How do you defend those people?
No, I don’t mean “how can you live with yourself ensuring due process for people who have done really really bad things” or anything like that. I mean, how do you actually do it? When you have a client accused of something awful, and he/she has next to nothing by way of a defense, how do you defend them anyway?
Asking for a Friend
This question hits close to home. As mentioned in previous posts, I’m in the midst of the most serious trial tour that I’ve ever had. Every so often, you hear a story in the news where your jaw drops and then you check the locks on all your windows and doors… and then you call your grandma to tell her to check the locks on all her windows and doors… I will spare you the details, but suffice to say I have a new client who did something very, very bad. Because he was arrested at the scene of the crime, there is no identification issue or shoddy detective work that will let me claim that someone other than my totally innocent client must have done this heinous thing. With all of the different charges and enhancements, this client faces a sentence of more than 100 years to life.
So where does a public defender start in defending this client?
First, I mentally prepare myself for the very real possibility that I will be stuck taking this case to trial, despite the lack of defense and withering, death-ray stares that my client and I will face from the jury during the entirety of the trial. The assigned prosecutor may not want to make my client any sort of plea bargain. “This defendant is the worst of the worst,” Mr./Ms. District Attorney may say, “and he deserves nothing short of a life sentence.” This may be true, but it does not relieve me of my ethical obligation to safeguard my client’s rights unless he is offered something in exchange for giving them up. It is not in my client’s legal best interests to simply plead to a life sentence out of hopelessness, and I will never tell him to do so.
Second, I drastically recalibrate my sense of what a “victory” would be in a case like this. I assemble all of the facts that weigh in favor of conviction, find the handful of “good facts” that weighs against a particular charge/allegation, and then decide which charges or enhancements I can argue against with a straight face; even in the deeply horrendous cases, prosecutors still overreach and charge more things than they might be able to prove. Then, I ask myself “so if by some improbable happenstance I manage to beat the charges I’m contesting, what does my client get?” For the client described above, I define “victory” as beating the two enhancements that carried a mandatory life sentence so that, in theory, I can try to convince a judge not to impose a discretionary life sentence on the remaining charges. Yes, “victory” is a relative term.
Third, I must earn enough trust from this client so that if an opportunity does come for him to save his own life, he’ll heed my advice and seize that opportunity. I sit with him in the jail interview room and listen to his half-hearted denials of guilt. Rather than cross-examine him and dissect his claims for implausibility, I gently remind him that ultimately, a jury would be asked to compare the victims’ word, the medical evidence, the photographs, and the client’s first version of events that he shared with the police to this new, second version of events that he now offers me. I see his face sink, ever so slightly, with realization; I have succeeded in grounding my client in the reality of the evidence against him without moral judgement or direct confrontation.
Fourth, I must give the client something that he gets to decide for himself. Clients hurt themselves most when they feel out of control over their legal situation; such clients feel “railroaded” and see their public defender as just another piece of the machine that is pushing them toward a certain outcome. When this happens, the client resists the public defender’s advice just for the sake of resisting the process as a whole. I remind the client that the decision to go to trial and the decision to testify are his and his alone, but I also remind him that he has the power to set a more realistic goal for himself. For example, for a client looking at a life sentence, pleading to any kind of determinate prison term, even if that sentence is dozens upon dozens of years, is still better than a “life” sentence; prisoners with (theoretical) release dates are categorized differently and are housed in less restrictive settings; such a situation would still guarantee a “life” sentence as a practical matter, but the quality of that “life” in prison would be substantially better. With this in mind, I tell the client that he has the power to “offer” the district attorney a plea to many dozens of years in lieu of a life sentence in exchange for not making the victims testify in court.
Before trial is the time to get creative to do whatever I can to make my client’s experience better for him. Like I said above, any sentence with a number is better than “life.” But there might be other things to consider. A coworker once told me a story of a man accused of felony child abuse causing death, a charge that carries a sentence of 25-life. Unlike first or second-degree murder, the crime of fatal child abuse does not require any particular intent, let alone the intent to kill that is required for a murder charge. Regardless, my coworker’s client agreed to plead to one count of second degree murder. Why? Because not only does second-degree murder carry a lesser sentence (15-life), but the charge itself would guarantee a less dangerous time in prison than a charge of child abuse causing death. This was arguably a better outcome (When your cellmate asks you, “So whadda ya in for?” What would you prefer to tell him?), and the client had the clarity of mind to make this deal because it was something that he felt he had the power to do in the universe of drastically-narrowed possibilities in which he found himself.
Fifth, I can make a pitch to the District Attorney on behalf of my client. The key is to remind the DA that a person is not born with the urge to…God, I can’t even say it, but such a person can only be made. Granted, most people with terrible childhoods and mild mental retardation do not go on to do the things that my client did. However, a substantial part of my client’s childhood was spent holding a gun in a closet and listening for signs his mother’s john was getting out of control. We can’t pretend that this had no impact at all on the adult he became. I can make the argument that if my client does not deserve mercy now, he probably did at some point in his life, and the things that happened to him in between were rarely, if ever, under his control to prevent.
Sixth, if this case does go to trial, there are a handful of tricks for losing with style and dignity.
- Consider waiving opening statement; opening statements can be treacherous things in that if you promise the jury that the evidence will sound a certain way, there is a real possibility that the evidence will come in much worse than expected. Sometimes it is best to say nothing up front, let the wave of awful wash over you, and then attempt damage control during closing argument. Also, defenses sometimes “pop up” if the district attorney screws something up.
- During the victims’ tearful testimony, get the information you need from them as gently as possible. During closing argument, accuse the district attorney of exploiting emotion and sympathy while holding yourself out as the sober, rational alternative.
- Make objections under the United States Constitution, and not just the California Evidence Code; maybe your client will have a chance at tying up the system in federal post-conviction litigation if he preserves a “federal issue” in the record.
Finally, I document every decision that I make in the case as well as the reasons for it. My client will be convicted, an appellate lawyer will be running a fine-tooth comb through the record of the trial, and if I screwed something up so badly that my representation was constitutionally defective, then appellate counsel can (and should) argue this to the appellate court. Before actually presenting this argument to the court, appellate counsel will contact me informally and ask me questions about why I decided to conduct this client’s defense the way that I did. As unbelievable as it may sound, this will not be my last truly awful case, and not every decision or its rationale will burn itself into my mind. If can’t defend myself, my client’s next lawyer will argue that I didn’t defend my client either.
Does that sound simple enough?