Adversaries Need Not Apply

To:     Mr. Blaise Trettis, Public Defender

           18th Judicial Circuit Public Defender

           Brevard County, Florida

    

From:    Norm DeGuerre, Esq.

               Deputy Public Defender, County of Santa Asphalt

 

Re:        Recent Job Opening

 

Dear Mr. Trettis:

I hope this letter finds you doing well. My name is Norm DeGuerre, and when I am not exorcising my professional demons through anonymous blogging, I am a trial attorney with the public defender’s office in “Santa Asphalt,” CA. Don’t bother looking at a map, because this is not the name of a real county. Santa Asphalt is my affectionate pet name for my jurisdiction, which makes up for the lack of thriving small businesses by creating a glut of empty, sprawling retail spaces under 3 stories in height.

But I digress.

I understand that you have a position open in your office; I write you this letter to ask that you consider me for the position.

From what I have been told, a member of your local bench named John Murphy physically assaulted Andrew Weinstock, one of your former attorneys. On that fateful day, Mr. Weinstock appeared for at least two defendants and declined to waive his clients’ right to a speedy trial. His Honor then declared that “if [he] had a rock, he would throw it at [Mr. Weinstock].” In a fit of judicial dignity, His Honor then offered to “go outside” with the public defender to settle his differences. Mr. Weinstock followed His Honor into the hallway, and His Honor proceeded to hold Mr. Weinstock’s face in contempt with his fist. His Honor then retook the bench and gave the (now) unrepresented defendant advice on how to schedule his trial date.
On the off-chance that you have forgotten this unfortunate episode, I present you with this link and a reminder that the internet never, ever forgets things:

http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/crime/2014/07/07/public-defender-in-courtroom-fight-resigns/12292987/

Yesterday, you publicly endorsed His Honor’s ignominious return to the bench, stating that your office asks the court to give “second chances” to your clients on a daily basis, and that it would be only sensible to extend the same courtesy to a judge who suffered the indignity of four-weeks of paid leave before returning to his post.
As mentioned above, I write you this letter as a first step toward applying for Mr. Weinstock’s now-vacant attorney position. Although I have no personal ties to the state of Florida, my hope is that any property I buy in the 18th Judicial District will become beachfront as the oceans continue their inexorable march to swallow man’s hubris. I want to work, live, and play in your jurisdiction, and from your public endorsement of Judge Murphy’s return, I think I have a good idea of what you’re looking for in an employee.

Like you, I too believe that the law should treat everyone equally. You so eloquently noted that your attorneys ask society to give their clients’ second chances, and that this compels you to extend the same courtesy to Judge Murphy. I assume from your sentiment that Judge Murphy was, in fact, treated in the same manner as one of your office’s clients, in that he was brought up on felony charges and held in custody among the general inmate population pending his trial. I also assume that he was given appointed counsel and that his file was placed in the enormous stack of files that one of your lawyers lugs to court every day. I assume that Judge Murphy felt pressured to plead to something in order to avoid your state’s draconian sentencing practices, and that his sentencing judge blithely ignored his long, sad history of childhood abuse and substance abuse.

Because it really wouldn’t be fair to treat him differently from any of your clients.

Like you, I too have realistic expectations of how to be treated by my fellow man, especially my fellow men in positions of authority. The Ivory Tower that gave my my law degree taught me that we have an “adversarial system,” and that such a system does not work unless the accused has a zealous advocate who pushes his client’s best interests against the weight of the state and, in some cases, the weight of public opinion. But really, the public defender is but one grinder plate in the nasty sausage machine that is our criminal justice system. Of course our clients have a right to a speedy trial, but why would I inflict that right on a judge whose calendar is inconvenienced, as though my client’s rights had “value,” and that they should not be given away unless exchanged for something else of value? Such idealistic bullshit warrants a good beat-down in the courtroom hallway for all of the defendants to see, so that they don’t get any uppity notions of inflicting their rights against the state.

Finally, I appreciate the fact that your position is an elected position. You made nice with a man who was so unsatisfied with the power and authority of his office that he had to inflict physical violence upon one of your employees in order to impose his will. Clearly you understand that an elected public defender cannot win re-election by boasting about how many defendants his lawyers walked, or about how many pounds of contraband your lawyers suppressed from evidence through skillful litigation; that would just piss off potential voters. After all, most voters in Florida stopped reading the Constitution after Amendment II, and have yet to realize that half of the Bill of Rights is devoted to rights of the criminally accused. In order to win office in such an environment, you must network with your jurisdiction’s local power brokers. Your decision to endorse the Honorable John Murphy’s return to the bench shows political savvy. In contrast, I would get hung up on how my official actions as Public Defender would benefit my clients; these hang-ups, unfortunately, tend to parallel the ABA’s “model rules” for attorney ethics. Being a stickler for rules will certainly cost me at least one election. I have much to learn from you if you will only give me the opportunity.

Don’t be thrown off by the fact that my attached resume includes a personal interest in Krav Maga, the official martial art of the Israeli Defense Forces. I would never dream of inflicting my right of self-defense against any member of the bench, no matter how much his groin deserves it.

Cordially,

Norm DeGuerre

 

How Do I Know if my REAL Lawyer is Doing a Good Job?

