Waldlaw Blog

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Tribute to One of My (Fallen) Heroes

I was about to leave the annual gala party for the National Center for Lesbian Rights last night when I ran into two old friends, both of whom I know from my years as a public defender in Oakland, California. Both women were in Women Defenders with me many years ago, and as we stopped a moment to catch up, one of them shared the very sad news with us that the founder of Women Defenders, Susan Jordan, died Friday in a small plane crash. I have been thinking a lot about Susan since hearing this very sad news, and wanted to take a moment to share some of those thoughts. Susan was a remarkable woman in many ways. She lived her life loudly, with great intelligence, passion and humor. She was an amazing criminal defense lawyer, who had a great deal to do with the development of the "battered women's syndrome" defense -- which she used successfully for the first time in her defense of Inez Garcia, a woman who killed the man who raped her and was originally convicted of murder, but who was later acquitted during a retrial in which Susan represented her. From her experience representing Inez Garcia and other women accused of violent crimes, Susan Jordan came to believe that a woman's perspective could be an invaluable asset to women criminal defense attorneys, instead of being the handicap it previously had been considered. Up until Susan founded Women Defenders -- along with a group of younger women criminal defense attorneys from the San Francisco Bay Area of whom I'm proud to be one -- it had been commonly accepted that the way for women to succeed in the field of criminal defense was to be more macho than the most macho male criminal defense attorneys -- and believe me that criminal defense attorneys truly know from macho! Susan brought a very different -- and very well-articulated -- perspective to the discussion, arguing that the natural empathy of women was an asset that allowed women to do a better job of humanizing our clients to juries -- especially when the clients were accused of acts of violence. In the early days of Women Defenders, before it was a true organization, a hand-selected group of us sat around living rooms in San Francisco and the East Bay and shared our experiences as women and as criminal defense lawyers, and talked honestly -- most of us for the first time -- about the strengths and challenges we experienced doing this very demanding work as women. The conversations we had ultimately led to the formal founding of Women Defenders almost 20 years ago, and started a true community of women criminal defense attorneys committed to providing support and mentorship for each other -- led, of course, by Susan B. Jordan. Susan brought more to the table than her excellence as a lawyer. She was one of the first women I knew who talked openly about her experiences as an adoptive mother -- and actually helped create a children's book about adoption, with her daughter as the protagonist, that was one of the first such books I ever saw. She shared her challenges as a mother with us with the same thoughtfulness and humor with which she shared her professional challenges; she was incredibly proud of her family, and always had a story to share about them. And in and around everything else she did, Susan always shared with us her passion for flying. She was the first person to ever tell me about the Powder Puff Derby, and the proud history of women pilots in America. In fact, if I remember correctly, she dreamed of flying in her own cross-country race -- although I don't know if she ever actually did. I do know that she regularly flew from her home in Berkeley to her home in Ukiah, and to distant court appearances; and other than her work and her family, her passion for flying is what I remember most about her. So it is appropriate, I suppose, that she went down in a small plane. I haven't seen Susan in many years -- quite possibly since 2000, when the founders of Women Defenders were all honored at a gathering. But she has remained with me as one of my mentors, and a woman I truly admired in so many ways for so many years. Even though she is gone, she leaves behind her a proud legacy that lives on in Women Defenders and in all of us who had the privilege of knowing her. I hope her spirit is soaring high above us, in the clouds she so loved to fly through.


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