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November 2021


This moment and this breath: A public defender writes about loss, survival, and extreme sports

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By Shauna Faye Kieffer

I was in the middle of a 200-mile relay running race when my 34-year-old brother died in August 2019. His wife kept calling me. I answered about four miles deep into the race and I knew by her voice he was dead. My 29-year-old brother had died two months before. I lost a baby two years before that. Everyone has their suffering. It’s no secret that people who are drawn to sports that require total focus on that one moment—be it yoga breathing, skiing cliffs, or running until your legs could fall off—are all seeking to be present in the moment and not lost in their despair. As a trial lawyer, specifically a public defender in Hennepin County, Minnesota, channeling these outlets is more important to me now than ever.

My office had a shake-up. Our longtime chief was removed during covid-19, and some months earlier George Floyd was murdered in our city, exposing the racial injustice public defenders see and battle every day. We remained in court and kept going to the jails while most judges and prosecutors appeared remotely. I volunteered to cover the calendar when covid first hit—and learned in court on the record that a client I had met with had active covid. We got covid, we tried cases during covid, we marched with protestors, one of my colleagues asking a young woman who was being peppered-sprayed, “Can I put $78 in your pocket for bail?” as she was being arrested. 

When I read about the death of George Floyd I knew the city would burn, but when I drove on the empty roads and saw the dark clouds of smoke billowing on my way to work the next day, I cried for it all anyhow. We volunteered to answer legal phone calls on a secret line for those arrested for protesting. “I hope you die, you Commie bitch!” one man kept calling to say, having hacked the secret line to yell at whoever answered. It was three in the morning and my kids, who I would not see before work, slept silently upstairs. Clients would plead with me that they were elderly, had asthma, or any other condition that made them fear their pre-trial detainment would lead to their death of covid. Didn’t I care?! Of course I did. 

I stayed up late writing motions about covid and bail that were unsuccessful. I could picture my own brother (who spent some time in prison) on the other side of the plexiglass, scared that he would die behind bars or miss the funeral of a loved one outside. Our caseloads on the “person-felony” team (for the most serious crimes charged in Hennepin County) increased despite the overall decline in court activity because they were cases that would not be deemed less important during a crisis. We all averaged over one hundred open cases, most of them serious felonies, on any given day. Most of us had two open murders included in that case load at any given time, along with many shootings and rapes. We watched each other break down as relationships ended and people drank too much, ate too much, or simply withdrew. I’d like to say I was different, and stress doesn’t affect me, but it sure does. Despite hardship, I have survived and sometimes even thrived in moments of extreme pain and pressure because I’ve learned to care for myself. 

Whether it’s skiing or endurance running, extreme sports provide an immediate release of all that is toxic. In 2017, I lost a baby. I had finished a three-week-long murder trial with co-defendants where six lawyers were in the courtroom on any given day. One day, the judge locked the courtroom because people came in to threaten a witness as he was testifying, hand-gesturing slicing across the neck. My co-counsel and I tried that case like brain surgeons. It was an unwinnable mission, but I’m confident no other attorneys would have litigated it better. The stress that such a trial places on the body and the mind is real, and I put my health second for the client and job.

After our guilty verdict, I was at a friend’s baby shower in a beautiful downtown condo in Minneapolis when my water broke. I was standing, eating a quiche, when I popped like a balloon. I didn’t understand what had happened. “Oh my god I’ve never—I’ve never peed on the floor,” I stammered, feeling embarrassed and lightheaded. Three people followed me to the bathroom, knowing that at 16 weeks pregnant this wasn’t going to end well. They watched me, just as shocked as I was at the blood, and took me to the hospital. Her heart was still beating on the ultrasound. I begged them to fill me back up with water, but of course, that’s not something that can be done. 

I got to hold that little baby. The hormonal imbalance created by that loss was unfathomable. It was the closest I’ve ever come to understanding mental illness…. at that point I had lost a boyfriend to suicide, and helped a younger brother battle years of chemotherapy, but during any other traumas I had at least a brain that sought a stable baseline. When baby Edith died, I kept thinking I should take her body and start walking from the hospital (in downtown Minneapolis) to the sea. I did not want to leave the hospital without her, but the hospital required that I give her to them for an autopsy. I would not be able to keep her ashes. 

