For the first time in many years, I thought about Len Register, who once did something I never saw another lawyer do.
He quit in the middle of a criminal trial. He got up, insulted his co-counsel — who was also his boss — in front of the judge, and then walked out to his car and drove away from the Palm Beach County Courthouse. Never saw him again.
At the time, which was 1993, I sympathized with Register, who was an assistant state attorney in Tampa and trying two white men charged with setting Christopher Wilson, a black man, on fire, and leaving him for dead in a field next to a note signed “KKK.”
Wilson survived, and the case had received so much pretrial publicity in Tampa that it was moved to Palm Beach County. It was Register’s case, but the Hillsborough County state attorney himself, Harry Lee Coe, decided he would personally try the case, even though Coe hadn’t handled a trial in 22 years.
And Coe was awful. It didn’t take a law degree to see that Coe should have just left the trial to Register, the experienced courtroom litigant who knew the case best.
Yes, I sympathized with Register as he sat in the courtroom next to Coe, silently seething as his boss mumbled through an opening statement, then insisted on being the lead lawyer in presenting the evidence.
So when Register called for a closed-door meeting with the judge during the trial and said, “I can’t take it anymore, and I’m in no emotional state to finish this trial,” I was in Register’s corner. Good for him.
Coe tried to keep Register beside him.
“I would request you request him to do his duty, your honor,” Coe told Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Donald C. Evans.
Register answered: “He wouldn’t know duty if it bit him in the butt, judge.”
And then, with the judge’s consent, Register vamoosed. And I wrote a column about it. One that missed the point.
In my column, I gave Register a pass. I mostly blasted Coe. But I should have been way tougher on Register, who left Wilson, the man who suffered this horrible crime, without the lawyer best equipped to competently prosecute his attackers.
After Register disappeared, Coe had to bring in a misdemeanor prosecutor from his office who had to learn the case overnight in a West Palm Beach hotel room while the trial was ongoing.
“And so the past two days have been filled with prosecutorial bumbling,” I wrote. “Evidence excluded by error. Violations of witness rules. And a state attorney who seems to be only capable of making a case against himself.”
I was really hard on Coe. But I should have been harder on Register, who lost sight of the big picture — which was Wilson, the man in the courtroom with all the burn scars.
What made me think of Register was a story in Port St. Lucie about Diane Tirado, who lost her job as an eighth-grade history teacher at the West Gate K-8 School this month.
Tirado took a stand against the public school’s grading policy that she thought was wrong, and it cost her her new teaching job.
The school policy, as spelled out in the student and parent handbook, outlined a grading system that seemed to prevent a student from being graded below a 50 percent on any assignment.
It was printed in bold, all-caps, red letters on Page 25 of the handbook:
“NO ZERO’s — LOWEST POSSIBLE GRADE IS 50%”
When some students in Tirado’s class failed to turn in the homework project she assigned, she gave them zeros, refusing to award them half-credit for a project they didn’t do.
In a farewell note to students, she wrote on the classroom whiteboard:
“Bye Kids: Mrs. Tirado loves you and wishes you the best in life! I have been fired for refusing to give you a 50% for not handing anything in. ♥ Mrs. Tirado”
Then she posted it on Facebook. Like with Register, I found myself instantly sympathizing with Tirado. The school policy, like Harry Lee Coe, was getting in the way.
Give teachers the tools to motivate kids as they see fit. Maybe some kids need a couple of zeros to wake them up. Maybe every kid needs to know that if you put nothing in, you get nothing back. Not 50 percent back.
You shouldn’t go around in life expecting something for nothing. Tirado was teaching them a good life lesson. Right? That was the way I first saw this story.
But then I caught myself and remembered Register. It made me think that this classroom story was another version of someone picking up his or her marbles in the middle of a game and going home.
And once again, I wasn’t focusing on the real victim here. It’s not the lawyer or the teacher making a stand against the system. It’s the burn victim. It’s the eighth-graders.
What’s in their best interests? If Tirado really loved those kids and teaching them as much as she professed, then she’d find a way to stick around. Walking out isn’t going to fix anything.
Especially if you’re a journeyman teacher on probationary status in the first semester of your new school as she was. It’s a snap to fire a new teacher, especially one who is insubordinate right from the start.
There was a smarter, more principled way to fight this. It involved following the rules, but lodging your position outside the classroom to school administrators and influential parents on the School Advisory Council (SAC).
Recruit allies. Keep your job. Do the best you can for the kids.
Tirado’s getting a lot of support on Facebook. People are congratulating her for taking a stand and urging her to get a lawyer.
“Instead of firing you, couldn’t they just give you the month of October off and only pay you for 15 days?” one commenter wrote.
But I keep thinking about Len Register, and his not-so-heroic principled stand.
Despite his flaws, Coe — who would commit suicide seven years later — ended up getting a conviction in that burning case. And despite the Port St. Lucie school’s questionable grading system, Tirado’s former students will end up getting American history lessons.
Sometimes, I’ve come to realize, the principled thing is to stay and make the best of the rules you don’t get to make.
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Read Frank Cerabino’s recent columns online at myPalmBeachPost.com/frank