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ON THE DEFENSIVE: Criminal law takes a toll

Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and served two terms on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and previously served two terms on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

A prominent New Jersey criminal defense attorney, William Buckman, committed suicide in a hotel room Oct. 14.

He was 61 years old and was a well-known New Jersey defense attorney. Buckman rose to prominence after persuading a judge to throw out evidence against a client because of systematic racial profiling. Ultimately, the New Jersey attorney general acknowledged the existence of racial profiling, and steps were taken to stop the practice.

Buckman’s work in that case influenced national politics. In 2000, Al Gore was in a heated primary battle against U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, who represented New Jersey. Racial profiling came up, and Gore pointed out that it “practically started in New Jersey.”

Of course, racial profiling did not originate in New Jersey, but Buckman’s work resulted in the topic rising to the top of the national discussion.

Buckman was involved heavily in the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He was a fixture at almost every board and committee meeting.

I got to know him over the course of 10 years with that organization. I saw no signs of demons that afflicted him.

Many in Wisconsin’s legal community remember Judge Dennis Barry. He was a longtime circuit court judge, having been appointed to the bench at the age of 33.

In 2011, at the age of 64, Barry died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was tough, but courageous, and once threatened to hold the warden of the Racine Correctional Institution in contempt when it failed to honor his granting of a habeas corpus petition filed for one of my clients.

Last year, a Milwaukee lawyer, Ira Bordow, committed suicide. I often saw Bordow in children’s court, trying to make a difference in the lives of young offenders.

He seemed genuinely committed to helping children from dysfunctional families. Again, I saw no indication of any significant problem in his life.

Answers are elusive in those tragedies. But the stress of the job and the nature of the cases surely play some role.

Those involved in criminal law deal with some of the heaviest topics. In charging and sentencing, prosecutors have to think about the worst of human behavior. They have to talk to victims and members of the community, many of whom were affected by seemingly senseless crimes.

Defense attorneys spend tremendous amounts of time inside the dark confines of jails and prisons. Each day, they bring context to crimes, humanize defendants and comfort families.

And criminal court judges spend entire days listening to the worst of society’s ills.

That kind of work affects those who work in the criminal law environment, making them susceptible to burnout, fatigue and depression.

We cannot always solve those problems. But we can recognize that, sometimes, we all are guilty of failing to recognize the toll that criminal law takes on our colleagues.

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