Notion to Compel

Ramón Alvarado. Defense lawyer. Trial attorney. Advocate for justice.

Thank you, Phil Robertson

The moment the last word left my mouth, I had the instant realization that my life was in serious danger. I immediately turned and attempted to run from my dad as he grabbed the back of my pants, preventing my escape. Like I was on a treadmill, my legs continued running, but my torso didn’t move an inch. It was the one and only time my dad spanked me, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. As a 6-year-old, this was the moment I first understood the concept to think before you speak, a lesson I still practice today. I owe you, Dad.

Phil Robertson is a public figure who wants to speak his opinions to the masses, so let the man express himself. His comments weren’t spontaneous, and he had the chance to consider his answers before he spoke. His recent anti-gay remarks are his strongly held beliefs, and if GQ Magazine is willing to publish them, there must be an audience willing to listen.

As the audience, let’s stop looking at Phil’s comments from a legal perspective, but rather glimpse at them from a sociological point of view. Believe it or not, Phil’s anti-gay remarks and others like them are important and benefit us all. When a public figure expresses his or her personal opinions about controversial topics, it brings decisive issues to the forefront and sparks debate, or in the case of homosexuality and religion, revives an important topic. Contemplation and critical thinking allow us all to make progress.

While I support Phil’s right to express himself, I personally believe his message is wrong. Any belief that discriminates against people based on sexual orientation seems preposterous to me. What matters is whether a person is compassionate and treats other people well. It seems outrageous to disregard these qualities and deem someone inferior simply based on sexual preference. Isn’t this type of discrimination eerily similar to the discrimination that led to attempts to purify the Aryan race in the 1930s? Judging a person for what they are rather than who they are is misguided and wrong.

Let’s not confuse the debate over Phil Robertson’s comments as an issue about free speech; this is about acceptance, tolerance and growth. Only when people freely express themselves, whether right or wrong, do we as a society ultimately progress. Thanks for the opportunity, Phil.


When the curtain falls

If you challenged me to name every spectator sport I could think of, I can assure you that “death” would never enter my mind or exit my mouth. That’s why it’s hard to imagine people actively gathering to witness someone’s death. During a state-sanctioned execution, death becomes a spectator sport.

Spectators file into a small room with seating that closely – and paradoxically – resembles that of a modest church congregation. People take their seats on wooden pews, anxiously awaiting the execution. Rather than thumbing through a Bible or hymn book, spectators can fidget with the vomit bags that are conveniently placed in every pew.

Center stage is a brightly-lit room with a small gurney. The clean white sheets on the gurney send the message of sterility. The simplicity of the room sends the message of legitimacy.

In the audience sits the family of the victim; they’re here to watch the execution of the man who killed their loved one. By this time, they’ve undoubtedly sat through hundreds of hours of testimony in a courtroom. They’ve relived the death of their loved one over and over again. They sit in anticipation of a new death that hopefully brings them closure and relief – a killing to avenge a killing.

As a criminal defense attorney, I have a strong opinion about the soundness of executing a person as a punishment for a crime. When I initially decided to write this blog post, I planned on discussing the deficiency of capital punishment by highlighting (a) how it wastes limited resources and (b) how more than 140 people have been exonerated from death row since 1973. But things changed for me while doing the research.

I’ve read dozens of personal accounts from the families of victims. I’ve learned about their tremendous pain. I’ve read details of how innocent victims have been murdered. I’ve felt my own heart aching for the parents who lost a young child, usually in a horrible, gruesome way. I cannot fathom the pain these people feel, and I want to make it go away. I suddenly found myself wondering, ‘Maybe destroying the monster that caused the pain really is the answer.’

It can’t be. After an internal struggle, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t want to be part of a world where ending a life is a solution. Why can’t we just lock someone up and throw away the key? An execution can’t heal the pain that has already been felt. It won’t bring back loved ones. It doesn’t change the past.

After all of my research, I’ve become inspired – not by the horrors I’ve read, not by comments of victims’ families who think killing the person responsible for their pain is the solution – but by the victims’ families who understand that pain can’t be healed through hate.

Marietta Jaeger, whose 7 year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped and murdered, eloquently stated:

I say there is no amount of retaliatory deaths that would compensate to me the inestimable value of my daughter’s life, nor would they restore her to my arms. To say that the death of any other person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones who are victims. We cannot put a price on their lives. That kind of justice would only dehumanize and degrade us because it legitimates an animal instinct for gut-level, blood thirsty revenge. In my case, my own daughter was such a gift of joy and sweetness and beauty, that to kill someone in her name would have been to violate and profane the goodness of her life; the idea is offensive and repulsive to me.

