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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Memoir From Snake Pits of Victimization

ATTORNEY FOR THE DAMNED: A Lawyer's Life With the Criminally Insane by Denis Woychuk; Free Press; $23, 226 pages

May 16, 1996|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Plenty of highly paid lawyers in high-rise corner offices regard practicing law as the pits. But Denis Woychuk, whose workplace is a state mental hospital and whose clients are the criminally insane, is one lawyer who spends his days at the very bottom of a snake pit.

Anyone who is tempted to lay out 20 bucks or more on a book by one of the O.J. Simpson lawyers--or, for that matter, the latest novel by Scott Turow--will find many more shocks and surprises in Woychuk's harrowing memoir and expose, "Attorney for the Damned."

Woychuk's clients are not attractive or sympathetic; they are not even colorful and exotic; rather, his clientele consists of hopeless and tortured souls whom Woychuk regards as both "victims and victimizers."

"They include child abusers, rapists, cannibals, torturers and killers," he readily concedes. "They scare everyone, including me."

Woychuk works in the labyrinthine public mental system of New York, where harried civil-service psychiatrists and technicians cope with men and women who used to be called "criminally insane" and are now known among the politically correct as "dangerously mentally ill."

As we discover in his remarkably endearing book, Woychuk is one of those rare attorneys for whom the law is a calling to do justice and not just a way to make a good living. He left a job in a corporate law firm where he was assigned to defend a foreign bank against fraud charges--"I spent each day surrounded by 600,000 pages of bad photocopies"--and signed up at half the salary to represent mentally ill people who had fallen afoul of the law.

"I understood that all patients need legal counsel so that they won't be railroaded by nervous hospitals or pushy district attorneys," Woychuk explains, "or because they have the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Still, Woychuk is not exactly a zealot, and he readily concedes that he has been responsible for putting some very dangerous people back on the streets to kill again.

"I live with the painful knowledge that I am somehow complicit in the horrible acts some of my clients commit after I ease their legal constraints," he writes. "The trouble is that after so many years working in a maximum-security hospital, when I meet someone who hasn't killed and eaten parts of his mother, I tend to think, 'This guy isn't so bad.' "

Woychuk has a tendency to bulk up his book with chunks of his favorite cross-examinations, quoting himself at greater length than necessary. One long transcript --the police interrogation of a man accused of killing and dismembering a woman--is so graphic that it is painful to read.

"Somebody please stop me," the killer wrote in lipstick on a mirror when the orgy of violence was finally over. "I'll kill again."

Woychuk's book is mostly a memoir, but he concludes with his own prescription for addressing the problem of mental illness and violence. He insists that we must address the seedbed of criminal insanity--child abuse, poverty and the disintegration of families.

"The great fiction in American life is that violent crime is a matter of choice," he writes. "But the roots of violence, which take hold during childhood, are something about which children have no say."

Yet, along the way, Woychuk manages to work moments of dark comedy. He tells us, for example, about the time when a client who had been dubbed the "Hell's Kitchen Psycho Slasher" tried to demonstrate the technique used in a murder that had taken place in the mental hospital.

"Listen, I'm going to stop you here for a moment," Woychuk deadpans. "Do not show me, do not attempt to show me, any chokeholds!"

We are told, by the way, that Woychuk is not only a practicing lawyer but also an environmental law judge, the author of several children's books and the owner of a bar in New York City. But these details are not merely interesting biographical notes--I imagine that they help to explain how Woychuk manages to stay sane and even cheerful in the snake pit.

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