I stared at the back of Tyler Miller’s head as the judge told him that he was going to prison forever. He bowed his head slightly, but other than that small movement I couldn’t discern a reaction. I wondered if he had held out the hope that at one time in the far distant future he would be given the chance to live in our world again. I knew that he would not be eligible for parole until he was 84 years old. Would that have sustained him and given him enough incentive to be a better prisoner? Somewhere in the innermost part of his heart would he have still held the dream of being a part of his baby daughter’s life? Could he toe the line long enough to make it out again, or even live that long?
But, today with the judge’s words that hope was extinguished completely. Tyler was given two life sentences with no chance of parole. As the right side of the courtroom erupted in clapping and yelling and as the people over there hugged and congratulated one another I saw my husband turn and glance at me. There were tears in his eyes.
Noel was the lead counsel on the defense team for Tyler Miller and has worked on this case exclusively for over a year. And through it all, he’s seen Tyler under the influence of methamphetamines when he raged and was incoherent. He’s spent hours talking to him through a glass wall when he didn’t feel it was safe to sit in the same room with him. He’s also spent hours sitting beside him, reviewing strategies for countless hearings and briefs and petitions. He’s known him at his worst and also when he was healthier. Being jailed was the only way that Tyler could stay off meth, eat healthy and also get the care and medications he needed for his mental illness. And as the layers of drugs were peeled away and chemical imbalances were changed, a different man emerged. Over the months Noel began to see a man whose intelligence he respected and whose unwavering, though misguided love for his small daughter was always his anchor. Noel really cares about Tyler. He likes him. He also knows him in ways that few others do.
I recall the day we first heard Tyler Miller’s name. It was Christmas Day 2010 and we had turned the television to the ten o’clock news. The lead story was of a double homicide in Kalispell. Tyler was accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend Jaimi Hurlbert. He then turned his gun on Jaimi’s daughter Alyssa Burkett, who also died. I looked at Noel and said, “I wonder if that will be your next client.” It was only a few days later that he was assigned to the case and the County Attorney decided to seek the death penalty. I didn’t realize what a large impact these decisions would make on my husband or even how much it would affect me. I was both horrified and intrigued by the case and proud that my husband was one of the few attorneys in the entire state who could qualify to defend a capital murder case. I knew he was excited about the challenge but he tried to tell me what a huge undertaking it really was. He would have to go to Kentucky to what he referred to as “death penalty school” where he would learn many of the nuances and strategies involved in adequately defending someone who is charged with a crime worthy of the death penalty. His other cases would gradually diminish until this case would become his sole priority. An entire defense team was formed consisting of attorneys, investigators and support personnel. Outside experts were consulted, evaluations of Tyler’s metal status were completed and long meetings were held as defense strategies were hashed out. A capital murder case is serious business. Putting someone to death for a crime is no small matter, so there are regulations and laws to ensure that their defense is adequate.
But, I really am getting ahead in the story. Here’s what happened. On Christmas Day 2010, Tyler went to his mother’s house in Kalispell where members of his family were celebrating. He was in a rage because he knew that his ex-girlfriend Jaimi Hurlbert was using meth. She had just gotten off parole a few weeks earlier and quickly and easily returned to drug use. They had been exchanging hateful texts and voice messages regarding their relationship, drugs and the care of their daughter, Haley. It escalated in the days before Christmas and Tyler, ironically also using meth, decided that he would save his daughter from both of them by first killing Jaimi and then turning the gun on himself. That Christmas day he hid a gun in his waistband and went to his mother’s house. He tried to avoid hugs from his family for fear that they would feel the hidden revolver. He lay in wait for Jaimi who was to come and pick up their daughter, Hailey. He didn’t know that Jaimi’s fifteen-year-old daughter would also come. When Jaimi drove up he met her outside, shot her and then in his fury he also shot Alyssa. He ran out of ammunition as he fired at them and then he kicked at them in his crazed rage as they lay dying. Perhaps if he had saved a bullet he would have turned the gun on himself as he had intended. Perhaps he wouldn’t have. In the end, he fled but was captured by law enforcement some hours later.
It was a heinous crime involving innocent children, drug-induced mania, escalating violence and too easy access to a firearm. I was revolted by the entire story as it unfolded on the television newscasts. Noel would come home after spending hours working on the case and then more hours dealing with Tyler at the jail. As I said, at first he was out of control, raving and bragging about his crime. He sent handwritten letters to Jaimi’s family describing the deaths in detail and telling them that if he had the chance he would do it all over again. Jaimi’s father appeared on the news one night as he read portions of the letter and I could see the hurt and hate in his eyes. After the newscast as we ate dinner I turned to my husband, “Why do you let him do that?” I asked. “Isn’t killing this man’s daughter and granddaughter bad enough? He gets to brag about it?”
Noel just said, “Tyler is out of control right now.” He couldn’t say more without breaking confidentiality.
