Rob Wells: Searching for Answers When a Client Does the Unthinkable

Published: June 9, 2022

Sometimes I worry that people do not understand the depth of what we do and our commitment to it.

I only knew John for about twenty to twenty-five minutes, but I will never forget his light brown dress belt.

These were also the very last minutes of his life.

John was depressed.

He lived in a nearby small town just off of the New York State Thruway.

He was only a year or so younger than me, which put him at sixty-eight years old.

There were no apparent physical infirmities about the man. He was of normal stature. He’d even kept his hair. His face was pleasant in aspect; unremarkable but pleasant. There seemed to be a kindness in it.

He had certainly in his nearly seventy years of living never offended any law, rule, or regulation that would bring him into a lawyer’s office or cause him to appear in a courtroom. That is unusual for me to experience, someone who has committed no offense until this stage of life. A tendency to lawlessness or even dangerousness will generally evince itself sooner if it is in fact there at all.

Some few weeks before this, John’s desperation (hidden deep or subcutaneously beneath his psychological surface) had seemingly overcome his reason.

He made a choice. He decided to give effect to that choice. How long he had thought it out I have no way of knowing. But John, inside his home, what we all consider our place of refuge, love, safety, and in my estimation sanctity, retrieved his Remington 870 twelve-gauge shotgun from where it was safely kept for the few years he owned it. That may be an entirely separate and discrete story unto itself. But there it was and there it had been.

The details of what happened are only these. John told me he had decided to die at his own hand then and there. I never heard why.

In his own words, he said he “fumbled.” The gun went off……but he missed.

His wife Claire, hearing the blast of the shotgun, ran to him. What was said I’ll never learn from John.

Claire called the police. Initially, and without more information, it was believed that this was a domestic dispute. It was not. It was not a marital fight or even a squabble.

It was a decision reached in a different fight; the fight made daily to open one’s eyes to another day and the days beyond. The decision was not to do that anymore. The value in continuing had been lost to him. Such decisions are not always sudden ones but are cumulative in their oppressive weight and persistent in their malicious, unrelenting presence.

John, knowing that the police were on their way and wouldn’t take long to arrive, retreated to his own fenced-in large backyard behind which were woods. Do not misunderstand. John was not running away or hiding. His task was not finished and had been interrupted. The shotgun accompanied John there.

He tried to shoot himself again out there with this long gun, which was unwieldy to its purpose when he tried to point it at himself again. It was almost as if the gun itself was reluctant to do this terrible thing.

With the first shot ringing in his ears and inside his head, he tried again, and as he said, he “fumbled again.” By fumbled, I’ve later wondered if John was using the term in a larger sense, but I have come to no conclusion about that.

This second blast penetrated the yard’s tall wooden fence. John was unharmed by it. Where the shot went, and whether it was a slug or buckshot, I did not learn.

There was a small apartment building on one side of his home and another house on the other side. No one was hit. No one was injured. Not even a car was struck. No reported damage occurred to any vehicle or building. Nothing that I know of. I can only hope that one of the many trees out back kindly and mercifully reached out and caught the shot, stopping it in its dangerous journey from the muzzle.

Whether John was recovering some state of reason then occasioned by the jolt of the two gunshots and their kickback can only be conjectured, but he told me he decided, knowing all of the foregoing, to engage the safety on the gun. He pointed toward the earth beneath him, but as he “fumbled” to engage the safety, a third blast followed.

I don’t know what his thoughts were by this juncture, but the police arrived, they tased John, and removed him to the psychiatric emergency room in a hospital in my city. After some time there, he was admitted to a mental ward and there he remained.

While John was in the hospital, his wife came to see me as she learned the police had charged John with Reckless Endangerment and he would have to answer in court for this incident. She told me this story, in essence, but it was clear that she was telling me a bit about her own suffering with John’s suffering.

We contacted the court, obtained what charging documents and supporting depositions and paperwork we could, and let the court know we would be appearing as John’s counsel.

Claire would make an appointment for she and John to meet with me when he was released.

They did so, but John had not been discharged from the hospital when expected and had remained there another week or so. He was ultimately discharged and went home with Claire some days before we met.

John and Claire arrived early for their appointment, I was able to meet early, and we did that.

John presented no difficulty in the office waiting room. My able Administrative Assistant encountered no problems. She recalls no particular signs of distress and no negative interactions with John or between he and Claire.

My building is called the University Block. It is a beautiful piece of architecture from the turn of the last century. It was built in the then-current style of ancient Greek or Roman revival. It is eleven stories in height. It was a remarkable skyscraper in its day, with a railroad track passing directly through its street, which even carried the body of Abraham Lincoln home to his resting place after his assassination. It was the first home of the Syracuse University College of Law when the Hall of Languages on campus was not yet completed, I am told.

The front door is flanked by large fluted faux columns. There are two statutes above those columns. Each is a female in flowing goddess-like carved gowns. Curiously to an initial onlooker, each is missing one arm. Apparently, in the revival of that architectural style, each goddess had one arm stretched out before and above them in a “Hail Caesar” salute. That might have been appropriate at the time, even historically majestic in a way, but I expect you would understand that during the era of World War II, each goddess suffered an amputation of their respective arms, which of course were never returned. It is an impressive and grand entrance, nonetheless.

In the tradition of the times, the windows in this building’s offices are extremely large. They are each comprised of two traditional sashes, a top and bottom, and the bottom one slides up fully. When open, it would be nearly three feet across and three and a half feet in height.

On this spring day, the window was open at its bottom about three inches. There are no drapes, blinds, or other window treatments. There are two such windows side by side in my inner office.

