Why did you upend your life to go back to school? Crime just didn’t pay, and it also often left me feeling like I should make a bigger difference, and help make the world a better place. Somehow, siding with the accused wasn’t a feel-good proposition very often. Criminal defense was a frustrating business. Clients would keep getting arrested, and the door was a revolving door but without guaranteed payment. Going to trial was always a losing proposition financially, even when I’d win big for my clients. It’s a tough dilemma—but while I feel that everyone is entitled to representation, I also felt entitled to earn a living to support my family, and often the two goals were at odds. Regardless of the outcome (assuming they were guilty) or how hard I worked, clients would oftentimes file challenges and complaints, which still come to this day. When the recession came in 2008 and lingered for a few years, and because my partner was in a position to carry our economic load, it was a natural time to make a change to do better and to put my skills to better use. That’s what I did. I closed down the office, and I moved West, initially with three kids in college, and one staying behind in Connecticut to finish high school. People say you can’t make big changes, but I am proof that, with the right support system, anything is possible even in your 40s and 50s. Arizona was quite different from the East Coast in so many ways, and it was the change I was looking for. I was drawn to the Sonoran desert and the Southwest. My parents had retired to the Phoenix area, and I have family that followed them there. We had a few friends in Tucson, with whom we became reacquainted, but the first few years were also a period of intense focus and study and change for me, complicated slightly by a partner and a son who stayed in Fairfield County, while I studied, and we rebuilt an abandoned horse farm. It was an exhilarating time but not an easy one; I was on a budget like a student and while I didn’t live on pizza, I did consume endless simple meals of baked tamales. As a lawyer, indigenous law offered so much I was profoundly interested in: law, civil rights, human rights, American history, nation building, the environment. My advice? If you can afford it, going back to school in your 50s is fantastic. A reboot is life-changing.
What did you know about the indigenous peoples before you started your program? I knew what most lawyers on the East Coast know; I had a familiarity with the local Connecticut tribes like the Pequots and the Mohegans and knew they had their own courts. It’s very different for lawyers on the East Coast and in the West, particularly Arizona. Arizona has 23 tribes, and lawyers are more likely to be aware of clients who are Native American, and to follow their issues in the local media. It isn’t until you really start talking to people that you’ll find out they have an indigenous heritage. It’s not something that’s obvious.
How did you pick mass shootings as your theme? The subject picked me. I just finished my first semester of doctoral coursework at the University of Arizona College of Law, taking indigenous law classes, and I got off the plane at JFK. As I was picking up my luggage, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was being reported live on TV. It hit me hard. I knew Newtown well from being a criminal lawyer in Fairfield County, and a former prosecutor in the district. Over the next few weeks, I watched the investigations carefully. We knew a family—my partner did primarily—who lost a 6-year-old daughter—and we spent some time grieving with them. When I got back to Arizona in January I decided to research whether a school shooting ever happened on an Indian reservation, and I was surprised when I found one. Looking at how the Red Lake tribe responded to the school shooting was enlightening and very consistent with everything I was learning in my courses. Over the weeks following the shooting, Marian (who was running a national public relations agency) got involved in helping the victims of Sandy Hook handle the deluge of publicity; with the help of another PR agency, she arranged a meeting between Peter Lanza, the father of the shooter, Adam, and the Parker family, parents of 6-year-old Emilie, and we saw firsthand that such meetings can help. Plus, it was the one-year anniversary of the Tucson shooting; Gabby Gifford’s life was saved at the University Hospital just down the block from the law school. The remarkable sequence of events set off my thinking that this was a very worthwhile topic to write about.
Have you ever represented a mass shooter? Would you? I’ve represented and prosecuted murderers, but never a mass murderer. I would, yes, but not without a lot of thought and under the right circumstances. A case like that will define your career. Murder is always different. The cases will be a part of you the rest of your life. A rampage murder with many completely innocent victims will scar you in ways you can’t imagine. Talk to anybody who walked through the school at Sandy Hook, was at the firehouse waiting for answers or was at the emergency room. They will never be the same. I can even say the same thing about my 20-something son, Reuben, who was at home during the Newtown year, and who sat silently and listened to the Parkers talk with Marian one evening about five or six weeks after Emilie’s murder. Anyone who comes near to a mass shooting is changed forever.
There is such sadness in your topic, how do you escape the sadness? There’s no escaping it; every community has been touched in some way. It’s a really difficult subject to talk about and to write about. The sadness is incomprehensible. I was moved when I read what Newtown parent Jeremy Richman said about the pain parents of children killed in rampages have to endure. It turns out the pain was even greater than I imagined, and it was deeply hurtful when Jeremy Richman ultimately took his own life a few years after his daughter Arielle was murdered. I found that every legal case I ever handled that involved a death was really hard. I handled a lot of fatality cases, things like DWIs where people were killed, as just an example, or cases where somebody involved in the case committed suicide. It changes you. Just ask my kids; they will tell you that the sadness lingers, and creeps, and that it is imperative to gain perspective.
Is your book a guidebook for communities that experience these kinds of incidents? With the great media frenzy following each tragedy, there’s so much coverage but little attention devoted to what happens after the coverage fizzles out. I wanted to have that conversation. If I can help families and communities possibly reconcile with their loss, I’ve made a contribution. The book has a chapter of recommendations for steps that can be taken after a rampage. It also has a lot of insight into examples of mass shooting scenarios that only made the pain worse. It’s something nobody expects to happen to them, but the reality is becoming more and more likely, sadly, that it could.
