By JACQUIELYNN FLOYD / The Dallas Morning News
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Even some of the regulars over at the criminal courthouse still think Keith and Kevin Harris are the same guy, just another mechanic tending the vast and ceaseless machinery at the criminal justice factory.
They have the same title, they do the same job, and unless they wind up by chance aboard the same elevator, people don't realize they're the only matched set of twin lawyers in the building.
Actually, the Harrises, 26, are fraternal twins, not identical but close enough to fool you. They are earnest and committed to their chosen profession, but they're also cheerfully resigned to the inevitable reaction they get when they're seen together.
"Everybody always says, 'Oh, twins, that's so cute,' " Keith said. It's not exactly the reaction that fledgling prosecutors wielding the mighty sword of justice are looking for, but they're used to it.
Besides, it's understandable. They're both handsome, smart, articulate and possessed of that reflexive politeness that bespeaks a stern but loving upbringing. I kept myself from saying so, but I'll bet mothers are just crazy about them.
Keith and Kevin are actually pretty nonchalant about their "twinness," considering it no big deal that they not only chose the same profession but attended college together at Abilene Christian University, went to law school together at Texas Tech, shared intern jobs, studied together for the bar and got offered jobs by Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill on the same day.
It was TV that got them started. Other kids watched sitcoms and cartoons; Kevin and Keith, growing up in the Lamar County town of Paris, couldn't get enough of Court TV, The People's Court and The Judge. Like generations of law junkies before them, they recognized that the courthouse is the mother of all reality shows.
Still, Keith was the one firm in his intention of becoming a lawyer. Kevin, understandably weary after years of being addressed as "Hey, twin" by coaches and classmates who couldn't tell them apart, certainly didn't want to choose a path identical to his brother's. He decided to be a physical therapist specializing in sports medicine.
Early in his college career, though, Kevin realized that he didn't really like it much, that he was drawn to a legal career. It was a pivotal moment, deciding that he was confident enough in his identity as an individual to join Keith in his law studies.
"I decided it would be stupid not to do what I wanted to do just because my brother was also doing it," Kevin said.
Instead of competing, they say, they encouraged one another (although they admit that whichever one is on the receiving end of too much "brotherly advice" sometimes gets annoyed at the other).
Encouraged by an old family friend, Paris Police Chief Karl Louis, they agreed that they wanted to start their careers as prosecutors.
Learning to try cases in the DA's office is the Deep-End Method School of Swimming: You catch on in a hurry because you have to.
As so-called "baby prosecutors," they work in misdemeanor court, coping with wily defense lawyers and impatient judges and the sad-sack petty criminals who rarely make headlines: thieves, drunks, burglars, hookers.
"You get so much experience it's really a trial by fire," Keith said.
It's also grueling and demanding, and it never made anybody rich. But even misdemeanor prosecution has the undeniable glamour of courtroom criminal law: "My friends at the civil firms want to hear all about every detail of every case I try," Kevin said. It's like Court TV in person!
And it's an endlessly fascinating laboratory for the study of the human species. After seven months in the courtroom, both brothers have learned that while there may be a wearying sameness to the crimes, every defendant is different.
And there is more than justice at the courthouse there is salvation. A first-time DWI arrest can be the wake-up call to a drinking problem; a domestic-violence call to the cops can be the turning point at which a teenage girl realizes she doesn't have to put up with a boyfriend who hits her, ever. Parents can be made to realize that they need to spend a whole lot more time with their kids.
"Maybe it's a first-time offender," Kevin said. "They're remorseful. You really want to do everything you can to help that person."
Then, of course, there are the ones you just try to send back to jail. "You'll see someone who has 20 offenses," he said. "I had one car burglar who was arrested while he was still carrying his jail clothes in a sack he had just gotten out that morning."
Both brothers, like other misdemeanor prosecutors, speak with hushed reverence about "up there" the felony courtrooms on the upper floors, where veteran prosecutors try the Big Cases. Like other misdemeanor prosecutors, they'll slip out and run upstairs now and then to watch their more seasoned colleagues in action.
They're candidly grateful to everyone who has helped or encouraged them: their parents, friends, advisers like Chief Louis, employers like Mr. Hill, and God.
"We're the first attorneys in our family," Kevin said. "We want to remember who helped us get here."
Keith and Kevin Harris are indeed arrestingly cute when seen together.
As individuals, they're serious, hardworking, infinitely decent young men. In the long run, that's worth a lot more than cute.
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