My windows face east to the morning sun. You can see a remarkable expanse of Syracuse from there. You can see from St. Joseph’s Hospital, much of the North Side, City Hall and its spire, the State Office Building, church spires, the cupola of the Onondaga County Courthouse, the main buildings of the Syracuse University campus, all the way to the Carrier Dome to the south.

Morning sunrises and reflected afternoon sunsets are quite spectacular even from the vantage of my desk chair. I have always loved this view and these windows. I refer to them collectively as my “thinking window.” The room has twelve foot ceilings and is even painted in a soft yellow with white trim to enhance the cheerfulness of the sunlight.

Two large, dark red, tufted back, overstuffed, comfortable wing chairs sit before my desk.

The room is designed to be welcoming and has a safe feeling about it. I am told that often by folks who visit.

John and Claire were welcomed in by me and sat down.

My style upon meeting new people is not to direct the conversation or begin lawyer pontificating. I let them speak first. That way, they are (I hope) speaking what is most urgently on their minds about what brought them here, and then I can speak without those worries and fears hanging before their eyes. I try not to take over or monopolize discussions. It is they who enter bearing burdens, not I. If people believe they are listened to and heard, it goes a long way to being able to work together in trust and with respect.

As I wrote earlier, John did not seem upset, agitated, angry, or even afraid that morning.

He recounted what you have read here. He was certainly lucid. He even asked whether these charges qualified for “judicial diversion.” That is a very specific legal concept and procedure asked about in just the exact terms of art utilized in court.

I described for John, that without putting a silver lining on a serious matter, it appeared to me that we were facing just misdemeanor-level charges for a man who has lived a legally blameless life and who suffered from a mental condition now being treated by his doctors. These all bode well for the hope of avoiding a criminal conviction.

John asked about jail. I let him know there would likely be no circumstance in which he was likely to be incarcerated. I told him we had been successful in other circumstances in persuading prosecutors and judges of the fact that there has been no jail cell invented in the history of man that could cure a mental condition any more than there are jail cells that can cure substance abuse. The jail not only cannot cure such things but can make them much worse. In that respect, jails themselves do not protect the public or ensure that the underlying causes of the suffering have been successfully, effectively and beneficially addressed.

Wanting to know more about where this matter occurred, I brought up on my desktop computer monitor Google Earth so we could view their home, backyard, and the surrounding area. John got up and came around the desk to look at it with me. He returned to his chair. We talked more in a rational discourse. John showed intelligence and thoughtfulness when he spoke.

He got up again, both Claire and I thinking he was returning to look at the computer monitor, but John went instead to the window, threw it up, and scrambled through the opening.

As soon as I apprehended what he was doing, something I have never encountered in my life, I sprang up, and grabbed at him to stop him. To say this was all instantaneous and surprising is an understatement.

In front of the window is a built-in heating unit, the window sill itself, and outside is a stone sill about a foot wide. This distance gave me room to reach where he was.

That belt…….that light brown dress belt….passing around the back of his slacks was all I could find to grab. I did that with both hands. I held on! God, how I held on!!!

I screamed for my officemate, and he and my Administrative Assistant ran in.

I tried to save John. But John is six feet tall and two hundred and ten pounds. He was over the stone sill. Even with two hands grabbing his belt and two arms fully extended, I couldn’t lift that much weight and pull him back up over the stone sill to safety.

I was wearing leather soled wingtip dress shoes on waxed and polished hardwood floors. I was slipping. I placed and braced my knees against the heating unit beneath the windows for leverage and tried to sit down to pull John back in.

John never screamed. He didn’t yell. There were no words. There was no particular look or expression on his face. He simply found his first opportunity to complete his suicide and took it. There were no arguments or harsh words. There was no sign of his intentions. He simply did it.

He was gone. Nine floors to the pavement.

Claire was behind me. I told her to sit down before she fell down. I dialed 911. My assistant attended to Claire. I went down to the street and found the police and emergency personnel arriving and my officemate also in apparent shock and disbelief.

What followed is just as you expect. Police, two Assistant District Attorneys assigned to death duty, and emergency personnel. The taking of statements. My assistant calling for family and friends to come and help Claire. One of them arrived in the office. I heard Claire call a friend on her phone and she was so in shock her first words were, “I am a widow.”

There is no need for a lawyer anymore. The applicable legal aphorism is “abatement by death.” Dismissal is automatic. Paperwork will be generated to close that file in the court.

I am still processing all of this although it is over and happened in an instant. Writing this is a part of that process. I expect I will write more.

But I write this for others as well. There has to be some instructive lesson here, doesn’t there? Otherwise, why suffer it all and so deeply?

Of course, I think about how I couldn’t save John. I put myself at risk in that window opening to try to save him and couldn’t. Yes, I wished I had been physically stronger as unrealistic as that is. Yes, I feared accompanying John to the sidewalk below. What if John reconsidered, turned back somehow, and grabbed onto me at his full weight to try to climb back in and we both plummeted to our joint death?

I want anyone suffering as John did to get help. The obvious and immediate effects upon others are undeniable and clear. The actions are irrevocable. No-do overs. “Not worth it” is a phrase that doesn’t cover it, but although inadequate it is still true. Please, if you are considering this, seek help.

I don’t know what effect this will all have upon my own well-being, but I seem pretty good so far. I would feel worse if I had argued with John, or if I had shown him I didn’t care and denied him hope. But, none of that is present here. If you know me you will credit that proposition.

I want lawyers to think about the people they encounter, their personal battles, their fears and failures and human foibles. It is never about us, it is about helping them. Even when they are obnoxious, arrogant, dismissive, and confrontational it likely comes from their own pain and deep fear. Please remember that and treat them accordingly. There, but for the grace of God…..

With much love,
Rob Wells