Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2012
Profiles in the Law
Hard to Kill:
Connie Crooker Proves to Be a Legal Scrapper
By Susan Elizabeth Reese

Constance Emerson Crooker stands before huge towers of cardboard cartons. They hold what she calls “ my life’s work”: her new book, Melanoma Mama: On Life, Death, and Tent Camping.1

The cover photo says it all: Crooker cavorts in a New England cemetery, autumn leaves at her feet, one hand waving her guitar, the other rakishly grasping a headstone. The book chronicles her diagnosis of stage IV melanoma in 2008, her multiple surgeries and grueling treatments and ultimately, her triumphant solo camping trip across the country in 2009. The small volume is passionate and honest, full of life, grit and determination as Crooker stares death in the face without flinch or self-pity.

“My biggest surprise,” she says, “is how much joy there is living in the valley of the shadow of death.”

Neither Crooker’s exuberant legal career nor her most recent full-time occupation as a professional cancer patient were on her horizon when she grew up in the ’50s in a small town in rural Massachusetts. The women in her family — grandmother, mother, aunt — were teachers, and Crooker firmly knew this was not for her. The second of four children, she heard that Reed was “a good college,” and applied. After the college not only accepted her but also provided a full scholarship, she joined three friends to carpool (in a VW bug) and camp her way to Oregon.

An art history major, Crooker wrote a thesis about the revival of Italic handwriting. Uncertain of her next steps, she was living the life of “a hippie in the woods,” when a college friend invited her to share an afternoon taking the LSAT exams. She knew nothing about the test, but took it on a whim. Her scores allowed her entry to the night program at Lewis & Clark Law School, which she decided to try. To her surprise, she not only enjoyed it but also did well.

After graduation, no one jumped to hire her, so she started her own practice in the old Victorian home she had purchased during her law school years. One afternoon, the chain-smoking Multnomah County clerk in charge of appointing lawyers for low-income defendants asked Crooker if she spoke Spanish. Admitting some high school familiarity (Reed did not offer Spanish during her student days) with the language, Crooker volunteered to take Hispanic appointments, although, she recalls, “I couldn’t have ordered a taco in Tijuana.” She then spent one full month of each of her first three years in practice in Cuernavaca, Mexico, taking a Spanish immersion class.

Crooker’s growing fluency with Spanish, as well as concern for the struggles of her non-English speaking clients traversing the court system, energized her to advocate for competent language interpretation. She pushed for required testing and certification for interpreters, began publishing an annual Spanish language legal network directory, and eventually wrote the book, The Art of Legal Interpretation: A Guide for Court Interpreters.2

Crooker’s passion for the rights of Spanish-speaking clients and the need for standards in court interpretation led her to one of the two highlights of her legal career: her work on behalf of Santiago Ventura Morales. Ventura, a 14 year old from Oaxaca, came to Oregon from Mexico to work in the strawberry fields. During his fourth summer in the fields, in July 1986, a fellow farm worker was stabbed to death in rural Clackamas County after a birthday party became a drunken brawl. The arresting officer, sure he saw a “glimmer of guilt” in Ventura’s eyes, charged the young man with the murder.

The trial was translated into Spanish, not Mixtec, Ventura’s language and that of most of the witnesses. The state’s sole eye-witness initially testified he only saw a burning car in a field; after further conversations with the prosecutor, he claimed that Ventura had stabbed the victim. There was no blood on Ventura’s knife or blood on his clothing. He did not testify in his own defense, but he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Soon afterwards, troubled by the conviction, several jurors began a crusade to change the outcome. They enlisted others, appeared on the Oprah show, and eventually convinced Paul De Muniz to represent Ventura in post-conviction relief. Ventura’s team learned, with Crooker’s help, that Mixtec was very different from Spanish, and the language difficulties infected the trial. The factual errors were equally profound: defense investigators went to Mexico and learned that a different farm worker had been seen chasing the victim and later boasted to two independent witnesses that he had killed a guy in Oregon. Eventually, Ventura prevailed in court. He was released in 1991.3

The lack of proper interpretation, both during the police investigation and the trial, became symbols of the case in the popular media. Crooker’s contribution on these issues was significant; her efforts eventually led to a legislative task force on racial and ethnic issues, culminating in mandatory testing and certification for interpreters.4

Earlier, a resume Crooker had sent Tillamook County, seeking a job just after law school, resurfaced when that county’s public defender abruptly left his office, files in disarray and clients in desperation. The county contacted Crooker, quickly interviewed her and just as quickly offered her the position, beginning two weeks later. She rented out her Portland house, moved to the coast, and became the first woman in Oregon to contract with the state to fund her office as a public defender.

Crooker’s new position brought another highlight of her legal career: exposing and eventually achieving sanctions against an arrogant county judge who abused defense attorneys, prosecutors and clients.

Shortly after Bert Gustafson won a contested election to the new Tillamook County District Court, Crooker began to notice a pattern of verbal abuse toward her, discourtesy to out-of-town lawyers, and rude behavior in court. She began taking notes. Eventually, when she appeared with a client and sought more time to file a motion, Gustafson refused to acknowledge her status as the man’s lawyer and threatened to jail her for contempt.5

That incident was the last straw for Crooker: she filed a complaint with the Judicial Fitness Commission, three members of whom recommended that Gustafson be suspended. Eventually, the Oregon Supreme Court chose only to censure him, but his willful misconduct in a series of cases remains in the public record of his performance.6 Crooker’s willingness to stand up to the judge, as well as her laborious work to bring his misconduct before the commission, enhanced her credibility in the eyes of her colleagues, prosecutors and policemen alike. She also believes she proved to the legal community that women are just as vigorous and diligent in litigation as men.

After the state refused to continue funding for the office, Crooker returned to private practice in Portland. In 2000, after another judge made a ruling that made one of her witnesses forego a long-planned vacation, Crooker decided to retire. (After a sleepless night of frustration at the judge’s demand, Crooker concluded, “There will be no more judges in my bedroom.”)

Crooker’s retirement plan was simply to ask herself, “What shall I do today that is completely fun?” She returned to Mexico and taught comparative criminal law for a semester. She took a trip to Scotland with her mother. She returned to Mexico with Judge Ed Jones to orchestrate a mock criminal trial and wrote about it for this magazine. She wrote a book about gun control. She practiced her joys of skiing, hiking and ecstatic dancing.

But then, cancer.

Crooker attacked her grim prognosis with the same energy and spirit that she gave to her clients. In the summer of 2008, she endured abdominal surgery. After sufficient healing, she agreed to grueling Interleukin-2 treatments, which she says brought her to the brink of a tortured death before dragging her back to life. In early 2009, she suffered through radiation for a tumor blocking her esophagus. Finally, the doctors cautiously told her that the combined treatments appeared to have put her tumor at bay. She might have 20 more years!

She says, “I wasn’t going to write about [melanoma], because I thought I didn’t have enough time. But time came to me in abundance — a big silken blanket of time that delivered a luxurious, soft unfolding of light and air, and fields of sparkling snow, and hillsides of red-and-gold fall foliage, and a chilly mountain lake… and an endless array of food….” Melanoma Mama, pp 189-190.

Both Crooker’s medical journey and her cross-country trip echo her call to live with exuberance:

“We’re not dead yet, and as long as we’re here, let’s be boisterously alive. When life and death no longer matter, true joy is possible.” Melanoma Mama, p 230.

 

Note

In February 2012, Crooker’s melanoma caused a brain tumor. She is recovering from surgery, being treated with immunotherapy and working on two more books: Avoiding the Tuscan Sun - Melanoma Mama in Italy and Life in the Slow Lane — Melanoma Mama as Caregiver.

Endnotes

1. Published April 9 and available through the author, amazon.com (print and Kindle editions) and other outlets.

2. Now out of print, the last few volumes are in the Multnomah County Court interpreter’s office.

3. Walter Todd succeeded Justice De Muniz on the case when the latter was appointed to the Court of Appeals. Post conviction relief was granted, not because Ventura was factually innocent, but because his trial counsel had neglected to advise him of his right to testify on his own behalf.

4. Ventura learned English, worked part time as a legal assistant and graduated with degrees in social work and political science from the University of Portland in 1996.

5. The case became a media magnet, with John Henry Hingson III called in as a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers task force on Crooker’s behalf. The Oregonian and the broadcast media were present the next week when Judge Gustafson was to make good his threat, but at the last minute he was re-assigned to Lincoln County. A visiting judge in Tillamook honored Crooker’s request and her status as defense counsel. 

6. In Re Gustafson, 305 Or 655, 756 P 2d 21 (1988). Gustafson has resigned from the state bar and now lives in Palm Desert, Calif.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Elizabeth Reese has been in private practice since 1973, emphasizing criminal defense in state and federal courts. Her statewide practice also handles appellate and juvenile delinquency cases.



© 2012 Susan Elizabeth Reese

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