You seem to have empathy for the victims and their families but also for the families of the shooters? Why? Imagine the horror of a parent who discovers their child just committed a mass shooting. A firestorm of international media closes in on them, sometimes barges in on them. Most of the time the shooter is killed or commits suicide in the blaze, so the parent has such complex emotions to deal with, not to mention funerals and burials. They’re turned out of their homes as every inch is pulled apart by police. Then they get hit with hatred and vitriol. It’s really more than a person can endure. It’s easy to point fingers at families of rampage shooters, but as anyone who has children knows, there are limits to how much control we have over anybody else, even our own children. Do parents know what’s in their kids’ closets, or backpacks? They’d better know.
What was the hardest part about writing the book? After a mass shooting, people feel so helpless. They want to hold somebody accountable. So, what happens is that prosecutors act and people get arrested, lawyers are hired, and people become adversaries. Meanwhile the victims and their families are left to suffer. The public looks at the rampage shooter as a monster, so the hardest part of writing the book was getting people to pay any attention at all to how the murders affect the families of the shooters or to react in any way other than to vilify and condemn offenders and their families.
What did you find most similar about the Native American community and the non-indigenous community in dealing with the aftermath of rampage shootings? What was most different? As the father of four millennials, I identify with parents raising children today. What was consistent in all communities I studied was the unconditional love people have for their own children, regardless of the unspeakable evil acts committed by them. What was different was that in indigenous communities, people were far more reluctant to completely turn against the shooters themselves, remembering that the shooters were somebody’s cousin or uncle. They were much more willing to look at what was happening in the shooter’s life that led up to the tragedy. My empathy for families of mass shooters was first inspired after listening to Emilie’s father, Robbie, on national television the day after Emilie was killed: “First of all, I’d really like to offer our deepest condolences to all the families who are directly affected by this shooting. It’s a horrific tragedy, and we want everyone to know that our hearts and our prayers go out to them. This includes the family of the shooter. I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you. And I want you to know that our family and our love and our support go out to you as well.”
Robbie Parker, ABC NEWS, Dec. 15, 2014 https://abcnews.go.com/US/video/connecticut-shooting-tragedy-robbie-parker-17986590
Do you consider yourself softer on crime as an academic than you were as a prosecutor? I was a pretty tough prosecutor, no doubt about it. But I was also a defense attorney for 20 years, so I think I offer an atypical balance. I don’t consider myself “soft on crime.” My proposals don’t consider eliminating punishment for heinous criminal actions; they contemplate how to incorporate healing into the system. I certainly encourage other goals for courts, like restoration of social bonds, but also tackling the mental health and welfare of criminal offenders. I’ve always been an opponent of capital punishment and of inflexible sentencing schemes, even when I was a prosecutor. In that regard, the approach of the book is consistent with my past. What is new is the inclusion of indigenous perspectives.
Have you ever known a mass shooter personally? No, I haven’t, not yet; although as a criminal lawyer I’ve met many murderers. It’s eerie, though, the proximity I’ve had, and probably we all have to the shooters and shootings. I taught at the same Connecticut college Adam Lanza briefly attended and was an adjunct professor when he was a student there. I personally knew the grandmother of one of Lanza’s victims. I was a prosecutor in the office that ended up investigating the Sandy Hook shooting. I taught at the Tucson community college Jared Loughner attended, although not when he was a student. Lots of victims of the Tucson shooting and other shootings attended the University of Arizona where I taught.
You have spent time with the families of victims—what lessons can they teach us? They’re eager to help others cope with pain. They’ll forgive when they’re ready to forgive. They can teach courage; like the courage to face tomorrow. They are courageous but will insist they’re ordinary and shouldn’t be considered heroes. Provide safe spaces for them after an incident, places safe from harm, safe from grandstanders or people who have the audacity to tell them the coffins they buried were empty. Spending time listening to them or talking with them is more valuable than time spent battling in endless lawsuits. They’ll also tell you just how kind and generous people can be after a tragedy—complete strangers, from coast to coast.
Why does it seem like there is a shooting almost every week? I could barely keep up with the number of shootings. When I started my research in 2013, I started maintaining a list for the book. The list kept growing exponentially. There were something like 74 school shootings alone in the year and a half after the Sandy Hook shooting. The list of shootings takes up 20 pages of the book.
Has this study of evil and healing changed you? How? I have a hard time watching the news, which is hazardous for a news junkie and a source of tension with Marian, who would keep CNN on 24 hours a day if I didn’t protest. I’m so afraid I’m going to turn it on and see a SWAT team surrounding a school or a church, EMTs rushing people into ambulances on stretchers. It’s unbearable. I avoid being in big crowds. I am a total believer in civil rights and the right to remain silent, but the right is based on police interrogation tactics, and that’s an entirely different subject than a healthy life after crime victimization. Evil? Twenty years after Columbine, I don’t think we really understand what makes people want to go out and end as many human lives as they physically can. The few shooters that survive can’t really explain it themselves. We can talk about contributing factors, but it’s still pure speculation.I remember when I was a prosecuting attorney, an old retired judge passed me on the elevator. He mumbled something I couldn’t understand. “Excuse me?” “Minnows,” he said. “Minnows?” I asked. “Stop going after the minnows,” he said, “and go after the sharks.” If the felony criminals were the sharks, mass shooters are blue whales.