Was it early, in childhood? Maybe you had a parent or relative who was a lawyer and role model. Or did the decision come later, perhaps even after a first or second career in another field?
Over the years, I’ve asked lots of lawyers this question. Most cannot pinpoint a specific day, time or triggering event that led them to the law. It was something they had been considering, one of several options. Or it was the money. Or they took the LSAT and did surprisingly well and said what the heck.
As for me, I can recall the precise moment the light bulb first flashed – or at least when it first glowed. It happened on a spring morning in 1973, just two days before my 17th birthday.
This was back in my hometown of Kingstree SC. My family was gathered around the breakfast table, discussing the murder trial scheduled to start that day in the courthouse just two short blocks from where we lived. Serial killer William “Junior” Pierce was being tried for abducting and killing a 13-year-old girl.
My father turned to me and said, “Want to go?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Then get ready. The courthouse opens at nine but I expect there’ll be a line.”
This took a moment to sink in. My father was deputy superintendent of the county schools. He believed if you could take in air, you could attend class.
But here he was, suggesting we skip school for a murder trial. This was a rare opportunity. Also an enlightening one, for it was at that moment that my interest in the wheels of justice began to spin.
The Biggest Show in Town
The case was tragic and horrifying. The young victim, Margaret “Peg” Cuttino, was the daughter of Sumter state representative James Cuttino. Her alleged killer was a drifter with an IQ of 70 who was already behind bars in Georgia on nine separate murder charges. The trial had been moved from Sumter County because of the press buildup.
That morning, I remember how the air crackled as I walked with my father to the historic Robert Mills courthouse in Kingstree. It was the first day of March. There was a line of news vans on Main Street – something I had never seen before in our sleepy hamlet – and as we entered the courthouse, I looked around and saw I was one of the few non-adults.
What unfolded over the next two days was as dramatic as you would expect: graphic testimony, surprise witnesses, mishandled evidence, emotional outbursts.
But even more fascinating was how the trial changed my perception of people I had known all my life. My math teacher Mrs. Lifrage, dainty in her frilly collar, was sitting there all solemn in the jury box like one of the Lord’s own avengers. Winnie Jones, clerk of court and mother of Wynn from school, was sitting next to the judge and sharing a private chuckle with him. Billy Jenkinson, who lived on our street and mowed his lawn in dress shirts, was one of the defense lawyers.
And the jury foreman was Mr. Julian Barton, general manager of BC Moore & Son and the meekest, mildest man you ever met, with wire spectacles perched on his nose and white hair parted down the middle of his head.
These were ordinary people I ran into every day on the dusty streets of Kingstree, now on center stage playing starring roles in the biggest show in town.
From Store Clerk to Superhero
The trial lasted two days. At the end, Mr. Julian Barton – who had sold me a belt less than a week earlier – stood up and delivered the verdict of Guilty.
What followed next was a tangle of appeals that went on for years, a bizarre confession from another deep-south serial killer (Pee Wee Gaskins) and periodic revivals of interest in the case.
As for me, I resumed my junior year of high school a different person. The day after the trial was my 17th birthday. For the first time I was starting to think about my future life at the University of South Carolina and beyond.
In math class Mrs. Lifrage said she had seen me in the courtroom, but I could tell she didn’t want to talk about the trial.
“What an ordeal,” she said, but that was it.
Mr. Julian Barton sold me shoes that summer, and though we chit-chatted neither of us brought up the trial.
But a seed had been planted. I had glimpsed the awesome power of the law. It could transfix an entire community, alter the course of people’s lives, turn math teachers and shoe salesmen into Hammers of Justice, and get you out of school. I had gotten a taste and wanted more.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.