But, I wasn’t satisfied. “Okay, tell me this. Why do you do what you do?”
“Because I believe in our system of justice. I really do believe that everyone deserves to be represented. That’s the main reason that I became a lawyer in the first place,” and then he went on to explain more reasoning for going to law school.
“But, that’s not what I meant,” I persisted. “Why have you chosen this particular path? You could have done corporate law or a zillion other things within the law. Why do you choose to defend rapists and child molesters and murderers? You did choose this, you know. It didn’t just happen.”
“Okay, I understand what you’re asking now.” He was quiet for a bit as he took a couple of bites of his dinner. He finally said,” I think I actually have a knack for this. I can identify with the people I represent.”
“What?” I almost shouted, “You’ve got to be kidding! You are none of those things. I don’t even understand how you can stand to be in the same room with them, let alone work so hard for them.”
He patiently replied, “You know Shelley, they are people and I have to remember that they all have a story. I like to find out what that story is. If I’d made different decisions in my life, going to prison for one of these crimes might have been my story. Sometimes it only takes one bad decision to start heading downhill. I’ve learned at least one thing…it’s a slippery slope. One bad decision too often leads to a bunch of others.”
I’ve thought about that dinner conversation many times over the past year. And I’ve come to see things in a different light now. I think that Noel does have a knack for what he does and a huge part of his success is that he can look beyond the heinous acts to see the human standing behind. He was born with the incredible gift of naturally seeing the good in people. This is a trait that I’ve noticed in his entire family and he’s passed it on to his two daughters. Speak ill of someone? Never. And they aren’t being naïve. They just easily step over the negatives and look for the good. I think Noel has perfected this as he encounters all sorts of people who have committed terrible crimes. He usually meets them when they are at the lowest points in their lives and he looks at them and treats them with humanity. And they respond to this. I like to think that this treatment helps them be a bit better too.
A few months ago I was talking to a friend of mine and I was comparing my typical work day to that of my husband’s. I work with delightful children and basically I play with them to help develop their visual and fine motor skills. My day is spent cutting out paper Valentines, finger painting or assembling jigsaw puzzles. It’s all about love and joy and fun. Noel spends his day in the jail, doing battle with the County Attorney and advising clients whose luck has run out. I said, “I don’t know how Noel deals with this all of this. His day is all about negativity and I’m afraid that sometimes this negative energy follows him home. I don’t want him bringing it into the house.”
My friend said, “I think you’ve got it all wrong. Just because you spend your day differently doesn’t mean that yours is all positive and his is all negative. Stop looking at it like that. Your husband just deals with a different kind of energy. Labeling everything as only good or bad leads to trouble. Think of it only as different energy.” I’ve liked that perspective and have thought about that, too in relation to the dinnertime conversation I had with Noel about why he does what he does. It has helped me look at Tyler and my husband’s other clients in a different light.
A couple of months ago the County Attorney withdrew the death penalty, so a hearing was scheduled to pronounce the sentence. Noel asked me to go. As I sat behind Tyler and Noel in the courtroom I tried very hard to look to the man behind the crime. Jaimi’s family and friends took the stand one by one and yelled, cried, shouted and called him everything from a “monster” to “the devil.” One family member said, “You are only evil Tyler Miller. Only evil.” Now, I don’t know what I would say if my child or sister or aunt had been murdered. Given one last chance to speak directly to the murderer, what would I say? I really don’t know.
I do know that I’ve been trying to see the world and people in shades of grey rather than all black and white. I do not believe that Tyler Miller is only evil, no matter what he did. Although it is easier to pronounce something or someone as totally good or totally bad, I have come to believe that this is not really so. We are all a mixture of goodness and of evil, decency and indecency; kindness and cruelty. We all have the capability to be virtuous or vile. Now, I think I understand a bit better when Noel tells me that he identifies with his clients. Yes, he’s made better choices in his life, but recognizing his own frailties helps him see and celebrate the humanity in others.
As I sit here at my computer I think back and again see my husband turn to me with his eyes brimming with tears. I believe they were tears of loss. That day officially marked the loss of a human being who had the capacity to do great and honorable things in his life. Noel was also losing a companion, a son and a friend. Although Tyler would not get the death penalty, Noel really wanted him to be eligible for parole in the far distant future. He told me that he felt like he lost his argument in the hearing. But, today was about loss of other types, too. Both of these good, solid up-standing families lost a child to drugs and to all of the sadness and pain that accompanies drug use. Two teen-aged girls testified of their anguish in losing their good friend Alyssa. And a small child lost her biological parents in a tragic and violent manner.
Was justice served? I do hope so. But, more than that I hope that this day brought closure for all concerned. Now as time passes, may peace and healing follow the loss and fill the void.
And when all is said and done, may we remember to honor both the frailties and the strengths that make up our own humanity.