A Brief Foray Into Self-Promotion

Dear Readers:

Chasing Truth, Catching Hell has been selected to join the ABA Journal’s “Blawg 100,” the Journal’s annual list of the 100 legal blogs that it recommends to its readers. I am honored that someone up there has found things worth reading on Chasing Truth.

And of course, whenever a list is made, a ranking must follow. The Blawg 100 has listed all of its suggested blogs and has encouraged readers to vote for their favorite. For those who have enjoyed Chasing Truth, Catching Hell on at least one occasion this year, consider voting for it on the Journal’s website. You can do that by clicking here or by clicking on the Blawg 100 badge that has just been added to the sidebar of this site.

Chasing Truth has been quiet lately; surely my fellow public defenders understand how busy things get. But the next post is coming soon, and this one will be part one of two.

Thank you again for reading.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Reasonable Courses of Action for Those Who Might Not Come Home Alive.

“This isn’t a court of justice, son. This is a court of law.” – Billy Bragg

When a jury of six people found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, I found myself utterly unable to respond to the verdict in real time. For those who have spent the past couple of months hiding in a cave with their eyes closed and ears plugged, George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watchman in Florida. Trayvon Martin was a teenage pedestrian who passed through the fiefdom over which Zimmerman stood vigilant against all the “punks” and “assholes” with his concealed 9mm pistol. Martin carried only Skittles and iced tea that he had bought from the store. Within seconds of spotting Martin, Zimmerman called 911 to report that he had seen Martin, in his neighborhood, doing nothing in particular. Although the dispatcher advised caution and restraint, Zimmerman lamented (in the recording of the 911 call) about how “assholes” and “punks” like Martin “always get away” and he decided to pursue. Zimmerman then followed Martin until Martin physically confronted the stranger who was following him for no apparent reason. In response to the nominal danger that he himself provoked, Zimmerman shot Martin dead.

I found myself unable to muster outrage because, frankly, I wasn’t surprised at the outcome. I also found myself unable to have any sort of conversation with anybody about it because those who either lamented or celebrated the verdict suffered from the same core delusion: that Court-With-a-Capital-C is a place for justice to happen.

Anyone who has spent one minute in an actual courtroom understands that a court is a machine; it has moving parts that fulfill their functions within predictable degrees of verve, skill, and enthusiasm. The list of possible outcomes for a case is limited, as are the possible options that the machine’s players can choose from prior to the case’s final outcome. And when the courtroom deputies radio to the basement to send their “bodies” (in-custody defendants) up to a courtroom for their court appearances, we receive a crude reminder of what this machine processes; it processes human beings. At no point during this process will the victims get their loved ones back, nor will this process heal any wounds or scars. Sometimes property is recovered, but more likely it will be repaid pennies on the dollar through the pittance that the defendant earns for his prison labor. At no point along this route does an accused receive the job training, addiction counseling, and/or long-term psychotherapy that would prevent a huge majority of all crime if they were freely available. At what point does anyone expect justice to squish through the sausage funnel at the end of this process?

Every final outcome in a criminal case represents an outcome that the system was designed to produce. Many years of lobbying by the firearms industry and self-defense enthusiasts produced Florida’s self-defense laws. These laws require no retreat and make no issue of who first instigated the violent encounter or why he did so. All a person has to do is claim that he feared for his life and kill the only other witness to the contrary. And when a person does this, faces trial on national television, and walks out the door afterward, the system works exactly the way that it was designed to.

Now, I have made no mention thus far of the races of either Zimmerman or Martin. The system flatters itself fair and impartial because–on paper–the race if the individuals involved should not matter. But if race does not matter, why was 71-year-old Trevor Dooley (African American) denied an acquittal when he claimed that he shot a man thirty years younger, four inches taller, eighty pounds heavier, and did so in self defense?  Why is a black defendant 354 times more likely to be convicted of murder than a white defendant in cases alleging “self-defense?”  A law that claims to be race neutral while producing racial injustice is, regardless of its intent, a racist law. The courts that enforce racist laws produce racist results.

