Murderer’s Privilege (An Attempt at Mostly Fiction)

The heavy steel door latched shut with the tiniest of clicks just before the jail guard walked away. My seat was round and about as large as a personal pizza. My left buttock tingled and then drifted off to sleep.  Across from me sat my client, wrists chained to his sides, feet chained to the floor: standard procedure when visiting a client in the jail’s maximum security wing.

“So I’ve been talking to some of the other guys in here…”

Oh no. My client had been discussing legal strategy in his homicide case with his fellow inmates, several of whom lacked the legal skill to avoid picking up their own homicide cases.

“…and I don’t think I have received enough training on how not to be a killer.”

My client lifted two fingers far enough from the chains on his waist to slide his manila envelope across the table. I skimmed each clipping and set it on the table between us. Inside the envelope,, I found…

…one newspaper clipping about a man in Staten Island who died begging for his life while his killer choked him to death. The killer told the dead man to stop selling drugs on the corner, but the deceased did not stop quickly enough for the killer’s liking. The grand jury decided that the district attorney did not have enough evidence to charge him with anything.

…another newspaper clipping, this one about a man in South Carolina who shot his victim in the back several times as the victim ran away. Strangely, the killer bound his victim post-mortem. The killer’s companion walked up to the body as the killer dropped another weapon on the ground to make it look like self-defense. Both the killer and his buddy wore identically-colored clothing, and the group to which both men belonged had a fearsome reputation for intimidating and brutalizing their community.

…one last newspaper clipping. A man in the midwest fled a gunman on foot. The gunman caught his prey and took him down. The gunman fired his pistol at the deceased as he labored for breath on the ground. Before dying, the victim yelled at the gunman for what he had done. “You fucking ran, shut the fuck up” sneered the gunman’s companion. Another of the gunman’s buddies mocked the victim for his inability to breathe as he lay dying. The shooter later claimed that he had intended to use one of his less lethal weapons and shot the victim by mistake; he stands accused of negligent homicide, and not murder.

…and finally, a computer print-out of a 100-page report, authored by the United States Department of Justice. The DOJ had penned this report in response to another high-profile killing in Missouri. The final section, entitled “Necessary Changes,” had been dogeared by my client. His handwritten notes filled the margins on either side.

I see where he’s going with this. “So if I’m hearing you, you want me to argue that, like the police officers in these news clippings, you simply have not had adequate training on how not to stab your brother-in-law in the chest while arguing on Christmas Eve morning.”

That guy in New York begged for his life on camera. And they say that the cop was right to fear for his life? Why can’t I say the same thing? My brother-in-law said ‘I’m sorry’ to me right before I stuck him. But maybe I was still afraid of him? Was that completely fucking nuts for me to still be afraid of him? The DOJ says I would probably benefit from more training on ‘proper use of force.’ And shit. Most of these guys are never charged with anything. Why do they get to charge me?”

“So how about this: I make a pitch for you to voluntarily wear a body camera on your person for the rest of your life in lieu of a prison sentence. You want me to offer that?”

I don’t know. Should I?”

“Do you think wearing a body camera would help you value human life a little bit more?”

It couldn’t hurt.

“Well, it better. They’re finally charging cops for this in South Carolina, thanks to the fact that most people carry a high-powered camera in their pockets all the time. But maybe with time, your fear of getting caught hurting people will turn into finding genuine reasons to not want to hurt people.”

“Yeah, it couldn’t hurt.”

Barely missing a beat, my client added:

“You know what else I should get? A union representative to protect me from people’s complaints.”

“Well, you already have a representative, and I’m a member of a union. Is that close enough?”

“They also should have set up a citizen’s review board to screen people’s complaints about me.”

“You mean  a jury trial? Because you can have one of those.”

“No, not a trial. The thing before trial where all the complaints get dismissed.”

“You mean a grand jury? They indict everyone unless you are a cop.”

“It’s too bad I’m not a cop, or I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Unfortunately, my client was probably right.

-Norm

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Profiles in Happenstance

Chasing Truth, Catching Hell turns one year old today. A surprising amount has happened since then; my cathartic creative writing project is now featured on the ABA Journal’s “blawg” roll and has hundreds (plural!) of readers. An amazing community of bloggers, lawyers, writers, and informed citizens has visited Chasing Truth over the past 12 months.

Many stumble upon Chasing Truth through search engine queries. In furtherance of this blog’s goals of educating and entertaining its readership, I will attempt to answer the questions that many of Chasing Truth’s readers have been trying to answer with the help of the internet.