I felt inspired by what Marietta Jaeger said after losing her young daughter. I felt even more inspired after reading about a family from Atlanta, Georgia.

On June 30, 1974, Alberta Williams King played the organ at Sunday service inside Ebenezer Baptist Church. During the service, a man rose from the front pew and drew two pistols. He began to fire shots, and one of the bullets struck and killed Alberta.

Alberta was the mother of Martin Luther King Jr. She died just steps away from where her son had preached nonviolence. The man who killed her was later convicted and received the death penalty. Despite the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. six years earlier, and the fact that the church gunman also meant to kill Martin Luther King Sr., the King family fought to change the gunman’s sentence from death to life imprisonment.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached for forgiveness and against violence. The King family understood the value of the lives they lost. They stood true to the message Martin Luther King Jr. preached: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Let’s end the hate. Let’s prevent the pain rather than avenge it. Let’s add light to the darkness.


Life is a balancing act

Last year, while driving to work, I heard an entertaining story on the radio. After Peyton Manning signed a mega deal to become the Denver Broncos’ starting quarterback, local reporters were eager to talk to him. His arrival in Denver was highly publicized, but since being flown in on the team’s private jet, no one had seen Manning around town, and no one knew where he was living. A journalistic manhunt yielded no trace of the star football player, and he was rumored to have left the Denver area. Several days later, Manning was found.

Where was he? He was reviewing game film and practicing nearly 24 hours a day. No one knew where he was living because he didn’t have a house; he was eating, sleeping and training at the team’s practice facility. Manning didn’t want to waste time commuting, and he didn’t want to spend his time on anything but football. He was dedicating all of his time to being the very best quarterback that he could be. Manning’s passion to succeed meant that he had to focus solely on football. As a result, he wasn’t living a well-balanced life.

I recently had a conversation with some young lawyers about the topic of life balance, and it startled me how many of them believed it was easily achievable. Unfortunately, life balance doesn’t exist in its most ideal form – it’s impossible to be great at more than just a couple of things in life. You may be a fantastic parent and a great lawyer, but if you dedicate time to becoming an actor, your roles as a parent and lawyer will suffer. After all, something’s got to give.

Think about the different facets in our lives that compete for our time: career, child, sibling, spouse, parent, friend, [insert your own hobby here], etc. Now consider whether it’s possible to commit the time and energy to be great at all of them. It’s not. Many of us are good at a lot of things, but if we want to truly become the best we can in a specific area of life, we have to forgo life balance altogether. If we try to become great in each area of our lives, we slip into the common category of “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

If you’re a well-rounded person with a well-balanced life, you probably don’t have enough time to become the best at something. For example, if you’re striving to be the very best lawyer in your field, you don’t work 9 to 5. You get to the office early. You stay in the office late. You work weekends and, if you aren’t in the office, you take work home and hope your family understands. You give a piece of yourself to your work and your clients, and that’s one less piece you can give to someone or something else.

Just like we can’t be everything to everyone, we certainly can’t be everything we’ve always wanted to be – not because we’re not capable, but because we simply don’t have the time. If you’re a great lawyer, you’ll never have the time to be a professional poker player. If you’re a competitive marathon runner, the time you dedicate to your training is time away from being a great spouse and father. To become one of the best in your field, you have to devote Manning-like focus and time. If Manning spent less time on the practice field and more time working on his golf swing, he probably wouldn’t be the future Hall of Fame quarterback he is today.

A few years ago, I was talking to a friend who was just finishing his residency. He talked about the discipline and sacrifice it would take to be considered one of the best in his field. He told me about a doctor who was often regarded as the best brain surgeon in the world. The doctor was on-call and available to go into surgery 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If he had ever taken a vacation, no one could remember it. Despite earning millions of dollars, the doctor lived in a small apartment next door to the hospital so that he could always be within five minutes of his work. To be the best brain surgeon in the world, he was willing to make a lot of personal sacrifices.

Life isn’t about finding a good balance; it’s about finding the balance that brings you the most joy.


The intimate N-word

There’s no doubt that I’m getting older. In the mornings, I often find myself looking in the mirror at different angles, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone who looks a little thinner and a little less bald. It seems to take a bit longer to find that flattering angle with each passing day.