Dear Norm:

I was arrested recently, and my family pooled their money together to hire a private attorney. He sure sounds persuasive when we talk to him, and we really believed him when he told us that we made the right call hiring him instead of being represented by the public defender. He seemed genuinely outraged for me when I told him that I was being falsely accused, and promised that he had much, much more time to devote to my case than the public defender had. Since he’s bilingual and speaks the same language as the rest of my family, he convinced them too.

But now this lawyer is telling me that I should probably take the deal from the district attorney. I told him again that I did not want to take a plea bargain. He got really frustrated with me and told me that I was risking YEARS in prison if I didn’t. Then he told me to waive some sort of hearing, and then he set my case for jury trial. This week, he told me that my family had not paid him enough to do a jury trial and that he will drop me as a client. After all this, I’m going to be a public defender client anyway.

Did my lawyer screw me? How are people in my position supposed to know if their lawyer is doing a good job for them? And why is this blog the #4 Google search result for this question?

Help,

Abandoned Client

 

Dear Abandoned,

In July of last year, I wrote a post entitled How Do I Know if My Lawyer Is Doing a Good job? This post, with its accurate-but-uncreative title, was meant to give readers an idea of whether their public defenders are actually representing them well even when they fail to practice the niceties of customer service.

Since writing that post, more readers have found my blog by asking the internet “how do I know if my lawyer is doing a good job” than have by any other method. This question is my biggest source of web traffic. The worried defendants who toss this question into the ether find their way to my blog because it appears to be one of the only websites that attempts to answer this question. The American Bar Association has almost nothing on the subject. The other top search results for this question are advertising for private lawyers who so badly want my despondent readers to hire them.  These readers are better served by searching “bad lawyer” on Yelp! and reading the horror stories.

If you or a loved one are being accused of a crime, my heart goes out to you and you have my deepest sympathy. If you don’t have a legal education, knowing whether or not your lawyer is “screwing” you (another popular search query for this site) may be something you find out only after the important decisions have been made and the money has been spent.

An honest lawyer will tell you the truth about your case up front, not just what you want to hear, before any money is exchanged. Public defenders are probably the least likely to “oversell” what they can and can’t do with your case. You can’t compare your public defender to the lawyer on the billboard or commercial who promises to make all your problems go away. If you find your private lawyer is going just a little too out of his or her way to bash public defenders or court-appointed-attorneys, first ask yourself why this person wants to poach public defender clients, and then ask yourself how this person makes any money representing clients who don’t have a large income. It may be possible that this attorney, who appears at first to be a passionate warrior who wants justice, is actually scavenging for dimes by telling frightful canards about their local public defender’s office.

The decision to go with a public defender or a private attorney shouldn’t be that hard; if you can afford an attorney, then you should hire one. Public Defenders are for those who cannot afford their own attorney and who have no other choice. That being said, a public defender client may have a relative who is willing to cash out their retirement account, take out a mortgage on her home, or sell her car in order hire a private attorney who promises (loudly) to give his case more personal attention than the public defender will. The right to court-appointed counsel is meant to prevent this type of financial ruin. Unfortunately, some regions in the US have inadequate resources for indigent defense and clients living in these areas must make this kind of difficult choice.

Although I never intended Chasing Truth, Catching Hell to be a resource for those trying to figure out how to vet legal counsel, the universe has otherwise failed to provide helpful information. I have seen for myself the kind of damage this type of ignorance causes, so I will attempt to add some information to help those going through this difficult task. Remember that I cannot offer any legal advice over the internet. Although I am flattered that this blog has inspired complete strangers to sing the sad songs of their cases, a reader in need of legal advice should not make major life decisions solely based on the word of anonymous internet sources.

The following are all-too-true tales of clients who became clients of the public defender after being used and thrown away by private counsel:

First Tale of Woe

George was on parole after being released on a felony domestic violence charge. Regardless of the stern warnings and urine tests provided by his parole agent, George really, really liked crystal meth. However, crystal meth can be expensive for the regular user, and George soon ran out of TVs to sell; however, buying enough meth to resell solved both his supply and cash flow problems. Furthermore, crystal meth made it very, very difficult for him to interact with his wife in a constructive way during their divorce. Soon, George had another felony domestic violence case that carried a maximum of 8 years state prison. George also picked up a possession-for-sale case; however, although he had been selling, the police only caught him with 3 ½ grams of the stuff (an amount so common that police use the term “eight-ball” to describe it, since it is 1/8th of an ounce).

I represented George on his domestic violence case; since the DA had accused George of several “strike” offenses, no private lawyer would touch it. George also had a top-shelf public defender on his dope sales case; however, any lawyer worth his or her salt could have talked the DA into reducing that charge to possession for personal use. Unfortunately, George’s fantastic public defender failed to visit him at the jail because she had the gall to be in trial on another client’s case for two weeks. In response, George sold his car in order to hire a hack private lawyer. This private lawyer frightened George with awful tales of what happens when a public defender fails to spend enough time with an individual client, swooped in, took his money, and got him the exact same deal that anyone with a passing familiarity with the metric system could have gotten him.

