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Judge Craig Brown was a fixture in the Durham, North Carolina, criminal justice system for most of his adult life. He was an outspoken critic of the system and its effect on the disadvantaged victims of gang violence. In this hard hitting book by an active participant in many nationally famous trials, he tells of his life and his career as a judge in one of North Carolina's most active judicial districts.
Advance Praise for Judge Brown's Book
Masonry and ink. Imposing buildings and books are what first come to mind when the subject of “law” is broached. Without people, there would be no need for these buildings or books. The legal arena is populated by people building upon the experiences of their predecessors in an effort to define the rules of our civilization. It is an ongoing work that is never finished. The roles of lawyers and judges are defined within this construct. As people, their contributions to our system of laws are colored by their life experiences. Craig Brown has imparted his observations as lawyer, judge and part of our society to this epistle. He has a lot to share with us. In this regard, he assumes a new mantle: that of teacher and mentor. I’m glad he took the time to share his experiences with us.
Archie L. Smith III
Durham County Clerk of Court
By Judith Welch Wegner, Burton Craige Professor of Law, UNC School of Law
To appear in the first quarter 2010 issue of The North Carolina State Bar Journal.
Blind Justice by Judge Craig B. Brown (Retired)
(Righter Books, 2009)
Craig Brown, a recently retired district court judge from Durham has written a remarkable book, one that succeeds on many levels. This autobiography traces the arch of Brown’s life to date, from his early days in Iowa, through high school pranks, college and law school at UNC (with a public policy degree from Duke), his work as a criminal defense lawyer, and his time on the bench. Brown captures the spirit of youthful idealism, in his warm recollections of time in student government, as well as his early days handling challenging criminal defense cases as a young Durham attorney, and his role as a judge handling wide-ranging cases in a city that he describes has being “southerner funky urban.”
Three traits mark the book. First, it is remarkably vivid. Brown details the nuances of capital defense (including an effort by a defendant found guilty of capital murder who tried to escape jail the night before mitigating evidence was presented in the sentencing phase of his trial.). He describes larger-than-life personalities that shaped the Durham bar in the last two decades, and offers probing observations about why District Attorney Michael Nifong may have overplayed his hand in the Duke Lacrosse Case. He also depicts his encounters with noted Governors when seeking judicial appointment, the challenges of facing an early challenge to North Carolina’s marriage laws by gay litigants, and his decision to call out North Carolina’s political leaders for failing to address gang violence following an early hearing involving one of those accused of killing Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato and UNC Student Body President Eve Carson.
Blind Justice also offers some very important policy recommendations worth considering by readers wherever they may be. Although these are interspersed throughout the book, chapter 11 in particular includes important recommendations regarding the independence of the judiciary, treatment of convicted felons who redeem themselves later in their lives, truancy courts as a means of discouraging high school drop-outs, use of GPS alcohol and drug monitoring, improving technology use by the courts, and considering alternatives to building more prisons. These ideas are important ones, reflecting Brown’s considerable experience and expertise in policy analysis.
The final and perhaps most compelling dimension of this book is Brown’s meditation on his blindness. Brown was diagnosed with Behcet’s Syndrome, a very rare but very debilitating autoimmune disease, whose symptoms began to manifest themselves while he was a college freshman. Although the illness has a host of symptoms, blindness is one of the most challenging. Brown graduated from law school in 1983, already suffering some loss of vision. He had cataracts triggered by medication removed in 1990, became legally blind in 1992 and functionally blind in 1995. The illness not only steals one’s vision but also triggers other adverse consequences including significant depression.
Blind Justice recounts a very human struggle to grapple with the realities of losing vision, at a young age, for someone with passion for the law and for the public good. Brown recounts his ways of dealing with
related challenges as a trial lawyer (telling the jury so when he fumbled some evidence they weren’t surprised), as a judge (using humor and honing his hearing abilities and knowledge of courtroom layout), and as a human being (when asked by former Governor Sanford at the start of an interview what it was like to be blind, he spoke truth to power, saying “it sucks.”) He closes his account by taking the reader on his walks in nearby Durham, citing the kindness of strangers and the meaning of neighborhoods and communities where people wish each other well.
Attorneys (and law professors) rarely take easily to losing their power… or their powers. And yet, all of us need to know that it is possibly to face life’s travails with greater or lesser grace. We can also use our talents to pave the way for others by candid confrontation with the challenges that we must inevitably face. In closing, may I offer two poems of meditation as benediction upon Brown’s courage in sharing his life with his readers? Let John Milton speak from his poem “On His Blindness”:
When I consider how my light is spent
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thougsands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest
They also serve who only stand and waite.
Craig Brown, like Milton, has done more than “stand and waite,” for he has lived a remarkable life in the law. His well-named book, Blind Justice, is well worth the read, for he well understands and communicates the truth also shared by Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem, “Justice”
Enthroned upon the mighty truth,
Within the confines of the laws,
True Justice seeth not the man,
But only hears his cause.
Unconscious of his creed or race,
She cannot see, but only weighs;
For Justice with unbandaged eyes
Would be oppression in disguise.