Retired judge Franklin Knoll has many talents. He’s an accomplished woodworker and, now, a poet. Knoll has taken to writing poems, most of them quite painful, about his years on the bench. His poetry helps him make sense of some of his most challenging and tragic cases.
Hennepin County District Judge Franklin Knoll left the bench more than a decade ago, but some who stood before him stand before him still, locked in memory.
Knoll, 72, retired in 2002, then spent a decade filling in and doing part-time mediation before retiring in earnest last year.
But many nights past midnight in the quiet of his home office, Knoll tries to make sense of the human suffering he saw every day for 18 years, using an unusual brand of therapy.
The judge writes poetry.
"Writing ... to be able to put it down on paper takes care of it, you know?" Knoll said. "It's not to influence somebody. It's mainly for me. It's processing some of the human pain. There was a lot of pain."
"Your name rings, lilting, in the primal recesses of my brain since I learned fifteen years ago to say it," begins a poem he has titled "Abdullahi."
"Aab du LAH ee. It won't go away.
"Abdullahi eighteen robbed tortured stabbed cut twenty seven times chased down by the three white kids on the railroad bridge over the Mississippi. Stoned with hunks of concrete after you were dead.
"Abdullahi here, away from the terror of Mogadishu."
In another poem, Knoll is haunted by what motivated a man to commit armed robbery, "and shoot the kid's papa in the heart from three inches."
He sentenced that man to life, plus 300 months. He can't stop thinking about the dead man's son. "He was probably 10 and his father was shot in front of him," Knoll said, seated near his wife, Margot, in the sunny, contemporary living room of their home in Plymouth.
Subjects pick him
He doesn't pick the poem subjects, he said. They pick him.
"Swift Yellow Bird" is about a 14-year-old truant with whom he tried to connect.
"Someone told me you were Lakota, Hunkpapa, descendants of Rain in the Face and Sitting Bull," he writes in part. "You were sullen, and angry and wouldn't look up ... But as you left the courtroom, unreasoned, I blurted You have a beautiful name. And you looked up right at me and smiled."
His personal accounts already have had influence. "It's remarkable that, after serving for decades on the bench, he's writing poetry," said St. Paul poet laureate Carol Connolly, who has created a monthly writer's circle with Knoll and two other poets.
The two met about a year ago at a political event. Knoll mentioned to Connolly that he had kept detailed journals of his years on the bench. She encouraged him to do something with them.
"His poems are lovely and reverent looks at the many complications of life in our times, some sadly self-imposed, some not. His work is full of heart."
Born in St. Cloud, Knoll is the son of an electrical engineer father and nurse mother who moved their five children to Minneapolis when Knoll was in seventh grade. After high school, he thought he was going to be a doctor. But looking into microscopes at Loyola School of Medicine was "kind of boring," while the world swirling around him in 1960s Chicago was anything but.
Back home, Knoll took a break from driving a jackhammer and drove to the University of Minnesota Law School to get a brochure. Then-Dean William Lockhart looked at his transcript (which happened to be in his car) and invited him to law school.
After graduating, Knoll worked as a patent attorney at 3M and, later, as a public defender. He served for 10 years in the state House and Senate, focusing on housing issues, representing south Minneapolis at a time when Republicans dominated that part of the city. "Back then," Knoll said, "you could cut a deal."
He married Margot in 1965 and they worked on many social justice issues as they raised three children.
Rudy Perpich appointed Knoll to the Hennepin County bench in 1984. It was "overwhelming in a way," Knoll said. "You sit on this elevated bench with a black robe on, and people are terrified. The way you handle that says a lot about your character."
Drunken drivers, domestic assaults, drug cases, custody battles -- all of it, he said, "was good, serious, important work that had major consequences. If you do it wrong, it's a very big deal."
He leaned on other judges for guidance at times, and on his hardworking law clerks who, more than once, encouraged him to take a second look at a case. "I made a few boo-boos, but not very many," he said. "I tried my best to fix them by reversing the decisions."
Committed to civil rights
Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke said he has met few people more committed to civil rights than Knoll. "His entire life was devoted to public service," said Burke, who described Knoll as "warm and thoughtful" and somewhat reserved on the bench. It doesn't surprise him that Knoll writes poetry.
Knoll, who also is a master woodworker, once helped Burke build a wood radiator cover. "There is a belief that one's approach to hobbies reflects how they do their job," Burke said. "If you are a highly skilled woodworker, you are careful, patient and not particularly fast, which is a little like Frank was on the bench. But then he ended up with a great finished product."
Knoll continues to create beautiful wood furniture, including a king-size bed. But now he's focused on a different craft, and it keeps him up at night.
"I just wait for cases to get in my head," Knoll said. "Lots more have bubbled to the surface."