George realized this prior to his sentencing on the case that I had with him, and wholly without instigation from me. George should have watched out for the following red flags:

  • Only a very special type of lawyer makes the bulk of his money by goading public defender clients to pay more than they can afford: the type that can’t market skills and who thus resorts to marketing fear.
  • This same type of lawyer will push hard to be hired for some of a defendant’s open cases but not others: they want the easy ones whose consequences won’t cause them to lose sleep.
  • If a lawyer promises to fight for you but asks for less than $50,000, this lawyer is not actually planning on fighting for you. If you are innocent and you want your day in court, a felony jury trial represents tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of legal services. If a lawyer talks a big game while arranging for a client to pay his $4,000 retainer at $85 per month, this lawyer will dump you before any “fighting” begins.

 

Second Tale of Woe

Joaquin was brought to the United States by his mother when he was 7 or 8 years old. Joaquin started hanging around with gang members in his neighborhood due to the usual combination of too much idle time, absent/abusive family dynamic, and constant threats to his safety in the poor neighborhood in which he lived. When Joaquin turned 18, an older gang member with a prison record coaxed him into helping with a home invasion robbery. Joaquin and this other man barged into a home, threatened the owner with a stun gun, and made off with whatever outdated electronics they could carry. This experience frightened Joaquin enough to inspire him to leave the gang lifestyle; he got a job as a plumber and was soon expecting a baby. However, years later, fingerprints taken from the scene of the home-invasion robbery matched the fingerprints that Joaquin gave when he was arrested for misdemeanor DUI two years after the home-invasion robbery.

Joaquin’s mom borrowed and sold as much as she could in order to hire yet another hack lawyer. This lawyer told Joaquin’s mom that he would explain that Joaquin was “just a kid” when this took place and that his behavior in the interim proves that Joaquin had changed his ways enough for any judge to cut him a break. Months later, Joaquin is a client of the public defender facing a life sentence because thanks to Hack Esquire, the district attorney added “gang” enhancements to the charged home-invasion robbery.  

Joaquin and his mom learned the following lessons much too late to be of any help:

  • It is natural for a defendant who does not speak English to want an attorney who speaks his language; the family finds it comforting for the exact same reasons. Sadly, some lousy lawyers know this and leverage their foreign language skills to earn quick trust.
  • If a lawyer tells a client exactly what he was hoping to hear and then quickly changes his tone when advising the client to take a plea bargain, one of several awful things might be happening. At best, the lawyer’s rosy sales pitch is meeting the jagged shoals of reality; if this is so, the client needs to ask the lawyer to explain why, after promising to fight for the client, he is now yelling at client in court’s attached holding cell that he is “screwing himself” by not taking a 16-year offer by the district attorney. At worst, the lawyer has just then decided that his client’s case requires much, much more work than his client’s meager finances can pay for.
  • A defendant should always get an explanation of all the stages in a felony case and clarify, before ever cutting a check, what stages in this process are covered by his retainer fee.
  • Finally, a defendant should never be afraid to ask why a proposed plea bargain is worth taking. Seek second opinions if necessary.

The following are general tips that do not have accompanying annecdotes:

Lawyers tend to be persuasive, smooth-talking people. Don’t hire a lawyer because he or she sounds convincing; convincing a potential client is easier than convincing a judge or a prosecutor.

Be mindful of prejudices that might steer you away from a great lawyer; younger lawyers, female lawyers, and lawyers of color often run circles around the middle-aged white men who lurk about my local courthouse.

The best private attorneys are often former public defenders.

The number of jury trials that a lawyer has done is not a perfect or complete metric of that lawyer’s skill and experience; however, it is in fact one very good metric. Don’t hesitate to ask.

As noted previously, don’t retain counsel without a clear understanding of the stages of a criminal case and which of those stages are covered by the lawyer’s retainer fee.

Before paying a lawyer anything, have a serious conversation about your goals for the case and how your lawyer will help you reach them. If you don’t like what they say, seek a second opinion. Depending on the advice you receive, be open to revising your goals in the face of reality.

A good lawyer will not ask you surrender any of your Constitutional rights unless you will receive something from the state of equal or greater value. Ask your lawyer what this is before agreeing to “waive” any of your rights. For readers in California, a preliminary hearing (or “prelim” for short) is a particularly important right, and one of the most common rights tossed away by private counsel. A prelim is your first chance to see witnesses testify against you, hear their testimony, and see how it withstands cross-examination from your attorney. After the prelim, the judge will decide whether there is enough evidence to warrant a trial. The right to a prelim is also the last right that many private lawyers convince their client to waive before dumping them on the public defender. Sometimes, waiving prelim is a good idea, primarily in cases where the evidence at prelim would allow the prosecutor to add more or worse charges; for example, an assault with a deadly weapon can very quickly become an attempted murder depending on how the witness testifies. More often, private lawyers encourage their clients to waive prelim for the sake of dropping the client faster. Again, your Constitutional rights are valuable; idealists might even say that they are invaluable. Do not waive any of your rights unless you are receiving something of equal or greater value in return.

If you find yourself becoming a client of the public defender after having been previously represented by private counsel, be prepared for a very different bedside manner. A public defender will almost always have done more jury trials than a private sector counter-part; if she encourages a person to accept a plea bargain, it is probably because she is thinking of how your case will look in front of a jury and not because she just wants to dump your case as soon as possible. The public defender will not be able to see a client as often or return phone calls as quickly as anyone would like, but this is not necessarily a sign of poor representation. Also, be prepared for some bad news in the event that the private lawyer fouled something up in your case.

