The View From Here

So I Became a Defense Attorney

by Eve Oldenkamp, OCDLA President

From the Aug-Sept-Oct 2014 issue of The Oregon Defense Attorney.

I am deeply honored by the opportunity to serve as your President. OCDLA has been an intellectual reservoir and emotional armor for me for 16 years. I am honored to give back. If you have concerns, questions, or comments, please feel free to email me: eveoldenkamp@gmail.com.

John Potter suggested that I give you a rundown of myself and how I came into the defense community. Most of my childhood was spent on a farm in Tillamook, Oregon—my father’s hometown, where he lived all his life. There I learned (without choice) a great work ethic, the grittiness of blue collar work, the value of a small town, and the endurance of humanity through tragedies.

My parents taught us to watch for abuse of power and to take care of the little guy. “Silence is consent” rang true for us. My maternal grandparents’ family had felt the invasive power of the government during the McCarthy era. My grandfather’s boxing during World War II led he and my grandmother to break social barriers and socialize with African Americans. The value of treating each other as equals was held dear by them both. They taught me to always question, to never stand silent when injustice occurs. Both warned me that standing for justice comes with a personal price, it isn’t always comfortable. Grandfather would note the reward in “at least being able to sleep with yourself at night.”

So I became a defense attorney. To help those who need it most. To defend against the powers of the state. I’ve learned in my 16 years this fight comes with personal cost. Society as a whole doesn’t understand us. We defend people many consider indefensible. And these people are often difficult beings. People with built-up frustrations or anger, rooted in a life without opportunity, nutrition, support, love…a life filled with deprivation, abuse and societal condemnation. They did not land in the “Leave It to Beaver” world—in fact, for many their lives mimic the refugee camps in war-torn realms. They do not trust us. Understandably. To remain in this work and remain healthy, we need to look to the subtle rewards and to each other. We are a pack. We need each other.

The subtle rewards come in small moments. When we earn those clients’ trust. A huge honor. My husband, Mark Costello, shared a story recently. He lost a motion to suppress. His client has an unenviable record and a tough life. After the loss, his client hugged him and said, “Thanks, man. Nobody has ever fought for me like that.” And it shook Mark, because all he could see was that he lost and he shouldn’t have (and the Court of Appeals will hopefully agree). A legal defeat was a human win. And in the trenches, while the rest of society frowns in baffled dismay if not horror at what we do, it’s hard to see these little ripples we create. Remember them. Share them. They inspire.

At the Annual Conference, many of us commiserated with Bronson James. In State v. Washington, the Oregon Supreme Court reaffirmed a death sentence, the weight of this “defeat” huge. “Death is different” is not a tired refrain. With simplicity it highlights the severe costs for society’s decision to allow the state to take a life. But then just a few days later, the United States Supreme Court honored Bronson with extensive quotes from the brief he filed on behalf of NACDL in the Court’s stellar decision protecting personal privacy in our cell phones, Riley v. California. What a yo-yo! Such severe ups and downs, emotional highs and lows…. This epitomizes, at a rather extreme end, the nature of our work.

We are the conscience of society. We keep society safe, whether appreciated or not. Safe from the power we entrust to our government to keep us all safe from each other. We routinely and doggedly “storm the castle.” We do not back down, we do not give up—and it is tiring. OCDLA gives us a forum, a support network, a camaraderie that is invaluable. Or at least, so I have found.

The Board of Directors retreat provided additional proof of the dedication our colleagues share to the furtherance of social justice, the fight for the small guy. We each introduced how we came to be in criminal defense. The stories were colorful, awe inspiring and uniformly rang with the desire to serve others. The stories were rich with humor and struggle, the turning points diverse yet strangely unique in that they turned all toward a fight for the small guy, a fight against abuse of power, a desire to find success in life through helping others… especially helping those who so often do not receive help.

So to all of you, young and old, keep your head up. Share your wins. Share your defeats. Know your pack is strong. Sing this refrain: “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, and I won’t back down.” And, in the face of a loss or in a low moment, as the gates of Hell swing wide, when you feel alone, think of all the members of OCDLA, all your fellow warriors. Know we are with you in spirit, on your right, on your left, and looking into those wide open gates with you—grinning wickedly and saying, “Let’s ride!”


With deepest respect,
Eve Oldenkamp