“How to win a Romero Motion.” This reader is a public defender (or intern) sitting in front of an office computer. His client faces a life sentence under California’s Three Strikes law. In a Romero motion, the public defender will, essentially, beg for mercy in the face of his client’s love of drugs and/or violence. In utter desperation, he has consulted Google for answers. Google doesn’t know how to win a Romero motion. Unfortunately, the only sure way to win a Romero motion is to defy the laws of physics and travel backwards in time to stop your client from having a record. If this is not possible, the public defender will simply have to plumb the depths of his client’s life story, find the shiniest nuggets of redeeming humanity, and convince a judge that the remainder of his client’s human worth is so precious that the drafters of the Three Strikes law would never have wanted the client to serve a life sentence.

In all seriousness, best of luck.

“What happened to Demontes Wright?” This reader is an idealistic young lawyer whose friend has a job in asbestos litigation that allows him to subscribe to HBO. Young Lawyer invites herself over to watch Gideon’s Army, an excellent documentary on public defenders. Gideon’s Army is the story of three intrepid public defenders in the South who war for their clients’ freedom against a drought of resources and a flood of indigent clients. During the climax of the film, public defender Brandy Alexander argues that her client, Demontes Wright, could not have been the man who robbed the liquor store in question. I’m sorry that the plague tornado knocked out the electricity before this reader could see the end, but rest assured that Ms. Alexander won her client’s freedom, despite the ease with which her innocent client could have lost ten years of his life in prison.

Related search: “Travis Williams public defender Georgia.” This reader has the bad luck of being accused of a crime in Georgia, and is desperately hoping that Gideon’s Army super lawyer Travis Williams will be his public defender.

“Are my rights violated if I can’t even go to the bathroom, but they say you’re not even under arrest and police interrogate me without reading me my Miranda rights?” This reader has been questioned by police to the point of physical discomfort. However, in deciding whether his rights have been violated, the question is not whether the reader felt free to leave. The question is whether the reasonable, prudent, Yale-educated Supreme Court justice would have felt free to leave under similar circumstances. If a member of the Ivy League ruling class would feel free to waltz out the door of the police station, this reader should too. If a cop has told this reader that he can’t use the bathroom, he is being detained. If this ever happens to you, stop talking immediately. In all honesty, consider soiling yourself to prove just how trapped you feel.

“Getting help for your client on remand” The good news is that this reader finally got a referral from that business card that he taped above the urinal in the bathroom that adjoins the visitor’s lobby at the local jail. The bad news is that now this client expects his money’s worth. This means that unless the attorney can lower his client’s bail, the client will not be able to make more money to pay the lawyer. This will oblige the lawyer to waive preliminary hearing and then dump his client on the public defender once the case is set for trial.

This reader needs to get his leased Audi out of the nearby parking garage very, very quickly. I know a number of reckless teenage vandals.

“Can a good lawyer get you out of anything?” This reader has hired the lawyer described in the paragraph above. Never underestimate the private bar’s willingness to sell a client an enema of sunshine in lieu of honest legal representation.

“How do you win a Marsden motion?” Unfortunately, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Best of luck to you. Indigent criminal justice reform needs to take place nationwide. People who commit crimes in my county are lucky to have such good representation. But I want everyone in America to have access to the same high quality level of defense. Protecting the rights of our most vulnerable citizens protects the rights of everyone.

“People in jail for drug addictions ‘leave a comment’” County jail is a terrible, smelly, occasionally violent, and perpetually depressing place. Its callow corrections officers are not interested in making any of its tenants into a better person. Maybe this reader needs to write a Yelp review?

“Movies about chasing something and never catching it” Thanks for stumbling upon my blog by accident. I really do appreciate the additional readership. I’m sure that somewhere, out there, is a Zooey Deschanel movie with your name on it.

“Can I add a profile to the Megan’s Law website.” This impish prankster has a great idea for getting his chemistry teacher fired. Unfortunately, these gates of hilarity are blocked by Department of Justice firewalls.

“Crystal meth cannot climax” Not to be an insufferable optimist, but some would say that this is a feature of crystal meth, not a drawback.

