Jerry Farmer (Part 2)
Categories: Beatitudes, David, Family, Law
Jerry Farmer practiced law for twenty years during some of the most interesting of times in our nation's history. He tried misdemeanor cases for two years before prosecuting felons for robbery, rape, murder -- you name it. Having loved the Bible for as long as he can remember, Jerry turned to it continually to help him through his law career. Stories from the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul's letters guided Jerry through difficult situations. Here are some more of Jerry's experiences and insights on law:
Murder trial with extreme hatred on both sides -- like the Crips and the Bloods
Rivalry between two families made one murder case particularly difficult. An older man and a woman from Kentucky had gone together. He was from one family, and she was from another. It was like the Hatfields and McCoys (two family clans from the Kentucky-West Virginia border whose hatred and rivalry erupted in the 1800s and has become part of American legend and folklore). After they lived together for awhile they began fighting, and he killed her. The case went to trial, and he was charged with murder. It was pretty clear that he murdered her, so we had a good case against him, even though he tried to allege that her son had sneaked in and killed her to get her money. He had no proof.
We all were very concerned about what would happen if he got out and what would happen in court -- primarily because of the enmity between the two groups. The people from both groups drove up from Kentucky for the trial. One family was on one side of the courtroom, and the other family was on the other side. The judge looked worried. I was nervous because my back was to all the people. The courtroom was in an uproar. The people were drinking during breaks. Fights broke out in the hall. The judge became so concerned that he had everyone searched before entering the courtroom.
There was really only one place to go -- to God. The story that supported me through this trial was the one where David spared Saul's life. King Saul got jealous of David and was out to kill him. David had to fight Saul in defense and gained a clear advantage. When David's men got upset with him for not killing Saul, David responded:
The Lord forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the Lord's anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord." (I Sam. 24:6)
I used this example of mercy. I prayed that just as David did not kill Saul when he had the opportunity, these enemies didn't have to hurt, fight with, or kill each other. The jury did convict the man of murder. It soothed the family of the woman. And the testimony that was presented during the trial was enough to keep the other family at peace. Both sides went their own ways. There was no further bloodshed, and there were no more assaults.
CHIEF ASSISTANT FOR WASHTENAW COUNTY
I was then made Chief Assistant for Washtenaw County. I was 32, which is extremely young for that job. The man who had retired was 65. I was not really in line for the job. There were three people in line before me: one became a judge; one went into private practice; and the other man went in and said that he would not be upset if I was made chief assistant. We are still great friends today.
Into the "fiery furnace" of decision-making in court
As Chief Assistant, I assigned the cases and determined what happened with them. I knew that prayer and study of the Bible would be necessary in this job, as I had to make critical decisions. I had to meet with each circuit judge every week at pre-trial to decide what to do in circuit court cases (the felony trials). When a case comes to the circuit court, there's already been a preliminary exam. At this point, something has to happen with the case: the defendant can plead guilty; the prosecuting officer can reduce the charge; it can be dismissed; or it can go to jury. It's sad to say that some judges have one thing on their mind -- to move the docket. So the judge applies a ton of pressure -- on me. Many people said they were amazed at how I could stand up day after day with all the pressure I got from the judge and defense council to reduce the charges. I often met with my boss, but he turned all of the final decisions over to me.
The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego (Dan. 3:12-30) has inspired me since childhood. Because the three Hebrew boys did not worship the golden image Nebuchadnezzar had made, they were thrown into the fiery furnace. I felt as if I had been thrown into a fire. One of the best parts of this story is when Nebuchadnezzar looks in and finds four men in the furnace, not just the original three. Even more impressive is that not only did the fire not have "power" over them, but it hadn't even singed their hair or left a fiery smell on them. I knew if Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego could survive a fiery furnace because of their faith in God, I too could endure with God's aid and would be supported in this "fiery furnace."
Using the Ten Commandments to make principled decisions
I also used the Ten Commandments a lot:
Thou shalt have no other gods before me….Thou shalt not kill…. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (Ex. 20:3,13,15,16)
Not bearing "false witness" is extremely important when talking about the practice of law and the courtroom. When someone lies, the system doesn't work. We need the system to work because we're talking about a person's life. I was always praying to know that the defendants and the witnesses would and could tell the truth.
Before someone was taken to court, we made the decision as to whether or not he or she should be charged. We were extremely careful, especially with sensitive cases, such as rape cases that happened in the middle of a divorce. If we didn't think someone was guilty, or if we didn't think we had enough proof that he was guilty, we wouldn't charge him. It was our belief that we should make the correct decisions the first time around and charge appropriately. We did not want to have to reduce charges, so we hung tight. There were times when a victim would come forward and change his or her mind, but once a case came to circuit court, we knew it should be tried. That doesn't mean we won every case. Only one time did I dismiss a case out of generosity. Another fellow (a cellmate of the accused) came forward and said he had actually committed the crime. I'm still not totally convinced the cellmate did commit the crime and that the accused did not.
The reward of the Beatitudes
Year after year, I'd see a lot of victims and defendants. It was easy to wonder if any of this would ever change, easy to wonder what I was doing here. The Beatitudes gave me a better perception of the victims and a more hopeful outlook for them. Jesus' words comforted me:
- "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Many victims were down. They hadn't had a good life, and now it was worse. But Jesus tells us that "theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3).
- Jesus promised comfort to those who mourned (Matt. 5:4).
- Every Beatitude applied to the victims and the witnesses. Many were trying to be "peacemakers," whom Jesus called the "children of God." (Matt 5:9).
- The Beatitude which starts, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake" (Matt. 5:10) was particularly helpful for me as a prosecutor. The Defense Counsel is beating on you; the victim's family is there; and you're the only one following Jesus' example and standing up to sin. It certainly didn't seem like you were getting your reward right there in the courtroom.
