strobel wrote about, so I find this book very helpful in my own amateur attempts at apologetics.

My first really big theological book, other than the Bible, was Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ. His book is very long and very detailed, but it captured my attention and probably contributed to my eventually getting glasses. Bishop Sheen draws parallels between Biblical events, which had never occurred to me, and contrasted Christ’s life on earth and founding of a religion with the founders of other religions and us regular humans. Most striking was his claim that the cross of the crucifixion cast its shadow backward through time and overshadowed all aspects of Christ’s earthly life. Bishop Sheen’s insights helped me see some things more clearly and also gave me talking points for my own feeble efforts at persuasion.

All of these books emboldened my faith as I read and thought about what I’d read. It was not what I read by itself that convinced me of the truth, but rather, the books articulated aspects of life and religion that I found to be true based on my own experiences. All of these books continue to help me try to walk the narrow path, to grow as a Christian and mature as a man made by God.

Cathy Cochran, Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin

The book that means the most to me is my dog-eared, marginalia-filled copy of the complete plays of Shakespeare from my college days. Some 45 years later, I love it as much as I did then. Shakespeare reminds us that love, life, death, and the law haven’t changed much, if at all, throughout human history. We keep adding new twists, technology, and terms, but it’s the same human condition with all tragedy leavened by laughter and all comedy coating a serious purpose.     Throughout, “the play’s the thing” wherein the conscience of the law and the lessons of life are found. The law was developed by elders sitting around the campfire telling simple stories of truth and justice. Shakespeare turned those same stories into immortal art, and modern lawyers turn them into pedantic, plodding prose. We should all spend more time breathing life and poetry into our law so that it will command the hearts, as well as the minds, of our countrymen.

Valerie Bullock, Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Bastrop County

Prior to becoming an attorney, I was a voracious reader. I remember many a summer vacation spent with great books from all kinds of genres. After law school and law practice, something has changed regarding how I choose to spend my free time these days. Of the hundreds, if not thousands, of books I have read throughout my life, I would have to say the one book that has taught me more than any other is the Bible. I know that probably sounds trite to some; however, for me, the Bible is my foundation for living. Because I choose to believe it contains the essence of truth, my life is lived in accordance with that truth. I have endeavored always to integrate my faith in my practice. I know I am not always successful, but it is my desire to practice what I preach; that is, being a Christian is not something I do but it is who I am. One of my longstanding favorite passages of Scripture seems to speak directly to my position as an assistant district attorney and comes from the book of Micah, Chapter 6, verse 8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Lisa McMinn, Assistant State Prosecuting Attorney in Austin

Other than TDCAA publications, which have taught me all I need to know about being a prosecutor, the most educational and inspiring book I have read in recent memory is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It’s a smart, often funny, non-fiction account of how a family of four decided that for one year they would eat only what they or someone they knew had grown or raised. Dedicated to eating chemical-free vegetables and meat from animals that were humanely raised, they planted a large garden, raised their own chickens, and bought everything else from local farms.

This book inspired my inner farmer and made me more conscious of what I eat, where it came from, and how it got to me. I do at least some of my food shopping at the Austin farmer’s market, which sells produce from local family farms and meat from animals that grazed, pecked, or rooted around in a pasture instead of being cramped in a cage or feedlot. I still eat my share of genetically-modified, hormone-in-jected, preservative-enhanced, pesticide-laden junk that has traveled hundreds of miles to reach my plate, but I buy what I can directly from the source, and I have even planted my own vegetable garden. For a city girl like me, it’s gratifying to go out into the yard to “harvest” something for dinner, even if it’s just a couple of squashes or sprigs of rosemary.

Jack Choate, First Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Walker County

I must admit that I have been quite bookish lately. With a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old at home, I have delved quite deeply into the world of Clifford the Big Red Dog. Despite the big pretty pictures and sometimes multi-syllabic words, sadly, Clifford is barely relevant for any discussion here.

Caleb Carr’s The Alienist is a great read for prosecutors. The art of profiling a sado-masochistic serial killer is born in a turn-of-the-previous-century thriller. I regularly torture my students at Sam Houston State University with this book and its application to modern investigation methods. Its gruesome detail is also handy at keeping them awake not only during my class but every night for an entire semester.

Surely Diane Burch Beckham’s Annotated Criminal Laws of Texas deserves to be among the finalists in this beauty pageant. What this particular book lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in life-saving techniques. You can see my career progress through the covers of the various editions on my bookshelf. My first edition, for example, is hardly recognizable due to the drips of acidic sweat from holding that book like a warm blankie every time I had to address the court as a new attorney for the State of Texas. I have found over the years that sometimes finding a quiet moment and reading a little bit of law can truly come in handy for us lawyers. Go ahead and open to any page. Assuming Diane’s book agrees with you, no other tome will help you make it through the day with ease as this must-read.

All of that said, I suppose, in the end, my literary soul search has led me to one work that rises above all others as an influence on my approach to this legal career: The Prehistory of the Far Side by Gary Larson. No book has prepared me more for my daily routine as a prosecutor than the works of Larson. (Plus, like Clifford, the book is full of pictures.) When confronted with some of the ridiculous situations we find ourselves in on a regular basis, I constantly ask myself, “What would Larson have drawn if …?” What would Larson have drawn when a certain local citizen frantically called to report an intruder in his house, but upon kicking in the doors, the police ninja team found only the complainant’s meth lab? What would Larson have drawn when the police officer received the written statement from the eyewitness, noting, “I saw the stick and heard the lick”? What would Larson have drawn when a particularly creative but highly intoxicated college student told a police officer among many other memorable things, “I’m gonna eat you like bacon”?

