Accidents of Justice
High Profile Lawyers talk about cases that will haunt them for the rest of their Lives
From – St. Louis Magazine
Excerpt from St. Louis Magazine
“Impossibly cute” and “a little Huck Finn blond” is how Clayton family lawyer Leigh Joy Carson describes 7-year old Steven*, a boy she was appointed to represent as a guardian ad litem in a hotly contested child-custody case about a dozen years ago.
The parents looked as if they’d stepped straight out of the pages of a Polo ad. They had already separated, and the father, John*, had agreed to let the mother, Alice*, move with their son to Florida. John had quickly realized that the arrangement wasn’t working. Now he wanted Steven to come live with him.
“Standoffish and distant” was Carson’s initial impression of John, a physician and researcher at Washington University School of Medicine. Alice, on the other hand was engaging and personable, “the kind of person you like going to lunch with.”
First impressions can be deceiving.
When Carson interviewed Steven in her office, Alice- who was supposed to be sitting in the waiting room- crouched down outside Carson’s window to eavesdrop. When the boy’s paternal grandfather dropped Steven off in Florida after a cross-country visit with John, Alice stood on the front porch and screamed profanities.
Carson confronted Alice, who admitted cursing at Steven’s grandfather, but said that her hands had been covering her son’s ears, so he couldn’t have heard anything. She’s been ‘squeezing his head so hard,” she said, that she was afraid “it would injure him.”
Soon it was time for Carson to meet with John and Steven together. At this point, she wasn’t sure what to expect. Early in the meeting, Steven started to squirm. John asked for a piece of paper. He and his son began constructing a paper airplane.
“It was clear they had done it before,” Carson says. Steven “just delighted in giving his dad directions, saying things like, ‘Oh no, Dad. I think we need to put a paper clip here.’ It was just heartwarming to see this guy who seemed very uptight be so completely, completely in tune with his kid. I didn’t expect it.”
John’s department head testified that the father was highly respected in his field and could name his hours. As her experience with the family deepened, Carson came to the conclusion that it was in Steven’s best interest for the little boy to be with his father.
In her closing remarks at the trial, she remembers telling the judge: “When you appointed me to be Steven’s guardian, I took him by the hand and I took him in my heart, and my heart tells me he needs to live with his dad in St. Louis.”
The judge didn’t see it the same way. Primary custody went to Alice.
John gave up his career in St. Louis and took a job as a doctor in a Florida emergency department to be with his son.
Carson still can’t shake the feeling that she let Steven down. “Every once in a while, when I go home, I cut through Shaw Park and see 7-year-old boys playing baseball,” she says. “They’re so full of hope and promise at that age. Whoever shows up to play catch with you before the game is your friend.”
She watches and she thinks of Steven, wondering how his life turned out:
“Sometimes you just want a sign that they’re ok.”