The courts in Florida and elsewhere enforce laws that make it dangerous for young black males to walk home from the store and dare to defend themselves against a stranger who decides within seconds that they are “assholes” and “punks.” This is not justice, but justice is not what these machines produce.

The solution for law abiding citizens who want to come home safely from the store is to stop relying on courts to produce justice. For the past four weeks, a group of students calling themselves the Dream Defenders have been staging a sit-in protest at governor Rick Scott’s office seeking redress for the laws that allowed Zimmerman to legally kill Trayvon Martin; they are trying to stop the gears of the machine with their bodies. In response, Florida house speaker Will Weatherford has announced his intention to hold hearings on Florida’s self-defense laws. The Dream Defenders clearly understand that justice is something that must be sought outside the courtroom.

Please don’t think of this as a tardy Trayvon Martin piece; I prefer to think of this post as a timely piece in support of those actively resisting the systemic racism of our court system as though their lives depend on it.

Their lives do depend on it.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Where Did All You People Come From?

So I started this blog (or blawg, get it?) with the goal of it being equal parts catharsis and creative writing project. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of people who stumble upon this blog and at the number of truly fascinating individuals who have shown an interest in what I have to say.

So thank you to my community of bloggers, of other public defenders, private lawyers, writers, thinkers and those interested in the US justice system and how it actually works. From whatever side of The Bar or bars you happen to be looking from, I’m glad we can connect here.

Specifically, I appreciate the support of my first blog friend, Dan Mullin, at the Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog; Gideon at A Public Defender; the folks over at Popehat; Scott Greenfield; my appellate friends The Squawk and Jeff Gamso; Windy Pundit; and everyone who has emailed, tweeted, or terrorized Facebook friends with my posts.

And Canada! Canada is home to a surprising number of regular readers. I love the shit out of you, Canada.

And to readers outside of North America: Welcome! Velkommen! Willkommen! Welkom! Maligayang pagdating! Vítejte! Bun venit! Boas-vindas! Bienvenida! and Bienvenue! This blog has had visitors from 22 countries on continents other than my own. I have no idea how many visits were the result of Google-related accidents (at least one reader was looking for “jailbait”), but many have clicked around to different posts upon arrival. I think that’s pretty neat.

Finally, to the folks who googled “Chasing Truth” in search of the Christian metalcore band from Gilroy, California; you’re almost there. The truth you’re chasing can be found at their Myspace page. I can’t promise that all of your future spiritual inquiries will have such tidy answers. Please come back any time. We’ll discuss.

My “Dear Norm” posts are composite questions I’ve been asked over the years, but I am interested in responding to actual reader inquiries, especially from those trying to understand the legal system from the outside and from overseas. You can connect with me via comments on my blog, on twitter @NormDeGuerreEsq, or by email at NormDeGuerreEsq(at)gmail(dot)com. Of course, the only legal advice I can give you is not to take legal advice from someone whose credentials have not been properly vetted.

It’s awfully nice to know that when I look through my computer screen to the internet, there is someone, somewhere on the other side looking back. It makes me want to write stuff worth reading.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Norm reviews Jeff Adachi’s “The Slanted Screen”

ImageI have been a Netflix subscriber for more than five years, and I am genuinely impressed by its ability to recommend movies based on my previous viewing habits. However, it’s recommendations rarely intersect with my work.

But recently, Netflix recommended a documentary on the changing roles of Asian-Americans in cinema. It was a film by none other than Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s Public Defender who bears the distinction of being one of the few public defenders in the nation who is elected to his position by popular vote. His film is called The Slanted Screen and was released in 2006.

The Slanted Screen begins with an interesting film history of Asian actors. Did you know that the silent film era was one of the golden ages for Asian actors in Hollywood? In his day, Sessue Hayakawa was a leading man mentioned in the same breath as Douglas Fairbanks or Charlie Chaplin. The film goes on to describe the next era for Asian American actors in war movies as well as the martial arts genre. The most interesting part of the documentary, for me, was learning about the responses to such roles. I think I now understand why contemporary Asian-American actors have such mixed feelings about Bruce Lee.

