The public defender who hired me warned that most of our attempts to help our clients will fail, despite our very best efforts. But she went on to say that even when all of our efforts fall short, a defendant’s public defender can and must always be the client’s voice in the courtroom; even as all the grinding parts of the machine line up against the accused, his or her public defender will always stand beside them and insist, with intelligence and passion, that the person on the receiving end has wants, needs, and interests that must be heard.
This is a story of how I may have failed to be a voice for a uniquely vulnerable client. Let’s call her Letty.
Letty ran away from her parents’ home in Dingy Suburb two weeks after her 18th birthday. Unfortunately, Letty had a less-than chivalrous boyfriend with a pitiful attempt at a moustache (let’s call him Dirt Lip). Dirt Lip promised Letty that they would “make it” on their own with the help of an older friend who lived two-hours away in Big City.
Dirt Lip’s “older friend” was a heavily-tattooed East Coast gang member who had decided to seek his fortune –and meth– out West. Older Friend explained to the young couple that he “looked after” three other girls. By “looked after,” he meant that he kept them stocked with crystal meth, reminded them of the number of Johns they had to service to pay him back for the dope, and handled their money for them to ensure that he was compensated for the hotel rooms, the drugs, and his time as their “security.” Dirt Lip assured Letty that this was nothing at all like pimping, and pointed out that unless they could find some way to pay the older friend back for the hotel room that he had booked for them –without asking first– Letty might have to follow the girls’ lead and make some quick cash.
Thankfully for Letty, Older Friend’s taillight failed to come on as he drove her and Dirt Lip back to their hotel. Before the highway patrolman could even begin to open his book of tickets, Letty blurted out as much of her story as he could to the surprised officer before he told everyone to be quiet and get out of the car. The officer quickly noticed that everyone was high, arrested them, and found Older Friend’s half-ounce of crystal behind the driver’s seat.
Per local custom, our district attorney decided to accuse everyone in the car of possessing the meth with intent to sell or distribute. Dirt Lip was a juvenile, so he never found his way into my courtroom; Older Friend hired a real lawyer, and Letty came to me.
The courtroom stood mostly empty when I arrived for our pre-trial hearing; I was the first lawyer there. Letty sat handcuffed in the jury box, swimming in her ill-fitting orange jail uniform. I began with my well-rehearsed “Trust Me Quickly” routine: handshake, business card, assurances that I am, in fact, a real lawyer, explanations of the charges, and our reasons for being in court that day. Letty responses ranged from “yeahs” to nods without eye-contact; I wasn’t entirely sure that she understood everything or cared about the parts that she did understand.
The DA and Older Friend’s lawyer came in together before I could begin discussing her options for going forward. Older Friend’s lawyer was laughing at his own joke and he was wearing a tie with golf balls on it. The DA looked to me from across the room, pointed his thumb out the courtroom door, and mouthed something that I took to be “can we talk outside?”
I winced. Even if I included the squirrels fighting over dropped french fries on the sidewalk outside the courthouse, this DA was not my favorite mammal in the area. I promised my client that I would let her know everything that happened outside upon my return. I followed the DA outside.
“So I’ve decided to add pimping and human trafficking charges against the codefendant.”
“I can certainly see why,” I replied. Normally at this point in the conversation, this DA would have threatened to add extra charges against my client if she decided not to plea guilty to something. So I waited to hear what was coming next.
“I’d like your client to testify against him.”
“That can’t happen so long as you’re accusing her of possessing her pimp’s crystal meth,” I said in the blandest tone possible. Despite my attempt to balance diplomacy with candor, the DA still sucked in his lip like he had done whenever a defense lawyer offended him.
“If she testifies today, I won’t object to her being released from custody without bail before her next court date.”
“And I’ll ask my supervisor whether we can reduce her charge to simple possession.”
I’ll ask my supervisor is easily my least favorite phrase that prosecutors give me. The ABA’s model ethics rules assure us that the individual prosecutor is the one who wields the power to decide what charges the state levies at a person; this allows the individual prosecutor to tailor a just outcome. But individual DAs work for an elected District Attorney, and that elected District Attorney has tough-on-crime campaigns to run. To ensure that no individual prosecutor does something to undermine this stance, he or she must get approval from their supervisors to ensure that their individual actions harmonize with the administration’s marching orders.
“So…you want my client to waive her 5th Amendment rights and testify without any actual promises in return?”
The DA sucked his lip again. “Well, if she doesn’t I’m going to add misdemeanor prostitution charges against her after the hearing.” Here was the threat I was waiting for! On a side note, I have met many men who manage to have successful careers despite a complete lack of people skills, obliviousness to the norms of common courtesy, and deafness to the human consequences that their seemingly-mundane decisions have on others; many titans of the tech world thrive despite and because of these deficits. But during this conversation, I felt a pang of rage at the fact that a person can miss the sick irony of charging someone you believe to be a victim of human trafficking with prostitution and still thrive as a prosecutor. I assured the DA, in my blandest Swiss diplomat tone, that I would convey his “offer” to my client.
I sat beside my client again and resisted my urge to tell her which part of the human body best exemplified our prosecutor. Her eyes widened with fear at the prospect of testifying against her codefendant, but they shone when I mentioned the pre-trial release. “I get to go home today?”