My girlfriend can comment on my weight and hairline along with my parents, sister, and a couple of close friends. There are certain remarks these people can make to me simply because of who they are – people I consider to be family. Their remarks may make me uncomfortable, but they don’t leave me wounded. I know they aren’t trying to hurt me personally, and despite their comments, they love and care about me unconditionally. Certain things can be said within a family that can’t be stated by someone outside of the family. After all, I can talk about my momma, but you sure as hell better not talk about my momma.
I can’t use the N-word, and if you aren’t black, you sure as hell better not use it either. I am not part of the black history, struggle, and family. Over the past several weeks, after the story about Paula Deen spread across the media like wildfire, I was shocked at how many white people complained about what they perceived as a double standard. Some examples include:

“Paula Deen can’t use the N-word…BUT rap musicians use it daily and there’s no big issue over it.  Sounds like a double standard to me.”
“Oh please, blacks use the N-word more than anyone else. Turn off the food network refuse to watch or pay for the channel. No reason for Paula to beg anyone for forgiveness because there is still freedom of speech. I hear no black people apologizing for calling white people crackers.”

Black people using the N-word is not a double standard.

Tim Wise, one of our country’s leading anti-racist writers and speakers, puts it simply: “History has been a double standard, so (white people) get the hell over it.” The history of the N-word from the mouths of white people isn’t very confusing; it’s a clear history full of racism, hate, and deprivation. It’s a word that was used to oppress the black culture. It’s a word that was spoken from the lips of whites as they lynched innocent black men in an attempt to intimidate and control black people. Who cares if you didn’t personally contribute to the oppression of black people? That doesn’t make you part of the family that suffered.

There is a history to the N-word, and if black people want to use it, history has more than afforded them the right to have the conversation of when, how, and if the word should be used. To the people screaming “double standard,” you aren’t part of that family, so you don’t get to make the family rules.


I am Trayvon Martin … and the jury is right

I still remember the flashing blue lights in my rearview mirror as I pulled to the side of the road. I remember the officer’s attitude with me when I simply asked why I was being pulled over. I still remember his hands sweeping up and down my body as he “checked me for weapons” during a traffic stop that turned out to be anything but routine.

I was 16 years old, driving home from McDonald’s, when I was stopped by the police for a traffic violation. However, the nature of the traffic violation still remains a mystery to me. When I asked the officer why I was being stopped, he responded, “Shut the f*** up, and get out of the car.” The officer called for back-up.

For the next hour, I was at the mercy of 12 officers. Yes, 12 officers, and no answer as to why I was pulled over. I was searched, my car was searched, and I stood humiliated on the side of the road on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I was a young, Hispanic male driving through a wealthy, white neighborhood. The officers made it abundantly clear that I didn’t belong and I wasn’t welcome.

I was Trayvon Martin that day. I was stereotyped, and it was assumed I was up to no good. I look back and consider myself fortunate to walk away from the situation to resume the life I was just beginning; Trayvon wasn’t so lucky. It is undisputed that if George Zimmerman had minded his own business, Trayvon would be alive today. Instead, he decided to follow after Trayvon because of the way he looked; he was a young, black teenager who had to be up to no good. After all, in Zimmerman’s words,“These guys always get away.”

Stereotypes, racism, and idiocy will always be part of our world. Trayvon Martin wasn’t the first person to pay for our world’s shortcomings and unfortunately won’t be the last. My disgust with George Zimmerman will last forever. The 16-year-old me wouldn’t have been satisfied with a guilty verdict; he would have wanted equal retribution – an eye for an eye. However, I have changed a lot since then.

My heart felt heavy as I heard the verdict blasted across the media outlets, but my mind knew it was the right decision. After 16 months of piecemeal information explaining what might have happened that night, one thing became crystal clear – there was no evidence to disprove that Zimmerman acted in self-defense at the time of the shooting.

A guilty verdict would satisfy our inherent craving for revenge; it would punish George Zimmerman for putting himself in the situation that day. A guilty verdict would mean that the jury didn’t care if Zimmerman ultimately acted in self-defense after the confrontation escalated.

Convicting Zimmerman would have been a crushing blow to the American judicial system – ignoring the concept of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” and transforming the courtroom into a gathering place for people with metaphorical torches and pitchforks. Only Zimmerman knows if he feared for his life during the altercation, so we simply can’t send him to prison. We are all innocent until proven guilty, and, in this case, the prosecution did not prove that Zimmerman was guilty.

Do I think that George Zimmerman is guilty of profiling Trayvon Martin? Yes. Do I think that George Zimmerman was proven guilty in a court of law? No.