The second half is devoted in large part to discuss the desexualization of Asian-Men in mainstream American film. Essentially, systemic desexualization exists side-by-side with a pervasive refusal on the part of viewers to accept Asian-Americans as leading romantic roles. Adachi explores whether society’s racism is providing a market for media stereotypes, or whether the media stereotypes are the cause of society’s racism.

The documentary is directed in a way that feels like Adachi is presenting evidence backed with testimony to effect a certain point of view. This seems to be congruent with what one would expect from an attorney. And like one might expect, Adachi presents his cases well. The “evidence” Adachi uses are clips from popular movies and his “expert testimony” comes from Asian American actors and writers. The scenes he uses are well chosen to display certain stereotypes, both positive and negative. Whether or not I shared his interpretations, his examples are all thought-provoking.

Case in point: Adachi cites the character of Mike Yanagita,  of the Cohen brothers’ Fargo, as an example of the stereotypically desexualized Asian-American male.

Mike and Marge enjoy Diet Coke’s at the Radisson

When I first saw Fargo, I didn’t think that the Cohen’s poke fun at Mike Yanagita because he is Asian; I thought it was because he’s Minnesotan. And Marge Gunderson is not unavailable to Mike because he’s Asian; she’s unavailable because she’s happily married and pregnant. But just because one stereotype is more prominent doesn’t mean the other no longer exists; Choosing to see Mike Yanagita as a Mid-Westerner doesn’t make him less Asian. Would I view that scene differently if the man Marge meets at the Radisson was of a different race?

Adachi provides more questions to get your film club or class discussion going.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Slanted Screen. It’s about an hour long and it’s streaming on Netflix.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Transcript of His Honor’s Handwashing Liturgy, or The Defendant’s Romero Motion is Denied

Under California’s Three Strikes law, defendants with two or more serious or violent felony convictions receive a minimum sentence of 25 years-to-life for a third serious or violent felony. However, the defense may argue a Romero motion, which asks the judge not to apply the Three Strikes law during sentencing. In his deliberation, the judge considers the facts of the current case, the defendant’s criminal history, and the defendant’s “character, background, and prospects.” The hearing on a Romero motion, which is infrequently granted, follows a ritualistic pattern.

And, in my head, the ritual goes something like this.

Commencement

His Honor:    Ave, Ave, now comes the formerly Accused, now Convicted, presenting himself for the Court’s mercy, garbed in the county-issued vestments of both protective custody and maximum security. Cursed is the snitch, for stitches he shall receive. Cursed is he who requires maximum security, and let him learn to correct his lawless ways whilst surrounded by those as dangerous as he. Counsel! Appearances, please!

Attorney for the District: Ave, Your Honor, for I represent the People of the State of California who are other than the Accused, now Convicted. We now present unto thee our young Acolyte, who is in his third year of law school, and who has been honing his skill in the sacred arts of shooting fish in barrels and confiscating sugary confections from the hands of babes.

Acolyte: Ave, Your Honor.

Norm:    Ave, Ave, Your Honor, Norm DeGuerre for the Accused, now Convicted.

His Honor:    Brother DeGuerre, thy Client presents himself as a supplicant before me, or would if his wrists were not bound by chains to his waist. Thy Client seeks the blessings of St. Romero, who many years ago, prayed for relief and received the miracle of mercy, for the court sentenced him as though he bore not the stains of having prior “strike” convictions. The Accused, now Convicted has been convicted of Robbery, and shall face a sentence of life despite the recently-passed Prop. 36.

Norm: Aye, Your Honor.

His Honor: We shall now begin the Recitation of Terrible Childhood.

