Small world.

Small world.

Small world.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 17 2006 2:09 AM

Small World

Another side to the Reno sniper case.

Judge Chuck Weller.
Judge Chuck Weller

This past Monday, a wealthy Reno, Nev., pawnshop owner allegedly stabbed his estranged wife to death. He is also the prime suspect in Monday's sniper-style shooting of the family-court judge overseeing their divorce. Judge Chuck Weller survived the attack. The wife, Charla Mack, was found "lying face down in a large puddle of blood in the garage." The alleged murderer is the target of a national manhunt. Their 7-year-old daughter is safe with family, as are the two children from a prior marriage. The alleged murderer was, it is believed, upset over an interim settlement in his divorce litigation.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

This is the kind of story for which the CNN news crawl was invented and the reason Nancy Grace has her own show. It's also the kind of story I'd normally cover as a legal journalist. It offers almost too many angles: There is the custody angle, the violence-against-judges angle; the salacious swingers lifestyle angle; the EST/Landmark angle …

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But the man the police are now looking for is Darren Mack. And he is my former client.

I billed literally hundreds of hours on the Mack case several years ago, when I was clerking for a small family-law firm in Reno and he was battling his first wife for custody of their children. Darren and Charla logged countless hours with us at the firm conference table, drafting pleadings or preparing for depositions; after court hearings, we would decompress at some nice casino restaurant. Darren was somehow always at the other side of my desk, or at the other end of the phone, urging me to think about why his kids needed him and why he was their No. 1 ally. The firm was not involved in this second divorce and custody fight.

You might think this random connection would give me some new insight, some ability to say either, "He seemed like the nicest guy," or "I suspected something like this would happen." But neither statement is in fact true. I wish I could say this gives me some special new understanding of the perils of the family-court system, or the special laws of physics that apply to a disintegrating family. But all I can say right now is that someone allegedly "snapped," and I happened to have known him a little.

The too-quick media diagnosis is that the judge in this case had antagonized not only Darren but loads of other parents, and he somehow had it coming to him. But the judge doesn't have to be an ogre to make someone suffer in family court. I can't say what drives a person to snap but I will say this about family law: If you strongly self-identify as a parent, and Darren Mack did, then it can be uniquely brutalizing. Darren prided himself on being a great father; one of those guys who never missed a T-ball game, never missed a parent-teacher meeting. For a while in 1998 there was a billboard in Reno that announced: "The Mack Family Presents: Darren Mack. 1998 Father/Husband of the Year. A unanimous decision by his wife, Charla, and his three wonderful children." In hindsight that isn't just tragic. It seems like a warning.

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Anyone whose public life is defined by their fatherhood is going to be disappointed by the court system, though they don't always see it that way. They put themselves into the hands of the system to rescue this central part of their identity. Their marriage is over, but they're still sure they can be father of the year. In fact, they'll be better than that. With their love, they'll save the kids from the pain of the breakup. But the system is deliberately crafted to force you into something less, to make you share that parenting trophy—sometimes while still carrying the full financial load. And suddenly, you're father of the alternating weekend.

Family-law attorneys know this. God knows the attorneys I worked for did everything in their power to encourage realistic expectations and to foster sanity. But if you are the sort of person who desperately wants to use the courts to crush your opponent, you don't always hear that.

This is not an attempt to explain Darren Mack. I have no idea what he did or why. And this is not an obituary for Charla Mack. Because I cannot manage to believe that she is dead. It is an attempt to explain that divorce courts can be hell, leaving you with an unresolved desire to crush. And family-court judges have no interest in crushing anyone—unless a parent is abusive or dangerous—and so there are few epic victories in family court. The judges and the lawyers and the court-appointed special advocates and the therapists and the forensic accountants all work hard to more or less split the baby. And in the very best cases, the parents are both frustrated but the kids are essentially stable.

Maybe a system that looks and sounds like a pure adversarial system isn't the best way to foster that kind of compromise. Courts create the illusion that at the end of the day there will be a winner. Yet, at least in my limited experience, no one has ever "won" their divorce.

If I hadn't known Darren Mack, I'd be rounding this piece toward a tidy conclusion about the increasing lethality of the attacks on the judiciary. But because I did know him, I am left with a hundred harder questions: What did we miss in all those years, if indeed he did what he is alleged to have done? Were we such bad readers of human nature back then, or was he a perfectly normal client who just snapped? Is there some metric by which one can determine in advance which of the thousands of people you thought you knew well, will snap? Maybe someone like Darren Mack—who spent the better part of the last 10 years in the family-courts system—had no business being there in the first place. The more you want it and are willing to suffer for it, the greater the chance you'll be disappointed. Or maybe, and this is the worst possibility—while we thought we were helping our clients stabilize their fraught situations, making them put their best face forward to the process, we were somehow just becoming their sherpas to madness.

A version of this piece appears in the Washington Post Outlook section.