And one last thing, and this is something that is as difficult to say as it is to hear: feelings, especially those related to unfairness, have no place in the justice system. In my experience, I have found that the more that clients struggle with feelings of unfairness, the worse decisions they make. You can be offered the best legal counsel in the world, but you may not be able to accept or receive it if you are stuck on how “unfair” your situation is. Instead, you may be tempted to give away your hard earned money to a lawyer simply because he or she did the best job sympathizing with your feelings. You may even lose a good plea bargain that you rejected because it felt “unfair.”

 

Good luck,

Norm DeGuerre

How do I know if my lawyer is doing a good job?

Dear Norm:

I have a public defender, and I have no idea whether he’s doing a good job for me. In fact, several of the things he does in court make me really, really  nervous. Also, the things he hasn’t done make me really, really nervous. I feel like a kitten floating downriver in a basket and I’d like to know whether I’m headed over the falls. What should I do?

Sincerely,

Concerned Consumer

Dear Consumer:

Condolences on the fact of your pending criminal case. As you now know, an arrest is just the start of a long, complicated process. If you were arrested and taken directly into custody, it probably felt like you were plucked out of the life you thought you were going to lead. Dour gendarmes stuffed your belongings into a locker at the jail. Your fingerprints and DNA samples are now cataloged in a computer database (you know, for those many unsolved murders that you might have done). You had your clothing replaced with an ill-fitting jumpsuit with garish colors that almost hide the stains. The monetary value of your freedom was computed, and if you were lucky enough to make bail, when you returned to your old life you found that everything was different. And that’s if you were lucky enough to make bail. All of this happens on or before the first court date, the arraignment.

If you are in custody, you are entitled to a court-appointed lawyer or public defender, no matter how much money you make. If you post bail after having been appointed a public defender or a court-appointed attorney, the PD’s office can ask for an income reassessment if they think you are hiding assets or otherwise trying to scam the system. This rarely happens, primarily because it is rare to have someone scam the system like that, but know that it is possible. If you live somewhere with a good PDs office and you’re on the cusp of being appointed a lawyer, consider the benefits of staying in a few extra days.

After the first court date, you will meet other parts of the justice machine. For example, you will meet a district attorney. Anyone who is offended by the manner in which the district attorney treats him should remember that a typical DA endures an entire career without ever, ever having a client. A successful prosecutor doesn’t have to be a “people person.” In fact, they are probably successful prosecutors because they aren’t. Don’t take it personally when they forget that the target of their in-court sermons are people, albeit people who might have hit their spouse or sold a dimebag.

It is important to realize here that a district attorney isn’t out to get the “truth.” The district attorney is out to get you. The “truth” is not what happened; the truth is what it looks like happened. It doesn’t matter how guilty you actually are, what matters is how much the evidence makes you look guilty. Good criminal defense lawyers operate with this in mind. Good criminal defense lawyers don’t moralize. I don’t care whether or not you actually did what you have been accused of doing; it’s irrelevant to your defense. Please remember this before you choose who you will talk about your case with. I strongly suggest not talking to the cops or the DA — or anyone, really — before you talk to your lawyer.  Your lawyer will help you avoid saying or doing things that make you appear even more guilty than you already do. Your lawyer is also ethically obligated to advise you what is in your best interest, unlike the district attorney, the cops, and that crazy guy you were housed with who wants to turn snitch.

Furthermore, DAs often refrain from even talking to their victims and civilian witnesses until the latest possible time before trial; this spares them from having to memorialize those conversations and hand them over to defense counsel — especially those inconvenient conversations that reveal weaknesses in the district attorney’s case. After all, a civilian can’t be trusted simply to re-read a police report moments before their testimony and recite it as though it were his honest-to-God memory; it takes at least 16 weeks’ worth of police academy training to master that trick.

No public defender ever, ever wants to admit that despite their best intentions, they too are parts of this machine. That being said, a person’s typical experience with a public defender is probably going to fall into a handful of patterns. Also, that person’s public defender may or may not do certain things that make that person nervous. However, none of the following are cause for concern in and of themselves. Only you know your situation, but I can give you some possible explanations for some common complaints.

I. My public defender only sees me in court.

This is a common complaint, but is not necessarily a reason for concern in the majority of “non-life” felony cases. An experienced public defender can diagnose a typical felony case within a few minutes of conversation. Domestic violence cases in particular follow certain patterns. Is there a pending child custody dispute? Was she drunk? On psychiatric medicine? Who hit who first, and with what? Here, you’ll read the police report and tell me which parts are bullshit. We don’t need to set up another meeting to do this. It can be done in court.

Please don’t take this the wrong way – every client’s case is important. But important does not mean the same thing as complicated.

Here are some things that you should do in court to ensure that your public defender is on top of your case outside of court.

  •  Ask for a summary of every investigative report. You might be unpleasantly surprised by the amount of information that has been collected against you. It will also give you an opportunity to guide your lawyer toward information that might rebut the prosecution’s case.
  •  If you have witnesses (that is, anyone who might have helpful information), give your public defender as recent and accurate contact information as you can. Your public defender will be in mild disbelief when you tell him that this witness is someone you have known for years without, somehow, learning his last name.
  • If alcohol was involved, consider going to AA meetings and keeping an attendance record. AA leaders will ask for sign-off sheets at the end of meetings.
  • Start rounding up whatever character references you want the sentencing judge to read. By character references, I mean letters by people describing all of the good things that you’ve been up to in the community aside and apart from this case. These are, effectively, pleas for leniency to be considered by the judge and district attorney at the time of sentencing.
  •  Feel free to ask whether a proposed plea bargain is a “good deal” before deciding whether to take it. Our advice will be quite candid.

