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Bar News - October 18, 2013

Opinion: The View From the Witness Box: Sometimes, Even Lawyers Need Lawyers


Barbara G.H. Stewart
I take my seat and look out over the courtroom. Thereís hardly anyone in it, but everyoneís staring at me Ė my lawyer, the judge, the court staff, three friends sitting in back, and "him" Ė my stalker. He has no lawyer, which means heíll be the one cross-examining me.

Iím sure the bailiff swore me in, but I have no memory of that. What I do recall are the eyes of my lawyer, Don Hebert. They were dead-serious, and my hands were trembling on the table. Days earlier, Iím sorry to admit, it had been difficult for me to think of Don as "my lawyer." "Why do I need a lawyer?" I had thought. "I am a lawyer! Geez, I wrote two briefs on stalking issues. I can handle this." But I listened to everyoneís advice and asked Don to represent me.

Thank goodness. When I wrote the petition, I had no problem marshaling the details, keeping an eye on each element of RSA 633:3-a and tying one fact after another to my neat, well-organized stack of documentation. But now, sitting in the witness chair, all my organization, clarity, and analytical thinking are out the frigginí window, and I simply cannot think straight. Iím scared, and Iím embarrassed beyond belief.

Luckily for me, I have a lawyer Ė a really good one. Don is both anchor and lifeboat, and he takes me skillfully and methodically through each critical step in the case presentation. Nothing of value is left out.

All through my testimony, I want to focus solely on Don, my safe harbor, but someone else in the room is even more important to me. And so, each time Don asks me to spell out this incident or that one, I turn to Judge Boyle and try with everything I have to convey to him the truth of my words. But will he believe me? And what will happen if he rules against me?

Looking back, itís easy to see how advantaged I was when I filed the stalking petition. (Yes, I got the protective order.) Iím not a litigator, but I know the rules, the system, and even this particular area of law. Moreover, I have an astounding support system Ė people willing to stick out their necks for me in the face of a disturbed and angry man. And my stalker is no smooth-tongued sociopath; he comes across badly, with obvious disdain for the legal system. And I really did have a stack of documentary evidence, including a couple of police reports and many pages of my stalkerís own, self-damning words.

Despite all this, I am not convinced I couldíve gotten the protective order without Don. My head was a pile of panic the whole time I was sitting in that witness box, with no space for reasoned thought. I cannot imagine what it wouldíve been like without Don standing between me and him.

How did I find Don? As it happens, I share an office wall with Pam Dodge, the coordinator of the Domestic Violence Emergency (DOVE) Project. It was tough for me to tell her about my situation, but her knowledgeable, compassionate response was exactly what I needed. She talked me out of going it alone, and she hooked me up with Don, one of the DOVE Projectís ace volunteers. Because I had never dated my stalker, my case didnít fall within the intimate-partner-violence purview of the DOVE Project. (Moreover, I didnít meet the projectís income eligibility guidelines.) But Pam knew Donís expertise with RSA chapter 173-B hearings would transfer easily to the RSA 633:3-a issues that my case presented.

All these months later, my gratitude for the help I received has not diminished a whit. Iím also grateful, now, for the chance to tell this story and spell out exactly what an attorney can mean here. Make no mistake; if you are a petitioner in a domestic violence or stalking case, your attorney is defender, protector, and knight in shining armor. More practically, your attorney is the one with the cool head who can nail all the elements with careful handling of witnesses and proper introduction of documentary evidence. And, yes, your attorney could save your life.

How would you like to be a cool-headed, legal protector? If youíve got some litigation experience and a willingness to learn, consider joining the DOVE Project. As a volunteer, you can represent victims of domestic violence at final restraining order hearings under RSA chapter 173-B. Itís helpful to know that the Project partners with crisis center advocates, too; these advocates provide emotional and out-of-court practical assistance to the petitioners, thus allowing you, the attorney, to focus on the hearing. The Project offers live, CLE programming annually, as well as mentoring, when needed. For more information, you can contact Pam Dodge or (603) 715-3230.

Barbara Stewart is coordinator of the Low-Income Taxpayer Project at the NH Bar Associationís Pro Bono Referral Program. She also handles referrals for Pro Bono in landlord/tenant actions.

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