I know not whether laws be right,
Or whether laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long. – Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Back in the middle 1990’s, the law firm I worked for began to take on civil rights and wrongful conviction and imprisonment cases–cases which elicited my great compassion. Imagine the psychological state of a person who’d gone to prison for something he hadn’t done.
Dave the Dude told me about one new client who had certainly been wronged. As I moaned about the poor man, Dave warned me, “But he isn’t a nice guy. He’s innocent in this case, but he’s done bad things in the past.”
What Dave the Dude was saying was: there are some people who are really, um, difficult but still have viable lawsuits. As time passed and cases accumulated, I lived through what he meant. Although I always remained moved by the righteousness of the case and worked hard at it, I didn’t always love the client.
One of them, Staff Man, had spent nearly twenty years in prison for a crime he hadn’t committed. By the time he got out, he was not only crazy but had converted to an individualistic form of Islam that mandated he proselytize very loudly and not entirely rationally, and carry around a huge “staff,” i.e., the trunk of a small tree, which he often banged on the floor and waved around with menace afore- and after-thought. Lots of menace.
As part of his lawsuit, we had to have Staff Man evaluated by a psychiatric expert we’d retained. An appointment was set up for the appointment-unreliable Staff Man to talk with Doc Diffingwell, a prominent forensic psychologist (also a scholar of the Kabbalah–the real one, not Madonna’s).
Since Doc’s main office was in one of New York’s major psychiatric hospitals, someone decided that maybe the meeting should be elsewhere, in less threatening territory, and someone figured that our conference room was unthreatening enough.
Staff Man did show up on the right date (although possibly not anywhere near the right time) and Doc D, a warm, funny, smart man who was one of the best trial witnesses I’ve ever seen, closed himself into the conference room with Staff Man–who had brought, as he was wont to do, his prayer rug, and had spread it out over the floor.
The conference room had glass walls. I kept an eye on Doc D, one of my favorite people, as he interviewed Staff Man, one of my not favorite people.
At some point in the interview, I suddenly heard frightening shouting. I looked through the glass. Staff Man had raised his staff in an alarming manner. Doc D looked pretty calm.
Afterward I asked Doc D. what all the screaming was about. Well, Doc D said, Staff Man had asked him some questions and learned that the Doc was ex-orthodox Jewish. A philosophical “discussion” ensued. The climax came when Staff Man ferociously offered Doc a choice: “Do you choose the Staff”–raising the thing high above Doc’s head–“or do you choose the prayer rug?” pointing the Staff downward.
“Prayer rug,” Doc said.
“Good choice,” said Staff Man, charmingly, his eyes a-twinkle.
Despite his personality, Staff Man’s lawsuit settled successfully–as it should have, since he had been horribly wronged–but he was scary enough that once when he called up and threatened his imminent arrival, I sent everyone home and shut the office down early.