II. My Public Defender is Telling Me to Plea Guilty

First of all, she’s probably telling you to plea “no contest.”

Second, your public defender may just be trying to tell you something. A public defender doesn’t suggest a plea bargain because she is “judging” the client; she is concerned with how the evidence against the client will look to a jury. A public defender will typically recommend a plea bargain if the proposed sentence is appreciably better than a likely post-trial sentence. If a public defender repeatedly insists that a client take a deal, it may not be because the public defender does not understand the client’s problems with the deal. What the public defender might be trying to say is that whatever the client’s problems with the deal, the alternative of trial is not likely to solve those problems.

III. My Public Defender isn’t doing anything for me.

Articulate exactly what you would like your Public Defender to do. He cannot make your case go away. He can try to talk some sense into the DA, but he might not be successful at it. Sometimes, the hard truth is that when you are accused of a crime, it’s because “they” want you in jail.

IV. If I had a private attorney, I would be out of this mess by now.

Not necessarily. I know it seems that celebrity clients can get away with murder and maybe you think you could too, if their lawyer was working for you. This is only fantasy.

You don’t get to go back to your pre-arrest reality. The sooner you can accept this, the better decisions you will make. I had a client so in denial of the evidence against her, she refused a plea-bargain that included no jail time and potential for record clearance. It can be difficult to think logically about the evidence against you. Although it is cliche for a public defender to pressure a client into taking a plea deal, consider whether it might actually be a good deal before you refuse.

I know that what I am saying here can be seen as part of the growing field of public defender apologetics, so how do you know if your public defender or criminal defense lawyer isn’t doing a good job? What are some warning signs? How do you know it’s time to mortgage everything you have  in order to get a defense that will keep you out of jail? Isn’t that exactly what you want to know? Of course, I can’t tell you what you should do. Just about the only legal advice I can give you is not to take anonymous advice from over the internet. But I can give you some thoughts to consider:

Know that any kind of no-custody bargain may be the start of a whole new set of problems. Are you going to be on an ankle monitor? You have to pay for that. Counseling? You have to pay for that. Drug tests? You have to pay for that. If you choose probation, make sure you know the terms of your probation and are able to follow those terms. Be honest with your lawyer about any addictions. If you violate your probation, you might be worse off than if you had just accepted jail time in the first place.

Also, know that a trial is a very stressful experience. And juries are weird. Anything can happen; do you still want to roll the dice? That is your decision alone. I’ve had many cases settle right before I was about to pick a jury. It’s okay to listen to your stomach if it’s trying to tell you something.

Do you know what the evidence is against you or is it that you don’t like what the evidence is against you? You will make better decisions if you are informed about your case and know your real options. You can’t go back in time. You must face this problem head-on.

Keep written records of all court appearances, conversations about your case, everything that has happened. If you do think you are getting Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, this will help your case.

Ask yourself what the potential for downside will be before you take independent action in your case, especially against your lawyer’s advice.

And finally (and this should go without saying), don’t intimidate any witnesses! Not only is it a felony in itself, it never helps the case. It’s better a witness says what they have to say and give the jury the opportunity not to believe them than for you to have to explain why you acted like a guilty person if you’re not. So if you have any friends who might talk to a potential witness on your behalf, tell them to knock it off.

When you are accused of a crime, the best thing you can do is keep quiet and mind your business until it’s over, which may be a very long time.

If you do end up going to trial with your public defender and she does get you a “Not Guilty” verdict, be prepared that the judge may order that you pay for attorney’s fees. Sometimes, the DA will even ask on “our behalf.” Although this is transparently vindictive bullshit, you just ducked all of the worse possible fates. Congratulations!

Good luck out there.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Journey Through the Sealed Transcript, or Marsden Motions: A “Choose Your Own Adventure” Adventure

“I want a Marsden motion!” my client proclaimed from his seat in the jury box.

When a courtroom is not used for a trial, the jury box is typically used to seat 12-14 inmates, handcuffed in pairs, waiting for their turn to appear on the felony “entry of plea” calendar. The inmate who happens to be handcuffed to my client doesn’t know what a Marsden motion is, but he looks wistfully at the nearby sheriff’s deputy in hopes that he will be unshackled from this man before he has to find out.

When the judge hears the client’s demand, every muscle in his face tenses as he looks at the wall clock and then over at me. “Why can’t you control your client,” the Judge tacitly asks with his glare, “and who told him what a Marsden motion is?”

With an apologetic smile and a shrug, I admit that it was me.

“Sir, I’m sorry you’re not happy with your representation so far,” I had said to my client moments before his audible outburst, “but if you really think that I’m ‘fucking you raw’ because I’m ‘working for the DA,’ then you should tell the judge that you want to make what’s called a Marsden motion and have me fired.”

