Saturday, August 13, 2011

Amil Myshin, R.I.P.

Today, a multitude of family, friends, colleagues, judges, prosecutors and court staff descended upon the chapel at Summers Funeral Home in downtown Boise to pay their respects and say farewell to a great lawyer and remarkable human being.

Three years was all too short a time in which to get to know Amil Myshin.  I enjoyed going up to the fifth floor of the courthouse and watching him on his hind legs, when my own calendar permitted.  But the best thing was the lunchtime conversations.  Amil was a great raconteur.  Whether he talked about old cases, or his sons, or his days in the service, or my first boss who used to work with him, or his scuba-diving adventures, it would have been a delight -- if it were possible -- just to sit and listen to him tell stories all day.  And laugh.  Amil had so much laughter in him that it would have taken a concerted effort not to laugh with him.  It was as much fun to watch Amil laugh as it was to laugh oneself.

The Gospel of Matthew says that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks; and so it is possible to learn a lot about a man as much by what comes out of his mouth as by how he conducts himself.  What sort of a man did Amil's words and conduct reveal?  It was clear that he enjoyed a good fight; but -- if one can trot out a metaphor -- he was no common, swaggering street brawler.  Amil was a gentleman.  And -- to extend the metaphor -- it was not for the sake of seeing blood spurt from wounds or feeling bones crack beneath his fists that he enjoyed a fight, but for the contest of wit and skill and endurance that he carried out with quiet dignity.  And he never forgot that matters of life and death hung upon his skill.  His courage always rose to match the stakes for which he fought, stakes than which there are none higher in the legal system.   

What mark should decades of defending accused murderers -- looking at crime scene and autopsy photos and poring over gruesome reports and listening to witness accounts of unspeakable brutality and witnessing a client's execution -- leave on a man's soul?  No lawyer or his family could come entirely unscathed through such ordeals. Amil was no different: he took some real blows on account of his work.  The danger of taking on hardships is that we may permit the toughness they build up to carry over into callousness.  But during the time that I knew Amil, in the last three years of his life, he was kindly, patient, gentle, modest, self-effacing, understanding, and cheerful.  In fact, considering all that he had seen and gone through over the years, his character was as remarkable for those things that it lacked as for those that it possessed.  Amil's vocabulary was not always the cleanest -- that is unfortunately a side effect of our trade -- but his professionalism was such that I never heard him utter a harsh word all the time I knew him, even in his moments of exasperation.  Even a consummate professional like Amil must occasionally let slip some flaw, whether he wants to or not; yet every time I interacted with him, I was struck by the complete absence in him of bitterness, egotism, pettiness, vindictiveness, meanness, vanity or pusillanimity.  And I could not -- cannot -- help considering how poorly my own behavior and attitude compared with his.  Even the last time I talked with him, when he was obviously ill and weak and distracted, he was uncomplaining and dignified, and still managed a few laughs.

But years and years of high-pressure, high-stakes, high-profile cases take their toll at last.  Amil shone out as a clear beacon over miles of rough seas, but the tower that housed that beacon was crumbling.  He struggled hard to go on preparing his last big case, even as his strength ebbed, until finally even his still-robust spirit had to yield to his physical exhaustion.  By the close of August 6th -- the Feast of the Transfiguration -- all was over.

Greater love than this no man has, said Jesus, that he lay down his life for his friends.  What I saw of Amil, especially toward the end, convinced me that he did indeed lay down his life.  Who were the friends for whom he laid it down?  Anyone who has ever worked as a public defender, as he did, could rattle off a fairly accurate description.  Clients who worked hard to try his patience.  Clients who called him 20 or 30 times a day and left threatening or raging messages on his voice mail.  Clients who tried to manipulate him and play him off against his co-counsel.  Clients who complained about him.  Clients who wrote nasty letters.  Clients who tried to make trouble for him and get him fired off their cases.  Clients who would do and say things publicly that would blow weeks' worth of his hard work all to hell, and create weeks' worth of additional work into the bargain.  Clients who fought him every step of the way, even though he was their only friend in the whole system.  Yet, for their sakes, he was glad to give all he had, even the strength to go on living.  Amil savored the thrill of combat, but in the end, he fought -- and died -- for love.

I do not know whether Amil thought of it in those terms, but with all that he had and all that he did for them, he loved every last societal outcast that he defended, no matter what they stood accused of or what they had actually done.  I do not know what level of commitment Amil had to the Christian faith, but he clearly knew something about sacrificial love.  He clearly knew, and lived, the love that is not a warm, fuzzy feeling, but an act of the will.  He knew, and lived, the love that wills to serve, freely and voluntarily, to the best of one's ability -- and even to the death -- people one knows will repay one with nothing except rank ingratitude.  Can such a love as this fail to cover a multitude of faults?

I trust that, in that supreme moment, when Amil stood before his God in the greatest trial of all, upon whose outcome depend the greatest stakes of all, it did not.  R.I.P.

Amil Norman Myshin, Jr. (1946-2011)