Turning the other cheek is not weakness
Jesus' entire Sermon on the Mount, which is where the Beatitudes are found, provided guidance and inspiration for me. Sometimes people would try to use Jesus' counsel as a way to dismiss a case:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matt. 5:39-40)
My concept of turning the other cheek does not include acquitting a guilty person. Being in a courtroom day-in and day-out and turning to the Bible continually for direction, I saw "turning the other cheek" as a way to give the defendants the opportunity to do something new, to change their lives for the better. I don't think Jesus would want them to assault people. With these kinds of individuals, rehabilitation usually only takes place when they are away from this society. You don't just let people do drugs. You get them help. Jesus told us to love:
Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you…. (Matt. 4:42-44)
The best help I could give the defendants and the victims was to love them, to pray for them, and to do good for them. This meant putting the defendants in a different situation, separating them. It does them no good to leave them in the same position with the same temptations. It certainly doesn't help the victim or the other people on the street.
Another murder case with complications
There was one more unusual and rather big trial that came up near the end of my career in which ideas from the Bible were instrumental in handling the case successfully. A woman's throat was slit by a man whom we caught right away. It appeared to be an open and shut case. When we brought him in, he told us, "I was hired to kill her by her husband." Well, that changed the case. It ended up that her husband, who was a businessman in a local town, was a bit kinky. He got involved with young men; this fellow was one of them. The husband was worried that his wife would find out, divorce him, and take all his money; so he had this fellow kill her. That's all we had for the case -- just his statement. This was so strange that we had him (the man with the knife) take a polygraph test, which he passed. We started investigating and found out that the husband had been seen in the pits of society. I made a deal with this fellow (which I didn't want to do as I didn't "deal") that he could plead second degree murder if he would testify. There's no parole for first degree murder. Second degree murder is mandatory prison up to life and including life, but it is parolable. So, he agreed.
The case against the husband took a long time because it was so complicated. It was six months before I even charged him. I didn't like waiting so long, but we had to follow up on leads that the actual murderer was giving us. We asked the judge if he would wait until after the trial of the husband to sentence the man who actually killed the wife. Everyone knew that we needed this guy's testimony to use for the husband's trial. But the judge refused to delay sentencing. Rather than give him 50 years, which was plausible given the information, he gave him life in prison. Now this fellow, this young kid, is unhappy with the system.
Then the day of the husband's trial is almost upon us.
- They bring in the young fellow from prison, and he tells me that he's not going to testify because I didn't keep my part of the bargain. I told him I had, but I had no control over the judge.
- To make matters worse, the detective in charge who had been handling everything (the knife, the car, the money, all the evidence) about the case for me was also in prison. He had sexually assaulted one of his step children, so we had put him behind bars.
- Another lady whom I served to be a witness against the husband refused to come in on her subpoena. She was a friend of the husband, and he had told her that he had to get out of town until things cooled off. So, I had to get a bench warrant for her arrest.
- And the trial was starting on Monday. This was Friday afternoon.
"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus"
Let me tell you, I was thinking about the Bible, the case, about everything. The thing that jumped out at me was Philippians 2:5: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." I just kept thinking about that the mind that was in Christ Jesus had to be with me, with the witnesses, with the judge.
Now, the number one thing that you're always taught as an attorney is never to put a witness on the stand and ask him a question if you don't know what he is going to say. Well, the judge had already hammered my witness and made him spiteful. My witness had told me he wouldn't testify, so I asked the judge for an adjournment of the case. The judge denied it. The defense was really excited.
I made the opening statement and put the witness up, and all I could think of was, "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." I started asking him questions, and eventually he testified. He didn't do a very good job. He kind of denied things about having the knife. He insinuated that when he left, she wasn't dead; that he injured her but didn't kill her; and that someone else, maybe the husband, must have killed her; he didn't know.
Star witnesses, all in chains, reveal the truth
During this time, the woman witness was arrested and brought in from out of town. The fellow who was going to testify from the auto dealership was found, arrested, and was now in custody. My police officer (detective) was there in prison, of course. All four of my star witnesses were in chains while they testified. Then the defense council made a huge mistake: he made insinuating statements that made my witness (the man with the knife) really mad. So my witness came through, spoke up, and told the whole truth. The jury did convict the husband -- who not only had his wife killed but also tried to get her insurance money -- of first degree murder, which has no parole. That was the end of that, and that was my last case.
"When God shuts a door, he opens a window"
I ran for office next. My opponent was a fellow who had never practiced law in the county but had helped the governor get into office. While we got more votes in the history of voting for circuit judge, we still didn't win. But we made a lot of friends. The county gave me credit for all the work I'd done for the city, and I was able to take early retirement. I was planning to take a little time before returning to work, to teach at a law school somewhere. During this time, I turned to the Bible for direction. The story of Daniel in the lions' den was helpful. When Darius was concerned for Daniel's safety, he said, "[T]hy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee" (Dan. 6:16). I realized that Daniel had faith in God to take care of him in a lions' den, so I had no reason to doubt Him. The saying, "When God shuts a door, he opens a window" certainly is true. Rather than going back to law, I was able to use my MBA in retirement. I have been enjoying traveling with my family ever since.
A few bits of advice
To those who want to be lawyers:
- Remember that just because you're going to go into law doesn't mean that you're going to be a practicing attorney or trial attorney.
- You don't have to be in such a hurry to take a job wherever it is.
- Think very carefully about the lifestyle you want to lead.
- Think very carefully about where you want to live for the rest of your life and see if you can find a job in that area.
- There are several different things to do or that you end up doing with a law degree.