I told him this because, quite simply, he has the right to know that a Marsden motion is an option a defendant has if his lawyer’s representation is so defective that it effectively violates his right to counsel. Since I work in a county with an exemplary PD system, most Marsden motions are basically an opportunity for the client to lash out a lifetime of problems on the nearest available mammal (and if you’re a PD, that mammal usually happens to be you). I can’t and don’t take it personally.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the judge intones, “we ask that you leave the courtroom for the next few minutes while we take up this matter outside of your presence.”

And the adventure begins!

One by one, the remaining inmates, lawyers, and gawkers leave. Since a Marsden motion requires a ceremonial Airing of Grievances about the client’s representation, attorney-client privileged communications are often divulged. To protect these, the court room is closed to all but the attorney, the client, and the court staff. The transcript is sealed after the motion concludes.

“Sir, I understand that you want to fire your public defender,” the Judge says, tip-toeing between syllables like someone trying to delay an unpleasant hospital visit by going very, very slowly down the hallway. “Tell me more.”

My client proceeds to tell him more. Much, much more. And I start to grow agitated.

I’m not worried about what my client is saying about me. I’ve been “Marsdened” (it’s a verb in PD jargon) before, and even though part of me wishes some had been granted in order to be rid of particularly unpleasant clients, none have been. What does scare me is the possibility of being found “IAC.” That’s when an appellate lawyer looks over a trial transcript and decides that the guilty verdict was due to “Ineffective Assistance of Counsel.” Being Marsdened is a rite of passage; IAC is more like last rites.

I am agitated because I know that I will likely still be tasked with representing this client when this is over and he is making my job–the job of defending him–even harder. I visualize what the transcript of this hearing looks like and I wish I could strikethrough the portions that I wish he were not saying, out loud, to the judge.

Did I mention I’ve been Marsdened before? Do you want to know what it feels like to sit through a client’s Marsden motion? Then read on and chose your own Marsden adventure:

If your client is accused of a “domestic” charge, proceed to section I.A.

If your client is accused of auto theft and has been talking to the “jailhouse lawyer” at the jail’s law library, go to I.B.

I.A. Judge, this whole thing is ridiculous. My lady wants these charges dropped completely. I also called her last night from the jail and she told me that she wants the “no contact” restraining order dropped. She’s going to come in here and say that she made the whole thing up because she was drunk and mad at me for cheating on her. Also, she’s bipolar. That means that she lies all the time, right? I saw it on “Dr. Phil.”  Anyway, my dump truck public defender is telling me that what she said to police is a “prior inconsistent statement” that comes in as evidence even if she takes it back. But that’s not true, right? He just wants me to plea because he has too many cases.

I.B. Judge, this public pretender isn’t doing anything for me. I told him that I wanted an attorney. I’m entitled to a court-appointed attorney, but they keep giving me public defenders instead. Also, I heard in my dorm unit at the jail that if they don’t bring you to court within 48 hours of your arrest, they have to dismiss the case. Well sir, I was arrested on a Friday, and I know that it was still Friday because when the police pulled me over in that stolen car, I looked at the dashboard clock and saw that it was 11:48 p.m. I didn’t have my first court date until Monday, so my case should be dismissed. At least that’s what I heard.

I also wrote a motion myself; it’s about voluntary intoxication. I read in the law library that being voluntarily intoxicated can sometimes be a defense. Well, I can tell you that I was TOTALLY voluntarily intoxicated up when all this happened. I remember the six-pack, I remember…whatever that stuff was in the pipe they were passing around. I remember having the slim jim and the shaved key, but I don’t remember actually using them to take the car. I do remember speeding away from the police, and I remember trying to swerve around the cop who was trying to stop me, but I don’t remember anything about supposed “threats” I made to “make him my bitch” with his nightstick. There’s more and it’s all in my motion, but this dump truck won’t file it. I think he’s working for the DA. He says that he won’t file  it because it has “incriminating statements,” or because it contradicts the confession that I supposedly gave afterward, that I don’t remember. I don’t know, he can’t seem to get his story straight about why he won’t file it for me.

Also, no one read me my rights when they arrested me. They were supposed to tell me that I had the right to remain silent. That means I get a dismissal, right? … Well, no, they never actually asked me any questions … No, I didn’t actually say anything after I was arrested. But I’m supposed to be read my rights! I need a REAL lawyer who knows these things to get me out of here!

Lifting an eyebrow, the judge looks to me and asks, “Mr. DeGuerre, how do you care to respond?”

If this is your first court appearance with this client, go to section II.A.

If you’ve already discussed each and every one of these things with your client, go to section II.B.

II.A. Your Honor, it is absolutely, positively true that I have not yet done anything for this client. I have not seen him at the jail. I have not called his baby’s mom on his behalf to keep her from throwing out his stuff. I haven’t looked into whether the police search of his pockets was legal because he’s not charged with possessing anything illegal; the charged crime is violent and happened in the police officer’s presence. Quite frankly, I just got this file two days ago; only by breaking the laws of physics could I have gone back in time and done all the things that my client seems to think that I should have done before today. Given that I obey the laws of physics at all times, I trust that I can represent this client to his satisfaction if given…some time, any time, at all.

