When I first began practicing criminal defense law in 1980, it was literally a different world. We were a band of brothers1 seeking justice for our clients. We were in it for love, not money,2 and truly believed our efforts mattered. And you know what? They did matter. Whether it was keeping a young kid out of jail for smoking weed or stopping an imminent execution, our collective efforts made a difference to the lives of countless people.
While we are all older and perhaps more cynical these days, our commitment to justice, to making the system work for everyone, not just the rich and powerful, remains, which is why everyone in this firm was saddened at the loss of two warriors for justice: Robert Augustus Harper, Jr. and James T. Miller. Both these men exemplified the best of our profession. Hardworking, committed, brilliant are but a few of the adjectives I can think to describe them. Although both men were soft spoken and deliberate, their demeanor was deceptive.
Bob Harper could create winning legal issues out of the thin air. Jim Miller would look at a case and see winning facts other lawyers had dismissed. Bob’s speciality was “jurisdiction” and “variance.” He never read an indictment he couldn’t tear apart. Jim, who early on developed a respected appellate practice, could frame legal issues in such a fashion that the court was compelled to rule in his client’s favor.
Both men also recognized their obligation to pro bono work. Bob Harper volunteered to represent one of the first six individuals sentenced to death row after Florida’s death penalty was reinstated. His client was named Willie Darden and Bob represented him without any compensation whatsoever, up to and including arguing Willie’s case before the United States Supreme Court. And when I say no compensation, I mean no compensation. When Bob traveled to Washington, D.C., he paid his own airfare, hotel, everything. Not so much as a paper clip was paid for by anyone other than Bob. Expert witness fees, research fees, costs of getting witnesses to court were all borne by Bob.
Likewise, Jim Miller time and again, quietly and without any desire of recognition, helped people who simply did not have the money to pay him. If he saw an injustice, he never asked himself how much money it would take to correct it. Instead, he rolled his sleeves up and got to work. His creative lawyering saved countless people from unnecessary incarceration.
Bob and Jim were involved in the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers from the beginning, doing whatever was necessary to ensure it was a strong voice for the criminal defense bar. Jim taught at every criminal law certification seminar offered by FACDL. When offered recognition for his many efforts on behalf of FACDL, Jim, as was his nature, declined. Awards just didn’t matter to Jim, people did.
In these days when it seems that every lawyer wants a pat on the back, a plaque on the wall, or an article in the paper for any amount of pro bono effort, Bob and Jim were old school. Accolades didn’t mean a damn thing to them. Doing what was right, what was honorable, what was just, was what these two men were about. It was an honor to know these men, learn from them, and work with them. They are irreplaceable.
As I write these words, I am hopeful there are young lawyers ready to step into the very large shoes of these legal giants. There remains much injustice to be battled. Too many young men and women are being unnecessarily incarcerated for unjust periods of time. The rise of the private prison industrial complex should concern every thinking American. The continued use of mandatory-minimum sentences has not abated and must be stopped. In honor of the memory of Bob and Jim, I challenge you to ask yourself what you are doing to fight these injustices. To quote Bill Sheppard’s favorite phrase, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” In honor of Jim and Bob, find a way to make a difference.
Elizabeth L. White
1I say band of brothers because very few women were practicing criminal defense law, the notable exception being Ann Finnell, one of the fiercest litigators I have ever met.
2Well, maybe the hope of seeing a little money.