The autopsy later revealed no health issues with the baby. Two other women on my work team also lost babies that year. I went back to the office, where at least I had the ability to alleviate the suffering of others. A judge ordered me over to her courtroom over my protests, in an exchange that ended with her yelling, “I’ve had three miscarriages, Ms. Kieffer!” By the time I got back to my desk, she had sent an apology to my personal email that to this day, I’ve never read. I accepted it in heart because hurt people hurt people. Luckily, a boss in our office, Jeanette Boerner, told me to take as much time off as I needed. My job was safe, but something had to change.

 


Within a week I was on a backcountry ski trip. We boot-packed into one hike. I sweat more hiking Aspen’s back bowls than when I’d run a marathon. I was drenched, releasing all the hormones and drugs that go with pregnancy loss when we summited the back bowl of Aspen proper, offering runs up to 48 degrees in pitch. Physical pain was about the only thing that I could feel. I enjoyed burning my legs on the hike up and skiing the downhill. 

At one point we traversed, skiing along a narrow path horizontally across the mountain seeking a perfect line to drop in on, until soon we were on a knife blade edge cliff and out of options. One side was sheer rock; if I fell backwards, I would be shredded. The other side of the mountain edge on which we sat was a 45-degree pitch narrow chute that required navigation around a boulder, trees on each side. My ski edges kept me from plummeting. I shook with fear. My husband knew I was scared. “Can I help you?” he yelled over the wind. “How? A helicopter?” I yelled back, with some other choice words. We were at a place you could not hike out of, where there was only one way down. I kept telling myself, “You can’t do this, you simply cannot do this, if you miss this turn you die.” Until my mind finally quieted. You must. 

Facing a chute with a boulder that you have to clear is just like being faced with insurmountable loss: You go forward even if you’re scared as f--k, even if you think you can’t, because you must. I cleared the boulder even though the route was steep and if I caught an edge, I’d roll and die. I ski places people have died, as recently as this year. I know my skill set and am not doing it to risk my life. I’m pushing myself to find peace. The rest of the run was powder and trees with enjoyable, easy-to-manage routes. I skied in for a beer. Hubby went to hit it again. A guy at the bar bought a round. He was hamming it up with everyone, bragging about his mogul run and putting his friends in playful headlocks and what-not. I was surprised when he got up to use the restroom and had no legs. That weekend Aspen hosted an annual event for combat-wounded veterans. I wound up getting his number to give to my single friend Jenn. Studies show PTSD can be cured by micro-dosing mushrooms or by doing extreme sports. My good friend Larry, a retired Navy SEAL, and I often talk about the parallels in job stress and battle as a public defender versus a SEAL: Both require focus and deal out constant trauma. Extreme sports reset the mind.

 


To focus solely on the moment at hand is a gift—I’d go so far as to say maybe even the goal of this life. I met a Buddhist monk at the airport in New Delhi, India in 2006. His name was Nyandak. He had a hard time with my name, Shauna. “If it helps, call me Shauna Faye,” I said. “They misprinted my ticket to read Shunyata.” “Do you know what that means?” he said. “Total emptiness.” “Is that a dumb blonde joke?” I asked. He looked confused. “It’s the goal of what I teach,” he explained. Nyandak has stayed with me twice in Minnesota through the years. We’re still good friends today. Total emptiness: How do you achieve that when there is so much suffering to carry with you? If you can’t leave it at work, you can’t watch your kids at swimming lessons or be there for your loved one’s last breath.

The week of the most recent presidential election, I tried a police assault case. My Black client was charged with spitting at the White police officers, a felony. Helicopters circled the city lest chaos break out as election results emerged. Police four-wheel vehicles filled with armed cops made the city feel militarized, under siege. In court the rules were different because of covid. When speaking to the jury, I could remove my face mask. The jury was brought into the court room for voir dire questioning in smaller panels, seated far apart from one another. A self-described CEO from a rich western suburb removed his mask entirely when the judge inquired if the jurors would be comfortable sitting on a trial in the middle of covid. Assuming this was because he didn’t believe in covid, and perhaps thought himself a conservative, I asked if he could follow the law like Justice Scalia prescribed, to the letter? Of course, he responded. “Let’s say you learn my client is a jerk to law enforcement, maybe even an asshole, and you feel very sympathetic to these cops. Can you still follow the law even if you don’t like it?” He shifted in his seat, and said the question made him very uncomfortable, but he would. I struck him, but the almost all-White jury had been put on notice.

