Read April 14, 2013

A Time to Kill - John Grisham

Memphis, Tennessee, April 14, 2013

Good afternoon. I'm Hanna Brigance, Director of Community Outreach at the Memphis Police Department. I'm delighted to be here today to speak to students in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Memphis. My topic is "When All Hell Breaks Loose - Understanding and Alleviating Community Trauma in Troubling Times". 

I'll be drawin' on my own personal experience a great deal - anecdotal evidence culled from the difficult summer when my father defended Carl Lee Hailey. My parents have allowed me to use their situation as an example to others, so that you might learn what happens when a community is shattered by crime. This is the first time - and the last time - that I will ever address the events surrounding State of Mississippi vs. Carl Lee Hailey.

What's it like when the whole country is watchin' your life fall apart? How does a community cope under a mountain of negative publicity? How can we help individuals and families get through the tough times without judging them or causing them further sorrow? These are the questions I try to answer every day on the job.

In the late 1980s, when I was four years old, my defense attorney Daddy, Jake Brigance, and my schoolteacher Mama, Carla Brigance, were, like their neighbors, caught up in the circus that followed the sexual assault of a 10-year old girl by two local ne'er-do-wells. The girl was black; the perpetrators were white. The crime divided their small town of Clanton, Mississippi. Friends turned on friends, local businesses found themselves besieged by unfriendly strangers askin' uncomfortable questions, and special interest groups inserted themselves into the ragin' debate.

Things got worse when the father of the victim, one Carl Lee Hailey, decided that the judicial system could not be trusted to punish the offenders, and imposed his own version of the death penalty. Now the spotlight was no longer on the sexual assault, but on race relations in Clanton and in America as a whole. Now our little corner of the world was gettin' national media coverage, and not one person in any position of authority was present (or able) to explain Clanton to "the world", or to reconcile Clanton with itself. Each was focused on his or her personal stake in the matter, and most of all on gettin' a piece of the ever-expanding pie. 

Even Sheriff Ozzie Walls, whose motives were the most pure of all the various characters in the piece, was preoccupied by his secret sympathy for the accused, not by the need to manage the community's response to the tragedy (special treatment inflames passions just as much as mistreatment does). No one, amidst all this angst and drama, adopted a position of true neutrality (regardless of personal views) and set about the difficult task of calmin' the masses.

Today, my Daddy freely admits that he was out of control during the weeks that followed the sexual assault and the revenge killings. He was young and foolish, had never had a major case before, and saw dollar signs everywhere. He didn't explain legal matters properly, didn't listen to his client, and didn't make Mr. Hailey's contributions a priority. We were receivin' threatening phone calls; the accused had lost his job; the sexual assault victim was havin' nightmares; the murder victim's family was out for revenge against the revenge killer - everybody who was anybody was afraid - but Daddy saw nothing but his name in lights, and thought of nothing except how to get an edge over hated rivals.

That's where a good Community Outreach Office comes in. We don't interfere with the nuts and bolts of the case, but we encourage the parties and the community to TALK to each other, and to LISTEN to the perspectives of others. Our role at the MPD is to help citizens feel safe (emotionally as well as physically) and that includes providin' them with information so that they don't make decisions out of fear or confusion, and allowin' them to articulate what they want and find the resources necessary to obtain that outcome. The hiring and firing of Daddy as Mr. Hailey's attorney was influenced as much by Daddy's own stubbornness as Mr. Hailey's ignorance. Sorry, Daddy <3

As the Director of our Office, my role is to ensure that facts trump emotions, so that everybody knows what is happenin', and how we plan to work with interested parties to bring about healin' and mutual understanding. We hold public meetings, set up event-specific hotlines, and teach courses in crisis management and conflict resolution. We support the bereaved AND the family of the offender. We provide counselling to members of the community who aren't directly involved, but who need help sortin' out their feelings about the crime. 

We've even been known to knock a few heads together (non-violently!) to "encourage" the parties to come together for the good of the community! Daddy says in his day, mediation was dismissed as a last resort cop-out for lawyers who thought they had a losing case. Today, lawyers who won't play well with others are ostracized, not applauded, and that's as it should be. And no District Attorney will survive for long if he or she is out for blood - not justice.

While Daddy's stories about DA Buckley and the Sullivan firm are wildly entertaining and wickedly funny (even though I've heard them a million times) he doesn't tell these tales to Mama anymore. Mama is sad and bitter because she feels that Daddy did not put Mama and me first at a very difficult time for our family and for our town. 

Mama and Daddy love each other very much, but their marriage has never been the same since the Hailey trial, because Mama can't forget that he let us down when we needed him. I think what hurts Mama most is that she warned Daddy that he was on the wrong path, knowing in her gut he was gonna get burned. But he didn't care what she thought, and he wasn't interested in anything but fame and fortune. Ironically, it took the KKK to wake him up...

For years, there has been speculation that my Daddy was involved with Ellen Roarke, his young law clerk. I'm here to tell you today that those rumours are true. They weren't physically intimate - Daddy knew Mama'd run him over with the fancy Saab! - but the emotional bond he formed with her hurt Mama very deeply. When the chips were down, Daddy turned to booze and to Ellen. Part of my job today is to make recommendations to the court that are designed to ramp down tensions so that the parties can focus on the matter at hand. As my family discovered, not doin' so can have devastating consequences.

Families internalize community sufferin', takin' events that seem distant from their everyday experience and, in reactin' to those events, lashin' out at (or withdrawin' from) those they claim to love the most. This behaviour, while natural under the circumstances, causes scars that never heal. This is what we at the COO try to prevent. My family's implosion, during Clanton's explosion, is what inspired me to do this work in the first place.

When a child is involved, particularly if a child has been harmed, community outreach is that much more important. Who among these warrin' factions thought about Tonya Hailey? REALLY thought about her? Her suicide, at the age of 14, is a reminder to all of us that victims' needs don't just go away when the media loses interest and moves on to another headline. At the COO, we offer follow-up services for up to five years after a case has concluded. We also provide in-school intervention to ensure that a child victim's return to school is as "normal" as possible (we do the same for a young offender, since we don't stand in judgment of individuals).

The Hailey case, sadly, serves as an indictment of organized religion. While there are many carin' and compassionate places of worship in our community, the churches that organized the defense fund sought only an easy source of funding for themselves, never givin' a second thought to this family of parishioners who starved while thousands flowed into the churches for their support. All fundraising activities related to a case are now centralized in my office. Citizens can now give generously, in the full knowledge of where their money will go and how it will be allocated.

Because we are such key participants in all aspects of the law enforcement, judicial and correctional processes, it is very difficult for someone like Cat Bruster to manipulate vulnerable people like the Hailey family for their own personal gain. Families are encouraged to ask questions, to clear up misunderstandings, and to approach our office for assistance if contacted by outsiders who have an agenda. As we see from Cat's actions, even well-meaning friends can do a lot of damage if the family has not been properly informed or instructed.

Was the verdict in the Hailey case the right one? I can't substitute my opinion for that of the jury. They did their job - they weighed the evidence, evaluated the facts, and reached a rational conclusion. But I know many in Clanton who wish they had never heard of State of Mississippi vs. Carl Lee Hailey. The community, and its residents, will never, ever be the same.

Thank you for your time and for your attention.