Legally Speaking: From the Mailbag

John G. Browning Sep. 26, 2011, 2:18pm

One of the intangible rewards that comes with writing a column like this is the hope that your words will have an impact on someone's life.

I've seen my work cited in law reviews, legal blogs and other articles, but hearing directly from individuals about what a particular column meant to them resonates on a much more personal level.

With many media outlets sharing content online as well as in print, work that may have initially been thought of as local can cast wide-ranging ripples across the digital pond.

I've been contacted by readers from all across the United States, not to mention the United Kingdom, Japan and India. A few of the more recent letters I've received stand out, not just because of what they've led to but also because the source of the correspondence was not my typical reader.

For example, when writing about serious subjects like the crisis in providing legal services for the indigent or about racial injustices, I haven't been shy about expressing my Catholic faith. While one or two readers didn't appreciate that, the overwhelming majority of those writing to me were supportive, and some even thanked me for not hesitating to discuss the subject.

That reaction led to an unexpected invitation to address the Dallas chapter of the Christian Legal Society, where I recently spoke on the topic of how practicing one's profession and professing one's faith don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Another recent column, "A Father's Lessons," detailed the enduring influence of the principles instilled in me by my father, a small town pharmacist—principles that have guided me in my law practice. I was surprised and delighted when I learned this column was written about in the monthly publication of the American Society for Pharmacy Law, complete with a link to the entire article.

Among that magazine's readers was an Ohio woman who coordinates and provides continuing legal education courses for pharmacists, courses which are offered and accredited through Ohio's State Board of Pharmacy. She asked for permission to reprint my column and include it in their educational materials on professionalism; I was only too happy to grant her request. As it turns out, my father's lessons are going to educate a much wider audience than just his son the lawyer.

Sometimes I've been surprised by the author of a letter. Earlier this year, I wrote a column "The Trial is Over, But Not for Everyone" about the efforts to provide psychological counseling services for jurors who have endured grisly, disturbing testimony and evidence in brutal criminal cases.

Texas is a national leader in these efforts, thanks to the tireless work of Sharon Sedgwick Custer, who witnessed firsthand the impact of such evidence on jurors during the trial of her daughter's murderer in Austin.

After the column, I was gratified to see Sharon writing online to one media outlet applauding my column for raising public awareness of such an important subject. She was even kind enough to write a letter supporting that column's recent nomination for a journalism award.

I was even more surprised to get a letter from Jeffrey "Dell" Westbrook, an inmate at a Texas correctional facility in Abilene. I don't know what crime Mr. Westbrook is incarcerated for, but judging from the fact that he's in a "Super Max" (maximum security) in administrative segregation (solitary confinement), it's probably pretty serious. He spends a fair amount of time poring over lawbooks, and somehow came across my article "Saying It With Style," which is all about unusual and humorous casenames.

Mr. Westbrook may have lost his freedom, but he apparently hasn't lost his sense of humor. In a very articulate letter, he wrote to suggest several possible additional cases should I ever write a sequel to that column.

Among the real life cases he came across were Chew v. Gates, which appropriately is about the legal dispute arising from a dogbite, and Battie v. Estelle, a case involving the ordering of a psychological exam because someone who actually went "batty."

He also pointed out the inadvertent humor in the case entitled U.S. v. Sealed Juvenile 1, saying maybe they should let that juvenile out "or drill some airholes, or he'll suffocate. The old 'Prince Albert in a can' joke."

Perhaps the most poignant letter I've ever received also came from prison. In my recent two-part series "Sixteen, and Life to Go," I wrote about the issue of juveniles sentenced as adults to life in prison, and I highlighted the case of Chad Uptergrove.

Chad is 20 years into a life sentence, and still maintains his innocence for the crime that saw him cast into the Texas prison system—a teenager doing time surrounded by hardened adult criminals.

While I have cleaned up the grammar and spelling, Chad's own words underscore the theme of the article:

"As a juvenile entering a prison system full of grown men, I was thrown into an environment that preys on weakness and people force you to fight or pay protection, and that protection can be in whatever form they desire. You are thrown into a world where every extreme of criminal activity and criminal lifestyle is practiced on a daily basis. Prison does not rehabilitate; it only makes you worse by forcing you to embrace a criminal lifestyle, for which your very survival depends upon. You're in a world ruled by violence . . . ."

Chad goes on to explain how, when he entered the Texas penitentiary system in the early '90s, gang violence in prison—drawn along racial lines—was at an all-time high:

"Being a young white kid, I was immediately targeted. I cannot even recall how many times I was forced into a fight for no other reason than the fact that I was white, or the fact that I was young, and new to the system—apparently those things qualified me as a target. I had no idea the role race played in prison.

In the free world, I had friends and went to school with many different types of ethnic backgrounds. But in prison, you are ridiculed or looked down upon for interacting or just conversing with [someone of] another race. I saw young white kids getting raped and even murdered. I did not want to become a victim of these attacks. As a result of the day to day violence around me, I too became violent. It was either that or die—in my mind, I had no choice."

The years of living in such a brutal environment, the strain of seeing his appeals denied at every turn, and the rapidly dwindling hope of having his life sentence cut short have taken their toll on Chad Uptergrove.

He has tried to commit suicide on three occasions and, today, state monies that could have been spent educating and rehabilitating a teenager are instead being spent housing a 37-year-old man in the "gladiator school" that is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and medicating him for severe depression. Without having read the two-part series, Chad confirms from experience that the issues tackled in it are very much present today:

"I would like you to know that the youthful offenders coming in to the system are still faced with all of the things I have described to you and that these struggles and obstacles are still a very real part of prison life for juveniles serving time for capital offenses. Not only does it have a significant effect on the offenders themselves, but their families and loved ones as well."

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