II.B. Your honor, my client demanded after his first court date to receive his “discovery packet.” He seems to be in continued disbelief that his “discovery packet,” at this stage, consists entirely of the police report that I have reviewed with him several times. He claims the police report has “got nothing” on him because it doesn’t include fingerprints, DNA, or surveillance video; it contains nothing more than statements of witnesses who said that they saw him do it. I explained to him that these are still “evidence.” I explained that public defenders are, in fact, attorneys. I explained that I do not work for the DA simply because I told him what the DA’s offer was. I explained to him that hiring the “real lawyer” that his mother has been talking to may or may not get him a better deal, but that she’s welcome to get a second mortgage to pay his retainer in order to find out.

The judge makes eye contact with each of us one more time. He has the information he needs in order to make a decision.

If this is a judge who, in the past, has threatened to hold you in contempt for objecting during the DA’s closing argument, go to section III.A.

If this is a judge who is deathly afraid of the client deciding to represent himself, go to section III.B.

III.A. Sir, I assure you that Mr. DeGuerre is a devoted advocate. He’s a fabulous attorney, and you’re lucky to have him. The fact that you get his services free of charge is one of those curious luxuries that comes with having a free society. The defendant’s Marsden motion is denied.

III.B. Sir, I completely understand your concerns. It sounds as though Mr. DeGuerre needs to make himself more available to you by phone. Perhaps you should call during his lunch hour, when he is at his desk eating the sandwich that he brought from home. And really, Mr. DeGuerre, when I was a public defender, I saw my clients at the jail before every single court date. You say you got the file late Monday, but today is Wednesday. It doesn’t matter that this was so long ago that the PD’s office had six lawyers and five clients: no excuses.

It also sounds like Mr. DeGuerre can make just a little more effort in finding that transient, homeless witness you say can prove your innocence; you’d be amazed at what public defender investigators can dig up just by knowing that his name is “Mike Something.” I’m also going to suggest to Mr. DeGuerre that he make more efforts to negotiate with the District Attorney; Mr. DeGuerre, you should keep an open mind when the DA tells you that your client is a “monster” who should plead “as charged.” If the DA says that, and you agree, she will not ask for the maximum. You should think of that as a starting place for negotiations! That being said, I will give Mr. DeGuerre leeway to perform his due diligence. We can revisit this issue down the road if we need to. For now, the defendant’s Marsden motion is denied.

Congratulations! You made it! How do you feel?

If you happened to choose III.A. and would like a copy of the proceedings as proof of the only nice thing that judge has ever said to you, then you are out of luck. That record is sealed.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

How often do you win?

Dear Norm:

How often do you win?

Sincerely,

Johnnie Cochran’s Ghost

Dear Late Mr. Cochran:

If by “win” you mean that I get to do a job I enjoy and that I think is meaningful, that I get to be surrounded by friendly colleagues and support staff, that I have supervisors I admire and who care about my development as an attorney, that my job includes a killer health insurance policy and requires a bitchin’ dress code, and that I can come home to my beautiful wife at a decent and predictable hour; then I win EVERY SINGLE DAY!

If by “win” you mean the number of times I can walk my guy out the courthouse door after a “not guilty” verdict, then I win very, very rarely. In fact, I wager that I have gotten more guilty verdicts than most of the DAs against whom I try cases. This is not unusual for defense attorneys who don’t get to cherry-pick their clients on the basis of jury appeal and likelihood of actual innocence. As a public defender, a client telling me, “I didn’t do shit!” is enough of a reason as any to take his case to trial. It might be a little more difficult to find a reputable private attorney to take a case based on indignation alone.

Personally, I think I should always lose and DA’s should always win. After all, they get to pick their cases and they get to plea bargain down to whatever will make the case settle, thereby avoiding a trial if the evidence is at all uncertain. If I can get my client a fantastic deal in that process, well, that doesn’t count as a win in the traditional sense, even if it’s a good thing for my client.

There is a lot of nuance in my job, so not every guilty verdict is a loss. Sometimes I try a case simply because the DA has not offered anything of value in exchange for my client giving up his constitutional right to a jury trial. The incentive to enter a plea is very low if the prison term offered is close to the maximum for the charges or if the charges he’s pleading to include “strikes” that will guarantee he will eventually serve a life sentence when he is released and given a chance to re-offend. If the DA’s offer is not interesting to my client, then what does he really have to “lose” by taking his case to trial?

As a public defender, I consider the following to be a “win,” in order of most victorious:

  • an outright dismissal, which spares my client the stress and exposure of a trial
  • a “not guilty” verdict from the jury

  • a hung jury or mistrial – just as good as a “win” in my book because it accomplishes my task, annoys the DA, and I have a soft spot for anyone who can hold his or her ground under pressure

  • a partial acquittal, particularly if the dropped charges are a “strike” offense or carry a heavy sentence

  • a partial acquittal, if the dropped charges are the ones my client contested

  • any partial acquittal

  • a conviction on all charges, but where the final sentence is less than the pre-trial offer

  • a conviction on all charges, but where the final sentence is not much worse than the pre-trial offer

So there you go! I appreciate the question and as always, I welcome all questions and comments from my readers.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Defense ex Machina

“For the benefit of the uninitiated, “dump truck” is a term commonly used by criminal defendants when complaining about the public defender. The origins of the phrase are somewhat obscure. However, it probably means that in the eyes of the defendant the public defender is simply trying to dump him rather than afford him a vigorous defense. It is an odd phenomenon familiar to all trial judges who handle arraignment calendars that some criminal defendants have a deep distrust for the public defender. This erupts from time to time in savage abuse to these long-suffering but dedicated lawyers. It is almost a truism that a criminal defendant would rather have the most inept private counsel than the most skilled and capable public defender. Often the arraigning judge appoints the public defender only to watch in silent horror as the defendant’s family, having hocked the family jewels, hire a lawyer for him, sometimes a marginal misfit who is allowed to represent him only because of some ghastly mistake on the part of the Bar Examiners[.]”

