The Accidental Jurist

Leonard Peltier. Stephen Miles. Now the witness who might break the Ramsey case. Itís no wonder Lee Hill thinks he needs to pack a pistol.

He got an early start in the legal profession as he and Kushner served on the program's "court," which tried and sentenced fellow students for breaking the rules. At the beginning of his last summer, Hill learned what it felt like to be a defendant when he and a half-dozen other boys were caught smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol and trying to sneak into the girls' dorm.

Hill and most of the others had been hauled into Middleton's office, where they earnestly denied the charges. However, Mac Beasley, whose father was one of the founders of Planned Parenthood (and who would himself grow up to be a lawyer), and another boy, Steve Hennigan (the son of a professional football player who would become an infectious-diseases doctor), were belligerently unapologetic. Yeah, they'd all been smoking marijuana, they admitted to the chagrin of their compatriots. So what?

Eventually, Beasley suggested that they all plead guilty "with extenuating circumstances due to hormonal activity." They were grounded for a week. That same week, the rest of the student body elected Hill to serve as chief justice.

The old man and the Lee: Hill with William S. Burroughs.
The old man and the Lee: Hill with William S. Burroughs.
The sheltering high: Hill with an ill Paul Bowles in Tangier in 1999.
The sheltering high: Hill with an ill Paul Bowles in Tangier in 1999.

But life on campus wasn't all fun and games. It was 1972, and the war in Vietnam was still a hot issue. There was friction between some older college students and the snot-nosed "eggheads" from the governor's program, with their left-leaning instructors and their liberal program, who were wandering around campus in their little Mao caps.

One evening, Hill was standing outside a party when an older college student told him to leave.

"By what authority?" Hill asked.

"By the authority that I'm going to kick your ass if you don't," the older boy said.

If Hill had learned anything from his father, it was that if he was right he shouldn't back down. Still, he was a lot smaller. Then the lawyer in him took over, and he responded, "I'm a minor. You touch me, and I'll have your ass thrown under the jail." The older student turned several shades of red and walked away.

For all of its benefits, the program's learning-for-the-sake-of-learning premise ruined all structured, formal education for Hill. From that point on, he either accelerated through his course work or "punched out" early.

At age thirteen he was auditing college classes at Northeast Louisiana State University in physics, and chemistry courses at fourteen. Even then the only thing that saved him from death by boredom was racing motorcycles on a dirt track -- finding one of the few connections with his father, who proudly wore his "Hill's Pit Crew" motocross shirt -- and becoming the state champion in the 250 cc amateur class.

By the time he was fifteen, Hill was enrolled full-time at the university. Even the college courses bored him, though he was excited to be the youngest member ever of the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity, dating freshmen women and wearing his fraternity shirt to get into bars to drink.

When Hill was just sixteen, his paternal grandfather, a war hero whom he loved and admired, was prosecuted by the federal government for fraud. He'd been made the scapegoat for a scheme to sell stock in a paper mill that the men who'd hired him as a broker never intended to build. He obviously thought the deal was legit -- he'd made gifts of the stock to his grandson. But the government wanted to make an example of someone.

The main witness against Hill's grandfather was a convicted perjurer who swore, as did the prosecutor, that he was not receiving any kind of deal for his testimony. It was later proved that the witness did receive a deal -- in fact, the case would be annotated in 5th District Court records under the heading "prosecutorial misconduct" -- but the perjury was not enough for the appellate courts to overturn the jury's verdict. Visiting his grandfather in a filthy prison convinced young Hill that the government can and does make mistakes -- and that justice was not always its first concern.

A year after enrolling at Northeast Louisiana, Hill transferred to Justin Morrill College on the Michigan State University campus. It was an experimental school where students were allowed to design their own curriculum, and Hill built his around psychology. Following his sophomore year, he was invited to attend the Gestalt Institute of Canada on an island off the coast of British Columbia. To get to Kuper Island, he had to take a ferry.

Approaching the tree-covered island, Hill saw a monolithic building brooding over the bay. It was the largest structure on the tiny island, the only one made of brick and one of the few with a foundation, or, for that matter, more than a dirt floor. However, it was obviously abandoned, all of its windows either boarded up or broken out. He was later told that it had been a missionary boarding school for the island's Indian children. But no one seemed to want to talk much about it.

Kuper Island was a reservation for a Coast Salish tribe. To get to the institute, Hill had to walk through the single village -- mostly rough shacks scattered along dirt roads -- where many of the reservation's inhabitants lived. Hill arrived at his destination to find that the "institute" was more a communal farm than college campus. There were no classrooms or formal instruction. Everything was a lesson in Gestalt therapy, which held that a human's response to a situation must be viewed as a whole rather than a sum of responses to specific elements of the situation: If you were cold, you chopped wood and built a fire; if you were hungry, you cooked something.

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