When the people around you get down on this job, Larson can be a great help. Would Larson’s version of this particular defense attorney have arms and legs, or would he just slither around? Imagine, as a pontificating judge festers into a ridiculous tirade, how big Larson would draw his head. Larson’s creative process also teaches us a little about putting our case together. He could take an idea and turn it on its head to make it better. In the end, he makes his point, and we want to read more. Isn’t that what we want to elicit from jurors too?

I can only imagine what Gary Larson would have made of himself had he found a job as a prosecutor. Everyday, I seem to have an out-of-body experience, laughing quietly at the insanity of the world confronting us. No matter how silly, insignificant, morose, or macabre our jobs can be, we as prosecutors can never lose our sense of humor.

Angela Albers Converse, Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Wood County

The Bible is the most treasured book I have ever read. It is the book I turn to in my personal life and professional life over and over. It is always there to guide me when I need it most and to comfort me when I am uncomfortable.

I became a prosecutor in 2000 right out of law school, and I have turned to God’s word many times to help me deal with the stresses in dealing with the kinds of people and cases we as prosecutors handle.

I will never forget turning to my KJV Bible in one of my first trials when I came to work for Wood County after being in Rockwall County for several years. I was the new girl to East Texas with a lot of expectations. My first cases to go to trial involved the repeated raping of three little boys by their grandfather over several years. The father of these boys was in prison; he too had been abused by his father and had been a perpetrator of sexual abuse. These little boys, all under 9, suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Whenever I tried to ask the two youngest boys, who were so precious, about their grandfather, they would shut down. I talked with them on several occasions, but even the morning of testimony they had still not talked to me about what happened. Right before I went in the courtroom, I sat down with the oldest boy. I told him how important it would be for him to tell his story and how it would help him deal with what had happened to him now and in the future. He still did not say much.

When it was his turn to testify, I was blown away and had to control my own tears (especially as the mom of twin boys) when he told every little detail to that jury. He told things he had never told anyone before. Needless to say, his testimony was compelling. When he finished, I could see some of the weight fall off of his shoulders.

I finished the trial out by quoting Psalm 82:3 to the jury (“Defend the poor and fatherless, do justice to the afflicted and needy”). I reminded the jury that these little boys who were fatherless and who had been so horribly violated, deserved justice. When the jury returned life sentences on each case, some of my faith in humanity had been restored.

The Bible is timeless and will be guiding people long after I am gone. It is my biggest source of inspiration.

Staley Heatly, District Attorney in Wilbarger, Foard, and Hardeman Counties

In Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, author Moritz Thomsen chronicles his life as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small village on the Ecuadorian coast in the 1960s. He ably describes the exalted hope and crushing frustration felt by almost each and every volunteer who has served in the Peace Corps. I read the book after my wife and I had already been accepted to serve in the Peace Corps. At that time, I did not know that we would also be serving in a small Ecuadorian village.

Living Poor is not just a book for Peace Corps volunteers. It is for anyone interested in exploring the human situation. The book is at times hilarious and at others deeply sad, but it is always extremely honest. While the book is over 40 years old, its insights into the lives and culture of the impoverished, the difficulties of fully integrating into another community, and the struggles associated with development work, still ring true today.

Through his writing, Thomsen transports the reader to Rioverde, Ecuador. The reader feels the same sense of urgency Thomsen felt to bring about positive change and the same sense of despair at his failures to do so. In the end, the reader receives a fascinating glimpse of life in a developing country and the struggles faced by people trying to make a difference.

In his book, Thomsen writes, “Living poor is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things.”

Gabrielle Schmidt, Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Tarrant County

“Women do not need to read this book. They are born with this talent.” That is how my late father, Bob Guthrie (a very skilled plaintiff’s lawyer his entire career), inscribed How to Argue and Win Every Time, the Gerry Spence book I asked him to buy me the year I started law school. As it turned out, however, I learned more from this book than from any other I have ever read. Amazingly, its advice can be put to use not only against your opponent in the courtroom or during negotiations, but also in all of your life relationships, whether business or personal.

Spence teaches how to break through self-made barriers and how listening to your opponent must be fine-tuned to deliver the winning argument. Listening is the foundation for the technique and structure of the argument, and casting that skill aside will always weaken your position.

Getting on your opponent’s side of the argument is the logical next step. Repeat his major points to disarm him, giving credence to what is deserving. Then, rather than using carefully crafted words to attack your opponent and lay him out, choose words that reveal the justice or logic of your position.

I recall a particular DWI case near the top of the trial docket early in my career, and during docket call a couple of weeks before, the defense attorney approached me in his usual arrogant manner and told me that he was going to do me a favor and let me dismiss the case against his client. Rather than cutting him off and jumping into an all-out war of words, I smiled and said nothing. The silence was just what he needed to continue his favorite pastime, listening to himself argue. In the next few minutes he gave me enough information about his defense (the defendant’s claims of prior head injuries and brain mapping) to do some very valuable research over the next couple of weeks, which in turn, led me to a big win. My favorite part of that trial was when the defense expert left the stand, stopped at my counsel table, shook my hand, and within earshot of the jury, congratulated me on my cross-examination.

Had I jumped right into the gun-ready position two weeks before at docket call, I doubt I would have ever gotten the kind of information from my opponent that enabled me to thoroughly prepare for that cross. This little war story highlights one of the most important points that I learned from Mr. Spence, and that is, whenever possible, win without arguing.

The book is very empowering, and if there is someone out there who has not read it (besides my opponent in that DWI trial), I would highly recommend adding it to your library. It is one that I have truly put to good use over the years. ✤