Every day during that trial, I ran the same loop I have run since 2006 in downtown Minneapolis. It has come to mean more since my brother Shane was murdered along that very river. Shortly after my second brother died, I sought mental health help—I was hoping the doctor would give me some drugs, some therapy or diagnosis. (I believe very much in science and support anyone taking drugs that help their brain find balance and peace.) But he said I should keep running that same loop. Looking the scary thing in its face takes the trauma away. I have come to run no matter what. I will tell the judges in trial that I have a standing lunch engagement, once passing the judge presiding on my case on his usual run, as the jury read questionnaires. He gave me a knowing look. Usually I can only get away for a half hour, but for that half hour my mind spins and releases anything that does not serve me. While on autopilot, that detail I forgot about the body-worn camera footage rises to the top, and the snide remark the prosecutor made drifts deep into the Mississippi mud. If I carried these things home to my family, I would not be able to do the work that I do.

The officer testified that my client looked him in the eye and spat in his face. My client did not testify. I pointed out the discrepancies in the evidence, and how my client had been brutally assaulted before the officers arrived. The officers did not investigate that assault. Even if I worked late, I found time to get outside for a short jog. If time was dwindling, I’d run two miles as fast as I could, and use wet-wipes to shower, slicking my hair back with a headband and hoping I looked more chic than gross when I returned to trial in the afternoon. The whole country felt unsettled with the election. The whole city felt unsettled because of George Floyd’s murder. It was all too much. Every time I ran, I felt calm and focused, my blood pressure lowered, and details of the case connected. My client was found not guilty.

The memories I have can be graphic and traumatic. My brother on a gurney under the humming light of his garage, his wife weeping and falling at my feet. I don’t live in these dark places because of running, skiing, and surfing. So many of my friends can barely get through the week if something goes awry. A friend who wasn’t warm enough, mounting debt, being stuck inside because of covid—these things can cripple them in work productivity and their ability to be there for their friends and family. I get it, I get it majorly. But the reason I was able to pull through and win almost all of my jury trials as a defense attorney following the horrific loss of my brothers, the reason I am able to be present to raise two lovely kids, is because my “me-time” creates power and self-worth. My legs can run full throttle; my mind can quiet to the point that the only thing in front of me is the moment and my breath. 

There’s a level of camaraderie I feel with my colleagues because we are the frontline workers combating injustices and serving the underdog. We all come into the job wanting to make the world better, but ironically, true believers are the most likely to burn out. If you are empathetic toward the crying mother, toward the mentally ill client who keeps trying to kill themselves in jail, toward the baby taken from the arms of a parent hauled away on a non-violent offense, and you don’t have an outlet for these traumas, this job is a slow death sentence. You cannot do it all, and the trauma of these real-life humans will haunt you. If you want to continue to do your part, you must make time to care for yourself. 

As a profession in general, we are the worst at showing weakness. Public defenders are at the top of that list. To be able to say, “Hey, I need caseload relief!” or admit to your boss that a case has a trauma too close to your own for you to handle it, should be seen as strength. Yet we fear showing our vulnerabilities lest our colleagues think we can’t handle the work, or we aren’t down for the cause. I have seen far too many public defenders whose attitude is, “Not me, I can handle anything! Give me 80-hour weeks, low pay, and I will love it because I care the most!” Not surprisingly, these people burn out. Employers that understand supporting their line attorneys is an open dialogue about meeting their needs—be that flexing time, or making time for physical health—create loyalty and longevity. 

Racial injustice, covid, politics, global warming, divorce, death: None of us are going to make it out alive, but how do we make it through the day? Put on some sneakers and let your legs loose like a six-year-old on a summer day. Run around the block, do yoga in your backyard. Play with your dog, call your dad. You don’t have to go far, you don’t have to ski a cliff, but you have to do something to save yourself. 


Shauna Faye Kieffer is a 2008 graduate of UST Law. She was the first person in the state to uncover an electronic surveillance warrant filed in secret in another county.  Court File No. 27-CR-19-24532. She has won 7 of her 9 most recent jury trials.

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