Norm:    Aye, Your Honor, I draw thy Honor’s attention to the absence of family or loved ones, who have missed all court dates for the Accused, now Convicted since his junior year of high school. Scars of flesh and wounds of spirit have rent my client into a hastily-assembled scarecrow of the man he could have been had he more money and one caring, competent adult.

His Honor: Now, the Affirmation of Chronic Substance Abuse.

Norm:    Not since the party at Thy Honor’s law firm in 1982, when Thy Honor’s partners removed the mirror from Thy Honor’s office restroom, has such heroic quantities of Columbia’s Finest been consumed as was during the Convicted’s term on parole. But alas, the Convicted snorts not to celebrate, but to forget; and the Convicted spends not his disposable income, but his only income. Thy Honor’s campaign for the bench inspired thee to begin the 12-step purification rituals; alas, the Convicted has no campaigning or politicking for which to abstain.

His Honor: And now, the Plea to the Angels of the Eighth Amendment, in which Counsel will condemn the proposed life sentence as cruel and unusual. Make the plea now so that the Accused, now Convicted’s appellate counsel may brief later what I shall now ignore.

Norm: Your Honor, the Accused, now Convicted did violate the Seventh Commandment, in that he did take two tall-boys of St. Mickey’s Ale out of the refrigerator at the Try-N-Save liquor store, and did try to smite the security guard who declared him a “fucker” and who attempted in vain to wrest the tall-boys from the Convicted’s shaking hands. But your Honor may bestow St. Romero’s blessings for this nefarious misdeed and sentence him to 20 years, and not for the entirety of his life. After all, is the consummation of malt liquor not already a cruel and unusual enough punishment for Thy Honor?

His Honor: And now, Acolyte, commence the Padding of Thy Resume.

Acolyte: Your Honor, I entreat Thee first to gaze in horror upon the tattoos upon the Convicted’s face: Eww. Shine thine eyes upon the Convicted’s numerous parole violations, for they show the Convicted needs more time in prison so that he can learn the lessons that prison failed to teach. And Your Honor, if ye would, muster stale outrage for his burglary conviction from 1992 and his making of criminal threats from 1996, for in those years the Accused, now Convicted did take a Panasonic television set and later hurt someone’s feelings with empty promises of violence.

His Honor: Counsel, prepare thyselves for my ruling:

The conclave of voters hath spoken, and they hath spoken that Three Strikes shall be the law. Terrified they were of rapists stealing children from their homes in the dark of night, and so it shall be that the Wrath of Three Strikes shall smite those at whom we are merely angry as well as those of whom we are scared. If St. Romero’s mercy were granted to all whose woes would have been lifted during childhood by the healing touch of more money and one skilled parent, Three Strikes would smite hardly anyone at all. The plea for St. Romero’s mercy has failed, and the Convicted, now Sentenced shall dwell in a pit of despair to be determined by the Department of Corrections of the State of California. This pit shalt not be within 12 hours ride by Greyhound coach of his family, because really, Brother DeGuerre, as you’ve so pointed out, what are the chances of their visiting anyway? Also, this pit shalt not be rendered humane through adequate taxes, because the conclave of voters hates those. Verily, the conclave despises rendering unto Caesar sufficient ducats to pay for the sentencing laws they demand.

We will now commence the Washing of Hands. The conclave of voters has spoken, and this court shall not accept responsibility for their frenzied whims, nor the perceived disproportion of the court’s sentence to the defendant’s conduct. Verily, as all in attendance can see, I myself learned to make principled decisions long ago. I am only giving the defendant ample opportunity to learn the same lessons.

This concludes the Washing of Hands. You are now dismissed.

Go in peace, serve the Lord.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Announcing, in Fewer Than 140 Characters…

Chasting Truth, Catching Hell is now available in Twitter form. My Twitter handle is @NormDeGuerreEsq. I can already feel the slimming effects on my thoughts.

My comrade at http://apublicdefender.com (@gideonstrumpet) has opened my eyes to Twitter and was kind enough to introduce me to his readers. Please show him the same appreciation.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre