The Fall of The Father Of the Year

By Dahlia Lithwick
Sunday, June 18, 2006

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

This is the kind of story for which the CNN news crawl was invented. It's also the kind of story I'd normally cover as a legal journalist. It offers almost too many angles: the custody angle, the violence-against-judges angle; the salacious- swingers -lifestyle angle.

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

I billed hundreds of hours on the Mack case many years ago, when I was clerking for a small family law firm in Reno and he was fighting his first wife for custody of their children. Darren and Charla logged countless hours with us at our conference table, drafting pleadings and preparing for depositions; after court hearings, we would unwind at some nice casino restaurant. Darren was somehow always at the other side of my desk, or on the other end of the phone line, urging me to think about why his kids needed him, and why he alone was their ally. The firm was not involved in this second divorce and custody fight.

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

The instant media diagnosis is that the judge in this case had antagonized not only Darren Mack but loads of other parents and that 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 don't know what drives a person to snap, but I do know this about family law: If you strongly self-identify as a parent, and Darren Mack did, then it can be uniquely brutalizing. Mack prided himself on being a great father, one of those guys who never missed a T-ball game. 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's almost a warning.

I'm not attempting to justify Darren Mack. I have no idea what he has done or why. Nor is this an effort to eulogize Charla. I can't quite believe she is dead. But I suspect that men whose public lives are defined by fatherhood are going to be disappointed by the court system, though they don't always see it that way. They put themselves in the hands of the system to rescue this 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. They'll save the kids from the pain of the breakup with their love. But the system is crafted to make you share that parenting trophy -- sometimes while still carrying the full financial load. And suddenly, without warning, you're Father of the Alternating Weekend.

The lawyers I worked for did everything in their power to help clients maintain perspective and 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.

Divorce courts tend to leave that desire to crush unresolved. Family court judges have no interest in crushing anyone, so there are few epic victories in family court. The judges and the lawyers and the court-appointed special advocates and the forensic accountants and the therapists all work hard to more or less split the baby. And in the best cases, the parents are wildly frustrated but the kids are stable.

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

If I hadn't known Darren Mack, I'd be rounding toward a tidy conclusion about the increasing lethality of the attacks on the judiciary. But because I did know him, I am left with dozens of much harder questions: What did we miss, if indeed he did what he is suspected of doing? Were we such bad readers of human nature, or was he a perfectly normal client who just snapped? Is there some metric by which one can determine which of the thousands of people you think you know will snap?

Maybe someone like Darren Mack -- who spent much of the past decade in the family court system -- had no business being there. 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, we were somehow becoming their sherpas to madness.


Dahlia Lithwick covers legal affairs for Slate, the online magazine at www.slate.com.

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