“Hold on, please. It’s not that simple,” I warned, but I feared that I was too late. Her hungry look reminded me of a talk that I had attended some months before, where a doctor told me that the brain chemistry of a person withdrawing from methamphetamine is nearly identical to that of a person who has become delirious from starvation. The DA isn’t actually promising you anything, I told her, and that since the evidence against her was so weak, she should continue to fight the charges against her. If her cooperation is so valuable to the prosecution, she should not give up any of her rights without something equally valuable in return; a promise by the DA to “talk to his supervisor” did not strike me as equally valuable.
I tried so, so hard to persuade without bullying. But I did insist, multiple times, that going along with the DA was not actually in her best interest. When she finally agreed to go forward with the day’s hearing and fight the charges, her shoulders slumped in seeming defeat….and I feared that at that moment, I had become the bully that I thought I was protecting her from.
But I had no time to backtrack; the judge was going to take the bench any minute and I could not afford to have her rescind what I thought was the wiser decision, even if she made it for the wrong reasons. The DA flushed when I told him that my client had decided not to help him.
Today’s judge left his chambers and took the bench. He called our case and asked whether all three of the lawyers were ready to proceed. The DA then called his first witness.
My client. He called my client as his first witness.
“You honor,” the DA intoned with as much solemnity as he could muster, “We will be asking the court to grant her immunity for the testimony that she is about to give today.” Normally, immunity is a gift; in exchange for testimony, the defendant is granted immunity from having any of that testimony used against her. She would also be immune to any new evidence that law enforcement discovered thanks to her testimony. However, it did not feel like a gift; the DA couldn’t get what he wanted by persuasion or bargaining, so he was going to take it from her.
My client turned to me as though someone had asked her in classical Arabic to perform surgery. “What am I supposed to do?!”
“Nothing bad is going to happen to you,” I whispered, just loudly enough for the other lawyers to hear. “The DA’s deciding he’s going to steal what he wants from you since you’re not willing to just give it to him for free. We’ll go up together, and all you have to do is answer the questions honestly.” I then leaned in closer and lowered my voice to an actual whisper. “Just don’t blurt out anything about anything illegal you did beyond this case.”
I kept pace with my client as she shuffled up to the witness stand. I pulled her chair out for her and sat next to her. I had never sat in a witness stand before; the courtroom looked less like a solemn chamber of justice and more like a big, cluttered, dreary office cubicle. The judge had too many windows open on his computer screen and struggled to find the one that would show him the court reporter’s transcript in real time. The court clerk had bins of paper clips, a half dozen family photos, and a carpet of post-it notes across the surface of her desk; her potted vine seemed oddly perky given its steady diet of fluorescent light. The codefendant’s Real Lawyer scratched his chin very seriously and wrote illegible things on his legal pad even when no one was saying anything. The DA shuffled some things at his desk and began.
Stone by stone, the DA elicited the walkway of sorrows that had brought my client into her current circumstance. However, the DA seemed utterly incapable of asking a non-leading question. “And so Mr. [Older Friend] brought you drugs?” “And later that day your boyfriend made an ad for you on Craigslist?” Being in the witness stand, I was a mere advisor and spectator and could not object to his line of questioning. As my client muttered “yes” to each question, I found myself wondering why exactly his questions angered me so. Was it the sloppy in-court technique? Was I feeling a hyper-competitive urge to shut down my opponent with objections? Was I just irrationally angry at the way the DA’s eyes narrowed at the end of every question, as though he was trying to spot lies in my client’s one-word answers?
Though I would have answered “yes” to all of these questions, the biggest reason came together during our closing arguments after the hearing. “Your honor, I question whether Mr. DeGuerre’s client is telling us the whole truth,” the DA mused as he began to argue why the judge should use her testimony to believe that codefendant was a pimp, but to disbelieve that she had no power or control over the Older Friend’s dope. My client had spent the past hour-and-a-half agreeing to all of the words that the DA had put into her mouth, and he had the unfiltered gall to challenge whether she had told the truth?!
What I realized hit me hard; at no time that morning did my client have her story or wishes spoken out loud. I had assumed that Letty’s first desire was to do whatever it took to free herself from pre-trial custody and blaze another pipe full of crystal, and I had insisted that her rights (in the abstract) were more valuable than the chance to get high sooner. She grudgingly adopted this view long enough for me to it repeat for the DA as my client’s stated position. I don’t necessarily regret having done this, but to this day I do not feel good about it. And then when she did get the chance to testify, she spent her entire time on the witness stand agreeing out loud to another man’s words.
Thankfully, the judge found that the DA did not have enough evidence against my client and set her free; my advice was thankfully in her short-term best interest as well. But if he had decided that the state had presented enough evidence to warrant a jury trial, my client would have sat in custody for months. If I knew with a clean conscience that this is what my client preferred, I wouldn’t waste a second thought. But to this day, no one really knows what Letty wanted because she never really got to tell anybody. From her history of drug use and evident desperation, I assumed that she would have said, “I’ll do whatever lets me open my own jail cell as quickly as possible.” Past experience tells me that when clients with drug histories do whatever gets them them out of jail faster, they inevitably return; they often relapse and either miss court dates or violate the terms of their probation. They end up picking up new charges and, in their renewed desperation, take even worse deals to get out faster. In order to talk someone out of this, I have to assume that the abstract notion of “rights” have actual value, and that this abstraction is more valid than the actual, tangible need to get free and make the withdrawals go away. But is this true? What am I supposed to do when my client’s voice is at odds with her best interest? If that day’s hearing had turned out differently, the abstract notion of “rights” would have meant very little to the real person fighting the shakes in a real jail cell.