People v. Huffman

71 Cal.App.3d 63

Although I love what I do, there are days when it feels like the most utterly thankless post that a lawyer can hold.

I can’t possibly hold this against the clients. Our clients have any number of personal, psychological, medical, and economic problems. Often, we are merely the nearest target when they get the urge to rage against some part of the machine. The client themselves have many, many reasons to distrust their public defender. Here are a few, in order of most ridiculous to the most understandable.

1) The client has been trading stories with a “jailhouse lawyer.” The jailhouse lawyer flatters himself a person of great legal knowledge because he has had three or four “legal inquiries” answered from the staff attorneys at the jail’s in-house legal library. Granted, his legal acumen was not sharp enough to keep him from fellating a 9-year-old, or fracturing a rival gang-member’s skull before stealing his bicycle. However, he knows that all of his misfortunes were due to the fact that his “public pretender” was screwing him. That is why he asserted his Sixth Amendment right to represent himself. Also, representing yourself gives one a sweet supply of postage stamps, which can be traded with other inmates for $3.00 bags of Cheez-its from the jail commissary.

Because, you know, fuck his baby’s mamma for not putting more money on his books.

2) The public defender always tells him that he should plead guilty. Granted, constantly receiving bad news from the one person who is Constitutionally-obligated to be on “your side” is very, very troubling. However, let us not forget that the public defender can (and must) represent everybody who cannot afford a lawyer. This includes the person who confessed to everything on tape (free legal advice: don’t tell your lawyer that “I didn’t do shit” after confessing everything to the police…you need to reverse the order of things). This includes the people who stab a rival gang member in broad daylight, masturbate in front of a bus full of school children, and/or commit a robbery in front of every single one of Best Buy’s many-dozen high-definition security cameras. In short, we don’t have the luxury of dumping the dogshit cases. Private lawyers get to pick-and-choose their clients. We don’t get to decline representation simply because we are tired of giving bad news.

However, this perspective is often not welcome to the individual client. Go figure.

3) The public defender is always so busy, and sometimes doesn’t even talk to me before I see him in court.

This is truly a regrettable state of affairs. Too many public defenders take it for granted that the vast majority of misdemeanor and felony cases are boilerplate. They tend to have the same issues and the same sorts of defenses.

How many different ways can you steal a car? How many different ways can you beat someone up after drinking too much? How many different ways can you be found with meth in your pocket?

Unfortunately, sometimes public defenders forget that every single client is an individual person. For them, their pending case is the most stressful, awful, agonizing part of their lives at that moment. The last thing they want to be told is that their case is “pretty basic” and that cases “like theirs” are worth “X years/months” in custody. Sometimes, us lawyers need gentle reminders (or perhaps more abrupt reminders) that every client we have is an individual who deserves to be treated as such. Even if their case is “basic” and predictable, we shouldn’t necessarily let them know that. Also, assuming that every case of a certain type is “the same” blinds us to the very nuances that we might use to give our clients a better defense.

However, most of the time when our clients complain of issues of “service” they don’t realize that the Public Defender Office is run to provide the very best AND the most efficient legal counsel possible. The customer service is not always first class, but a coach ticket is all they need to arrive at the same exact place. At the end of the day, do you want the lawyer that gives you warm nuts or the one that gets you the best deal?

4) My public defender is a “dump truck” who just wants me to plea.

As sad is it makes me to say it, some public defenders are dump trucks. Burnout is common in any helping profession. They have too many cases, and their supervisor doesn’t stop giving them more simply because they have too many open cases at the moment. Sometimes your public defender is a relic from the days when smart/capable/idealistic lawyers rarely went into public defense. Sometimes they are no longer capable of seeing a client as an irreplaceable individual.

I sorely wish I could fire those people myself. But I cannot.

That being said, so-called “dump trucks” are a tiny minority of the talented, dedicated public servants with whom I have served. And it pains me when I see a defendant proudly “fire” his hard working public defender for some putz who hasn’t tried a case in his entire career.

Sometimes this guy is skilled at giving enemas of sunshine to clients who are desperate for good news, and confuse braggadocio with a realistic assessment of possible results for their case. Even more sadly, sometimes these clients trust this lawyer more because they speak their native language (Spanish, Hmong, Vietnamese, etc) and they assume that one of “their own” will look out for them more closely than the well-meaning white person who keeps them waiting for hours until the court-appointed interpreter arrives.

What kills me is that I and other public defenders CHOSE to be public defenders because we love doing jury trials. If you are truly innocent, or if the state is simply trying to railroad you, your public defender will try your case and do it well, because we don’t need our clients to fork over the $50,000 that a decent private lawyer would charge to do a trial-by-jury. We end up doing DOZENS of them throughout a career, and we love it. Your private lawyer is probably scared shitless because he has never had to actually don his war paint and argue your innocence in front of a jury.

And he definitely hasn’t had to do it for the guilty-as-sin clients that we represent.