“Public defender burnout.” This reader is likely a public defender, and she was probably scheduled to spend a full day cross-examining tearful victims in an all-day preliminary hearing. This reader welcomed the excuse not to check the blinking light on her phone that tells her that she has yet another unhappy call to return. This reader may well be deliberately postponing that life-sentence case that he just cannot bear to try until another attorney takes over his calendar. Or, this reader may have the burden of being someone who works hard without complaining. His public defender’s office may have rewarded this work ethic by giving him some terrible, thankless, high-volume court calendar that the squeakier wheels refuse to do (and somehow get away with doing so).

For what its worth, I’ll bet that this reader is doing a great service to her clients. I will also wager that most of her clients think so too. We love you. Honest. You are why we need student loan forgiveness for government servants. Being able to pay bills every month without excessive anxiety would really help with preventing burnout, would it not?

“Pretenders drink while you’re at it.” This is clearly one of those Zen riddles that one ponders while hoping that his coworkers have not noticed the third vodka soda that he has ordered during the weekly office happy hour. This reader is cheating by searching the internet for answers.

A confession to friends of this blog; I never expected to still be adding to this site one year later. You make me want to keep writing. I reserve the right to broach this blog’s anonymity when I need to plug my first legal thriller; until then, I remain your secret admirer.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Peer Reviewed

An embarrassing amount of time has passed between blog posts. Part of the reason is because I’ve cycled back onto the felony trial team.

The Constitution guarantees the accused a trial by jury. In Ye Olde Days before the American Revolution, juries were composed entirely of people who knew the defendant personally. The premise? A jury of one’s peers will not begin a trial pre-disposed to convict; to the contrary, a jury of people who know you personally should be wholly disinclined to convict you unless the evidence is persuasive beyond all reasonable doubt.

Today, jury pools are drawn from randomly-selected groups.

Well, the selection process is actually far from random. The two main sources for names of jurors are voter registration rolls and DMV records. So the first question to ask – in deciding whether your client is being provided with a jury of his peers – is whether most of your client’s peers are registered voters or licensed drivers.

This excludes many of the people I have represented…and most of the people that they know.

But once you get past that hurdle, then the focus must shift to the actual group of 60-80 people whom are sent to your courtroom on the first day of jury selection. The systemic, though unintentional exclusion of California’s underclass usually proceeds according to this pattern:

First, the judge typically hears what are called “hardships.” Hardships are listed in the California Code of Civil Procedure. The judge will ask the jury panel who among them would like to try to get out of jury duty based on hardship. ⅖ of the people in the room will raise hands. The judge will question them one by one, and will likely exclude the following people.

1) People who do not speak English well enough to understand the proceedings. On the one hand, excusing these people is a relief for everyone involved; who would want their client’s fate decided by someone who cannot make out what the witnesses say? But consider the typical profile of a U.S. citizen who does not speak sufficient English to serve on a jury. They will have almost always been in the U.S. for more than ten years. However, English will rarely be the primary language spoken at home. Furthermore, English will likely not be the primary language spoken in the food service/manual labor jobs that employ them; afterall, English is often a second (or third) language for most of their coworkers as well.

So thus far, our jury pool has been cleansed of citizens whose professional and personal lives are so isolated from the majority culture that their English remains…rudimentary at best. How does exclusion from jury service resolve that problem? If we are truly concerned about having a fair cross-section of our community, public resources would have to be devoted either to ESL classes prior to jury service, or providing court-certified interpreters to jurors as well as to defendants.

But I understand that we have banks to bail out with that money instead. So nuts to that idea.

2) The next group of people to go will be those who are financially unable to serve; being taken from their job for the 3-10 days of a typical jury trial will cause immediate financial harm. This is so mainly because employers will not pay employees who are serving on a jury. This includes most non-union, non-salaried employees. This also includes a huge number of single parents.

3) After the first two groups are removed, the two or three full-time college students will also be excused from jury duty. Roll Tide!

Meanwhile, there will be others asking the court to be excused from jury duty who do not qualify for hardship. Maybe they care for a dependent adult or child, but are lucky enough to be able to arrange for alternative child care. More commonly, doctors and executives will explain to the court that they are very, very important and their businesses need them to do work that is much more important than jury duty. Also, their employees will suffer because they will not keep their businesses open while they are away on jury duty (because paying your employees anyway, and letting them work in your absence, is just absurd). These folks will be asked to rejoin the retirees, the salaried professionals, and the temporarily-unemployed high-skilled married parents for further jury selection after the morning recess.

And thereafter, you look at the tattoos on your client’s face before he’s taken back to the holding cell for the morning recess and wonder if he has a chance in hell of a fair trial.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre