Dear Norm: How Do You Defend Those People? (Part 3,223)

Dear Norm:

How do you defend those people?

No, I don’t mean “how can you live with yourself ensuring due process for people who have done really really bad things” or anything like that. I mean, how do you actually do it? When you have a client accused of something awful, and he/she has next to nothing by way of a defense, how do you defend them anyway?

Sincerely,

Asking for a Friend

 

Dear Asking:

This question hits close to home. As mentioned in previous posts, I’m in the midst of the most serious trial tour that I’ve ever had. Every so often, you hear a story in the news where your jaw drops and then you check the locks on all your windows and doors… and then you call your grandma to tell her to check the locks on all her windows and doors… I will spare you the details, but suffice to say I have a new client who did something very, very bad. Because he was arrested at the scene of the crime, there is no identification issue or shoddy detective work that will let me claim that someone other than my totally innocent client must have done this heinous thing.  With all of the different charges and enhancements, this client faces a sentence of more than 100 years to life.

So where does a public defender start in defending this client?

First, I mentally prepare myself for the very real possibility that I will be stuck taking this case to trial, despite the lack of defense and withering, death-ray stares that my client and I will face from the jury during the entirety of the trial. The assigned prosecutor may not want to make my client any sort of plea bargain. “This defendant is the worst of the worst,” Mr./Ms. District Attorney may say, “and he deserves nothing short of a life sentence.” This may be true, but it does not relieve me of my ethical obligation to safeguard my client’s rights unless he is offered something in exchange for giving them up. It is not in my client’s legal best interests to simply plead to a life sentence out of hopelessness, and I will never tell him to do so.

Second, I drastically recalibrate my sense of what a “victory” would be in a case like this. I assemble all of the facts that weigh in favor of conviction, find the handful of “good facts” that weighs against a particular charge/allegation, and then decide which charges or enhancements I can argue against with a straight face; even in the deeply horrendous cases, prosecutors still overreach and charge more things than they might be able to prove. Then, I ask myself “so if by some improbable happenstance I manage to beat the charges I’m contesting, what does my client get?” For the client described above, I define “victory” as beating the two enhancements that carried a mandatory life sentence so that, in theory, I can try to convince a judge not to impose a discretionary life sentence on the remaining charges. Yes, “victory” is a relative term.

Third, I must earn enough trust from this client so that if an opportunity does come for him to save his own life, he’ll heed my advice and seize that opportunity. I sit with him in the jail interview room and listen to his half-hearted denials of guilt. Rather than cross-examine him and dissect his claims for implausibility, I gently remind him that ultimately, a jury would be asked to compare the victims’ word, the medical evidence, the photographs, and the client’s first version of events that he shared with the police to this new, second version of events that he now offers me. I see his face sink, ever so slightly, with realization; I have succeeded in grounding my client in the reality of the evidence against him without moral judgement or direct confrontation.

Fourth, I must give the client something that he gets to decide for himself. Clients hurt themselves most when they feel out of control over their legal situation; such clients feel “railroaded” and see their public defender as just another piece of the machine that is pushing them toward a certain outcome. When this happens, the client resists the public defender’s advice just for the sake of resisting the process as a whole. I remind the client that the decision to go to trial and the decision to testify are his and his alone, but I also remind him that he has the power to set a more realistic goal for himself. For example, for a client looking at a life sentence, pleading to any kind of determinate prison term, even if that sentence is dozens upon dozens of years, is still better than a “life” sentence; prisoners with (theoretical) release dates are categorized differently and are housed in less restrictive settings; such a situation would still guarantee a “life” sentence as a practical matter, but the quality of that “life” in prison would be substantially better. With this in mind, I tell the client that he has the power to “offer” the district attorney a plea to many dozens of years in lieu of a life sentence in exchange for not making the victims testify in court.

Before trial is the time to get creative to do whatever I can to make my client’s experience better for him. Like I said above, any sentence with a number is better than “life.” But there might be other things to consider. A coworker once told me a story of a man accused of felony child abuse causing death, a charge that carries a sentence of 25-life. Unlike first or second-degree murder, the crime of fatal child abuse does not require any particular intent, let alone the intent to kill that is required for a murder charge. Regardless, my coworker’s client agreed to plead to one count of second degree murder. Why? Because not only does second-degree murder carry a lesser sentence (15-life), but the charge itself would guarantee a less dangerous time in prison than a charge of child abuse causing death. This was arguably a better outcome (When your cellmate asks you, “So whadda ya in for?” What would you prefer to tell him?), and the client had the clarity of mind to make this deal because it was something that he felt he had the power to do in the universe of drastically-narrowed possibilities in which he found himself.

Fifth, I can make a pitch to the District Attorney on behalf of my client. The key is to remind the DA that a person is not born with the urge to…God, I can’t even say it, but such a person can only be made. Granted, most people with terrible childhoods and mild mental retardation do not go on to do the things that my client did. However, a substantial part of my client’s childhood was spent holding a gun in a closet and listening for signs his mother’s john was getting out of control. We can’t pretend that this had no impact at all on the adult he became. I can make the argument that if my client does not deserve mercy now, he probably did at some point in his life, and the things that happened to him in between were rarely, if ever, under his control to prevent.

Sixth, if this case does go to trial, there are a handful of tricks for losing with style and dignity.

  • Consider waiving opening statement; opening statements can be treacherous things in that if you promise the jury that the evidence will sound a certain way, there is a real possibility that the evidence will come in much worse than expected. Sometimes it is best to say nothing up front, let the wave of awful wash over you, and then attempt damage control during closing argument. Also, defenses sometimes “pop up” if the district attorney screws something up.
  • During the victims’ tearful testimony, get the information you need from them as gently as possible. During closing argument, accuse the district attorney of exploiting emotion and sympathy while holding yourself out as the sober, rational alternative.
  • Make objections under the United States Constitution, and not just the California Evidence Code; maybe your client will have a chance at tying up the system in federal post-conviction litigation if he preserves a “federal issue” in the record.

 

Finally, I document every decision that I make in the case as well as the reasons for it. My client will be convicted, an appellate lawyer will be running a fine-tooth comb through the record of the trial, and if I screwed something up so badly that my representation was constitutionally defective, then appellate counsel can (and should) argue this to the appellate court. Before actually presenting this argument to the court, appellate counsel will contact  me informally and ask me questions about why I decided to conduct this client’s defense the way that I did. As unbelievable as it may sound, this will not be my last truly awful case, and not every decision or its rationale will burn itself into my mind. If can’t defend myself, my client’s next lawyer will argue that I didn’t defend my client either.

Does that sound simple enough?

 

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

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Criminology 201: Selected Topics in Disorganized Crime

Criminology 201: Selected Topics in Disorganized Crime

In my last post, I discussed a client whose life experience failed to square with the accepted narratives that are taught to police, probation, and corrections officers during the course of their training. I now have a vision of what it would look like if my client were given the chance to communicate his life experience in a classroom setting. If any criminal justice class actually would let this client teach the lessons that he had learned just by living his life, the final result would probably be a wonderfully educational public relations disaster for the school in question. It might climax in a conciliatory letter of some sort to the aggrieved student body, with a short explanation of how little their textbooks had prepared them to comprehend life on society’s margins.

Like this one:

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From the Office of the Academic Dean, William H. Taft Institute of Criminal Justice and Weight Loss:

A number of students who were enrolled in last semester’s Advanced Criminology seminar have petitioned for review of their grades and disclosure of the grading criteria used by last semester’s guest lecturer. Our guest lecturer has provided a complementary set of explanations for the final exam that was given at the end of the term. He hopes that you will then use the lessons contained within his explanation to  figure out what went wrong with the remainder of your assignments, and assures you that “life is hard, but it isn’t complicated.”

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Question 1: Multiple choice, choose the correct answer.

You are a probation officer supervising a juvenile ward. He is often truant from school, and his urine has never tested negative for THC, suggesting daily marijuana use. To aid in this minor’s rehabilitation, you should:

a)    Violate the minor’s probation and advocate for his detention in juvenile hall – the

       minor must cease his violations of state and federal drug laws

b)    Order the minor to enter residential drug treatment for what is clearly a crippling

       addiction to a Schedule 1 controlled substance

c)    Get the minor drug counseling and something, anything, worthwhile to do with his day

d)    Wait until he gets arrested for something more serious, and then figure it out

Half of the class chose answer choice (a), the other half chose answer choice (b). Clearly, neither half had experimented with marijuana in high school. If you had, you would know that marijuana is not a reason to skip school; the decision to skip school is made completely independently of the decision to smoke pot. School holds nothing for a huge number of these children. They often have learning disabilities, or anger problems, and largely-inherited substance abuse patterns. They need far more help to succeed in school than they receive, and many predict their own failure early and throw in the proverbial towel. And with all this free time these kids now have, why not smoke pot?

Of course teenagers shouldn’t be smoking pot. It interferes with their brain development, screws with executive functioning (very relevant for someone debating the merits of stealing a car), and creates a lifestyle that makes it very hard for them to interact with professional adults (teachers, employers, customers, etc). But pot isn’t dangerous; in fact, it has no known fatal overdose. Depriving them of freedom for smoking it is counter-productive at best, and completely self-defeating at worst. Of course, some sort of intervention is necessary, and without it, this minor will likely end up in serious legal trouble: not because of marijuana, but because of the people in his life who also happen to smoke it. Those who reside in the real world will answer with choice (c). Those who are already employed in the system might answer with choice (d), but that’s not the right answer either.

Question 2: Multiple choice, choose the correct answer

Which of the following can be considered as proof that a juvenile has joined a gang?

a)    Wearing baggy jeans

b)    Living in a neighborhood that is controlled by a gang

c)    Spraying gang graffiti on a highway overpass

d)    None of the above

To those who chose an answer other than choice (d), consider for a second that the word “gang”suggests a semi-disciplined criminal conspiracy. Wearing certain styles of clothing, even if that clothing bears the colors or logos that gangs use to identify themselves, says nothing about whether a person is a member of any such organization. Anyone can wear a certain color of clothing, and clothing can be shed at will when the social group dynamics cease to reward the teenager for wearing them.

Like conformist fashion tendencies, mindless vandalism is also common to at-risk youth. Anyone can spray anything on any surface; the vandal does not need to have been given orders to do so in micro-writing that was smuggled out of a maximum security cell block in the anus of a corrupt corrections officer.

Finally, while many gang members have the misfortune of growing up in neighborhoods that are already divided into gang rivalries, no sane person chooses to live there. People are born there, stay there, have no hope of ever leaving there, and will probably die there. These kids have roughly the same life expectancy as someone living in the Middle Ages. Gang membership is assumed by rivals just by virtue of that child’s neighborhood. Before the child knows it, he is choosing his bus routes to school so as to avoid “rival” territory. He is already suffering the drawbacks of gang membership; wanting to accept the benefits is an easy sell, especially if they have no other alternative for safety. Again, the correct answer is choice (d).

Question 3: Short answer

What does it mean to “hold someone accountable” for his actions?

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Holy shit. As often as I heard you say this during our class discussions, very few of you seem to know what this phrase actually means. Holding someone accountable doesn’t mean showing them that their actions have consequences: anyone who has witnessed a car accident understands this. It doesn’t matter how many years of prison a person receives; the Convicted does not need you to remind him, repeatedly, in varying tones and volumes, that his own actions resulted in tremendous loss to himself and others. I suspect that many of you relied – to your detriment – on the thesaurus, which lists the following as synonyms for this phrase: attack, brand, blame, denounce.

Holding someone accountable for their actions entails building empathy for those affected by their actions; these parts of the brain may have atrophied from years of mistreatment in childhood, so we need to be patient. Holding someone accountable includes teaching them about alternative choices that could have been made. Extensive work needs to be done with those who – with or without reason – felt that they had no choice in their actions. Too many of your answers would have fit on bumper stickers, let alone three lines. Put more thought into phrases that are used so frequently. And for God’s sake, stop thinking in slogans.

Question 4:

Describe a situation where a person might plea “no contest” to a crime that they did not commit.

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Again, a disappointing number of blank answers for this question. The students who confronted me about this question after class insisted that no one in their right minds would do such a thing. During the course of these conversions, I inferred that none had ever been given poor legal advice by an attorney that either did not have the time to care, the ability to care, or the retainer to care about that person’s case. A depressing number of Accused plea because, quite simply, they do not have confidence that their attorney has heard, understood, or investigated their defense. And without a defense, why wouldn’t they plea?

Do not underestimate the frightening penalties that follow trial, especially in jurisdictions where the criminal sentencing laws (and the judges tasked with imposing them) are left to popular vote. Many, many innocent people (or people who have a colorable argument for their innocence) surrender their rights simply to minimize risk.

Finally, don’t underestimate how often the district attorney uses a “devil’s bargain” to coax a plea from a defendant who has a strong defense. In fact, the deals become more irresistible as the prosecution’s case weakens. For example, a defendant who is in custody on the day of trial will find a “credit for time served” offer irresistible. An 18-year-old will plea to terrible things in exchange for minimal time. A good lawyer will sometimes advise him or her not to take the deal, but the defendant will always respond by asking, “But I get to go home today?” In California, an 18-year-old becomes a walking life sentence if the charges to which he pled happened to be “strike” offenses; his next felony case might result in a life sentence. The DA gladly cuts time up front with the expectation that they will get him later; and if his record is made serious enough early on, that “later” can last the rest of his life.

I know that the premise of this question hurt some students’ tender sensibilities, but taking my lectures seriously would have given you plenty of material for to answer this question.

Question 5: Essay

Part I: Consider the the following hypothetical. The minor described below is a ward of the juvenile delinquency court and you are his probation officer:

    Jaime is a 15-year-old high school freshman. His mother probably should not have had children until she had a stable relationship and/or living arrangement. Jaime’s mom probably should have tried to have all of her children with one person, rather than several people. Jaime’s father should have attended his domestic violence classes like his probation officer wanted to. He also shouldn’t have died when Jaime was 9 years old. Jaime’s mother should have finished her drug rehabilitation program and should not have relied as heavily upon her own mother for child care. Jaime’s mom should not have dropped out of high school, because Jaime’s mom should not have had to settle for working a graveyard shift at the front desk of a shady motel by the freeway. Even though she insists upon working this job, Jaime’s mom really should be getting home in time to make sure that Jaime and his little brother are getting to school on time.

    Jaime should never have failed his first semester of high school. Jaime should have studied harder and placed a greater emphasis on his education. Jaime should not have gotten himself suspended for fighting; Jaime should learn to control his seemingly irrational bouts of anger. Jaime should not take his anger out on his family by punching holes in the wall. Most importantly, Jaime should not be cutting class to smoke marijuana.

Part II: Please comment on the following, and show how it would influence the way you would approach Jaime’s supervision:

When you use the word “should,” you are arguing with reality.

Unfortunately, I have no sample answers to discuss because none of you attempted an answer. This was disappointing given the preoccupation that most of the class expressed concerning criminal street gangs. Several students expressed interest in stopping violent gangs, mainly because of some awful episode of Lockdown: Life on the Inside that they insisted upon mentioning in class.  However, none of you realized that little Jaime is a prime candidate for gang membership. Kids love group identity, and young men love a sense of feeling power and control.

Imagine the many, many niches in Jaime’s life that would be filled by a gang. He would have family, safety, financial opportunity, and a steady drug source within one social circle. Eventually, Jaime will get caught. He will be arrested. He will be sentenced according to the astoundingly severe sentencing laws that Californians put on the ballot. As a result, Jaime will possibly serve 10, 15, or 20 years in prison on his first case. And with nothing to do for 10-20 years, and with no social capital other than gang membership, what do you think will happen once he gets to prison? Prison gangs are the Frankenstein of California’s criminal justice scheme, and fixating on what someone should do, taking decades from their lives for things that they should not have done won’t actually fix anything.

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Well, readers? What is your answer to Question 5? How would our approach to criminal justice issues change if we addressed the real world as it is, and not how it “should” be? Anyone? Anyone?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section. I would love to hear some new ideas.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

A Modest Proposal for the Looming California Prison Crisis

In order to comply with a federal court order, Governor Jerry Brown must release 10,000 more prisoners by the end of this year. Over the past 15 years, California’s prison population has ballooned by 500%. At the time of the federal court’s order, California’s prisons were stuffed to 175% of inmate capacity. The release of 10,000 more will bring that down to the 137% ordered by the federal court. Prior to this, about one inmate per week was dying in prison due to preventable medical reasons made unpreventable by overtaxed prison health care systems.

The bulk of these prisoners are serving multi-year or multi-decade sentences under California’s Three Strikes law, regardless of how long ago a defendant committed his “strike” offense. At least a thousand are serving terms for non-violent drug offenses. Several thousand are approaching old age. Many others would be treated more effectively, more humanely, and more affordably in psychiatric facilities.

Governor Brown responded to the federal court’s most recent demand with what one lawyer called “willful defiance.” Governor Brown has since modified his stance to include giving over $300,000,000 to the Corrections Corporation of America to rent their for-profit prison facilities. Governor Brown says that this is necessary for public safety, because public safety would be jeopardized by the early release of an elderly inmate who committed a robbery 20 years prior, and who will likely die of natural causes before finishing his lengthy prison term for some property crime.

Governor Brown is missing an opportunity to solve problems in California’s traditional manner: letting the voters decide by way of ballot proposition. Californians routinely place decisions regarding criminal sentencing and the taxes that pay for it on the ballot for popular vote. Thus far, the initiative process has resulted in a huge prison population that no one wants to pay for. But that’s only because the right initiative hasn’t been passed yet.

I propose the following legislation:

Section 1

The Title of this act shall be the “Entitled Baby Boomer Criminal Justice Act,” and shall be referred to hereafter as the Act.

Section 2

We the People of the State of California have agreed upon the following knee-jerk reactions to the complicated social problems of crime and drug abuse in our state

a) If you do the crime, then you do the time [original emphasis];

b) We, the People, breathlessly follow any news story concerning the disappearance of a photogenic child, and we have decided that the sad afterglow of such a highly publicized tragedy is the perfect time to craft legislation that will apply to everyone for the foreseeable future;

c) We, the People, are very confident that no provision of the Act will interfere with the life, liberty, or happiness of anyone that we know, because they are good people and our kids are in private school;

d) Unlike the fields of medicine, astrophysics, or engineering, the subject of criminal justice requires absolutely no specialized education or training; this gives our opinions the force and weight of actual research.

Section 3

Recognizing that more than one-fifth of the current prison population are senior citizens, We the People declare the following measures necessary for public safety:

a) At no time shall an ailing or elderly prisoner be given access to motorized wheelchairs whose battery life would allow them to travel more than 20 feet beyond prison walls;

b) At no time shall an elderly prisoner be given access to non-motorized wheelchairs with brakes, since brakes would encourage elderly inmates to attain dangerous speeds during escape attempts;

c) All nurses, doctors, surgeons, and pharmacists who attend to elderly prisoners shall register as “criminal enablers” with the sheriff of chief of police of the city or county in which they reside, and shall not reside within 1000 meters of a park or playground;

d) For inmates who have been sentenced to serve additional time beyond a life sentence, their mouldy bones and other mortal remains shall be kept in a vessel made of recycled cardboard and stowed in a broom closet to be determined by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

e) An inmate’s age, frailty, or pitiful life expectancy shall not be considered when deciding whether to release the prisoner to ease institutional overcrowding, because if you do the crime, then you should do the time.

Section 4

The following provisions have nothing to do with the fact that the Act was drafted, edited, and promoted by the Corrections Corporation of America and the union representing state corrections officers:

a) Unlike alcohol, tobacco, and prescription opiates, cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are dangerous, addictive narcotics that cause overdoses, murder, and dangerous depletions of both Cool Ranch Doritos and internet bandwidth. Any inmate whose blood tested positive for the presence of THC at the time of their arrest shall not be granted early release under any circumstances;

b) Anyone who, while present in the United States without legal documentation, dares to exchange their labor for money, goods, or services shall be imprisoned in the county jail or in state prison for 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years. This includes those who exchange their labor for produce that they later sell themselves in lieu of actual wages;

c) No part of subdivision (b) shall be used to punish the Job Creators ™ who lure undocumented workers from their troubled homelands with the promise of toil in exchange for produce;

d) We the People, by way of our elected governor, and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shall give as many millions of dollars as are necessary to the purveyors of privately owned prisons for use of their facilities. This policy will continue until California’s sentencing laws have accomplished their goal of creating a crime-free Utopia, which will assuredly happen some time before the state completely runs out of money.

Section 5

We the People hereby refuse to pay for anything that we want, including the implementation of the Act. Specifically:

a) All budgetary items not related to the prosecution and prolonged incarceration of inmates shall be tallied under a single line item called “bullshit;”

b) All of the costs for maintaining the prison population shall be deducted from designated “bullshit” expenditures, because no state services benefit the gainfully employed and our kids are in private school anyway;

c) The Courts of Appeal will heretofore be known as the Courts That Waste Tax Dollars by Delaying Executions, and their operating budgets shall be allocated along with all other “bullshit” expenditures;

Section 6

In keeping with California’s rich tradition of placing individuals’ constitutional rights on the ballot for majority vote, We the People hereby strip the Superior Court, Courts of Appeal, and Supreme Court of jurisdiction to hear cases in which prisoners allege that the Act strips them of due process rights or imposes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Section 7

Any orders by the Supreme Court of the United States that are contrary to the Act shall be returned to the Supreme Court by registered mail with an affixed Post-It note that declares, “UR not the boss of me,” followed by the following emoticon: > : p

Since I am unable/unwilling to breach this blog’s anonymity to gather signatures and submit the proposal to the Secretary of State, I entrust you, my readers, to carry this torch for me.

Because if you do the crime, you should do the time!

In accordance with statute.

In accordance with statute.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

To The Wolves…

A client of mine was recently sentenced to 19 years in state prison. His sentencing took place a handful of days after his 18th birthday.

Prior to that, and all during the time I represented this client, he was housed at juvenile hall. Although he was a teenage boy, the district attorney decided to charge him as an adult.

By age 16, my client had made the very grown-up decision to replace his failed high school career with the instant acceptance and gratification he got for having the same tattoos and wearing the same colors as the tough kids in the neighborhood who never looked afraid of the cops, or of anybody for that matter. My client then learned that if he sold weed for them, would get paid both money and weed. His one parent who was not perpetually high on crank worked two jobs; no one lifted a finger to save him.

None of this changes the fact that he swung a knife at two other gang members to keep them at bay while his buddies pummeled another kid, who was also a gang member. But the kid described in the police reports bore little resemblance to the kid facing a felony sentence two years later. The kid who sat beside me was in protective custody after resigning gang membership in the most terrifying and official way possible: by renouncing gang membership when he was booked into the adult county jail on his 18th birthday. My client had his GED and had devoured the copy of Ender’s Game that I had loaned him.

For the next 16.15 years (which is 85% of 19 years, as required by law), my client will be a ward of California’s bloated prison population. For perspective, the Supreme Court recently ordered California Governor Jerry Brown to release another 10,000 prisoners by the end of the year. A federal court in Sacramento had found that, on average, one person per week was dying due to preventable medical reasons, made unpreventable by the fact that California’s prison system was at over 175% of capacity. With the release of 10,000 more prisoners, the prison population will hover at the 137% of capacity ordered by the court.

Who are all of these prisoners? Some of them are terrifying individuals. It should be no surprise that there are some pretty scary people in prison whose crimes garner media attention and inspire harsh sentencing laws, like Three Strikes. But then those laws are used against less-scary people who wind up in prison for decades for crimes such as stealing a bike, or punching a security guard while shoplifting a beer. Many of these laws were passed through ballot proposition, and by overwhelming margins. None of these laws included new taxes to pay for the added expense of more prisoners and, as more and more “lifers” entered old age, more elderly prisoners.

Also, let us not forget that since the California taxpayers decided that they had had enough of funding state hospitals for the seriously mentally ill, the Department of Corrections has become the biggest purveyor of mental health services in the state.

Among the more notorious groups in prison are California’s prison gangs. California’s prisons have themselves been the incubator for violent prison gangs whose associates on the street, especially their impressionable family and neighbors, form the tendrils of the monster that sucks in kids like my client like a hungry giant squid. Voters responded to their Frankenstein by passing the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act by, you guessed it, ballot proposition. This was the law the DA chose to use to have ten years added to my client’s sentence.

These are the forces that have combined to send someone who can’t grow a moustache to live in a locked facility among actual hardened criminals. Although he could have controlled his behavior on the day he was arrested, I fail to see what say he had in any of the surrounding circumstances that, at the time, made a knife fight with gang rivals seem like a good idea.

I also fail to see how a decade-and-a-half in California’s prisons will change those circumstances. Like it or not, people like my client will be our neighbors again, someday. Will his time behind bars make him a better neighbor? Will my client “spend his time regretting his crimes and holding himself accountable for his behavior” like he is supposed to?

This will only be true to the same extent that a dog might learn not to relieve itself indoors by having his nose rubbed in it; unless punishment occurs more or less simultaneously with the crime, the punishment won’t be associated with the crime. Anyone who has successfully completed any prison term, of any length, will tell you that after year 3, 4, or 5, the unique combination of misery, anxiety, violence, and boredom is no longer associated with any specific cause; it becomes suffering without purpose, lesson, or goal.

When my client is released 16 years from now, his neighborhood will either still be dangerous, or will be razed to the ground in order to make room for retail stores and stucco condominiums. The schools will still be failing, and even more job opportunities will have been either shipped overseas or given to machines.

So the only consolation that I can give to my client, on his 18th birthday, is that the world might not change as much as one might expect before his release.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Thoughts From the Event Horizon

My client is facing trial for stabbing a rival gang member. In court, his neck tattoos and gang colors do him no good. Since he was the only other person at the scene besides the victim, he must testify on his own behalf; he is the only one who knows that he was defending himself.

This man almost bled to death in a prior incident involving the alleged victim.

The judge calls a recess midway through his testimony. I enter the holding cell to see how he’s doing before the jury enters the courtroom and the judge takes the bench. This man who has come within moments of death is shaking like a leaf at the prospect of making 12 white suburban dwellers believe his side of story.

Moments before the jury enters, I make an offhand remark within earshot of the district attorney that my client is a little nervous.

The district attorney snorts. “Didn’t your client almost die that one time? How is testifying scarier than that?”

I wished that I had responded with the following:

You’ve put me in a strange position. I have two options for answering your question. I could choose to explain to you why testifying is so frightening to my client. That would require me to spell out how the people in that jury box have never and will never walk in his shoes.

It might be easier for me to explain why death is comparatively less frightening.

I don’t pretend to have any knowledge of what happens after we die. No one has died and then returned to describe it for us. What I do know is that none of us were around for the 15 billion years or so before we were born. Stars formed, and their heat and energy created every atom of carbon, iron, and oxygen in our bodies. Those stars exploded, and the remnants formed into mellower, yellower stars. The remainder of that remainder formed planets. One of these planets had enough of that stuff sitting on its surface for life to form. And at the apex of this unfathomable process sits you, playing on your iPhone in boredom and annoyance, and I, hanging out with one of society’s untouchables and considering his temporal future with him.

So what I’m getting at is that as all this stuff is happening in the yawning abyss of space, neither of us were existing. The experience didn’t seem to hurt us any. I have no traumatic memories from my ponderous eons of non-existence.

I imagine that what happens after you die is very similar; I say this because this is my only frame of reference. And regardless of whatever happens after death, that “whatever” goes on forever. For eternity. For comparison, 15 billion years cannot even suck the distant after-vapors of eternity as it passes. Whatever death is, it is infinite. And so as my client lay crumpled against a lamppost those months ago after your alleged victim punctured his lung, and as his vision narrowed into tunnels as the ambulance screamed up the street, he caught one of the first glimpses that a person gets of the infinite before tumbling into its maw.

When you see the infinite, you see how everything else means very little in comparison. It is only when the marvels of medical science pull one back into the world of the living that one goes back to caring about his phone, his chain, his colors, his gang, his dope, or any of the pointless, transient things that preoccupy the blip of time between chasms of nothingness that we call “life.”

And that is why my client felt less fear as he was dying than he now feels at the hands of this jury. Death waits to welcome us all with open arms. That jury, holding the fate of his future, looks at him with fear and disgust. Can you imagine anything worse?

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

Dear Norm…

Dear Norm:

How do you defend people when you know they are guilty?

Sincerely,

Gill T.

Dear Gill:

Believe it or not, I appreciate this question. I appreciate it every time it is asked, because it gives me the opportunity to correct what I expect are cherished misconceptions about how our “justice system” actually works.

Your question is more complex than you may have expected. There are both practical and philosophical ways to understand my duty to defend the accused.

1) Just because a client is guilty of SOMETHING doesn’t mean he’s guilty of EVERYTHING the DA has accused him of doing. On the night of their respective arrests, my clients were likely not involved in the type of activity that would be considered “innocent.” Yes, one client may have kiestered (yep, it’s a verb) several grams of crystal meth into the jail, but he insists that it was for his own “personal” use. A client may have stabbed a rival gang member in the stomach and then in the neck, but the screeching of his brakes before he jumped out of his car to do the deed shows that it was hastily-conceived murder, not “premeditated” murder. There are many ways for a DA to charge the same act, and the punishments vary wildly depending on which penal code sections they decide to hurl at my client. Often, the state will accuse my client of the most that they think they can convince a jury into believing, not what my client actually did. (So not fair!) If the DA’s office charged my clients with what they actually did, many of my clients would likely confess and thereby save a whole pile of tax dollars. Just because my client is guilty of something doesn’t mean that he’s guilty of everything he’s accused of doing. And that’s where I come in.

2) The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the accused the right to counsel. An additional two rights belong to the client and the client alone: the right to a jury trial (or to plea to the charges), and the right to testify (or not) at that trial. In order to make those rights more than lifeless scribblings on discolored parchment at the National Archives, the court appointed lawyer needs to table his or her tender sensibilities and find something worth saying in the event that your guilty client decides that he doesn’t want to plea. Basically, how I feel about my client is completely irrelevant to the job I have to do.

3) When you spend enough time with a person, especially in a confined space, it is fairly easy to remind yourself that this human being is not different – in any meaningful way – from every other human being that you have known. When my clients share even a tiny sliver of their life story with me, I quickly realize that very few of their personality defects or social pathologies would not have been remedied by having access to more money and at least one caring adult during their formative years. It is not uncommon for people who are abused to later abuse others or to be a victim of abuse. (This isn’t true of everyone, but the more disadvantaged a person is, the likelier this outcome will occur.) So my client beat up a rival gang member, and the other kid almost died. I admit, that’s pretty bad. But where was the “justice” system when my client’s stepdad was beating him as a 13 year old while his mom looked on? Why weren’t my tax dollars being used to educate him so that he has legitimate opportunities for employment? What “choices” did my client actually have to avoid his current situation? Answer this question again knowing that minorities are overrepresented in prison populations. Shouldn’t his punishment be reduced in proportion to our (society’s) responsibility?

I also remember that my client’s opponent is the STATE OF CALIFORNIA, which includes: a small army of police officers, several hives of district attorneys, laboratories of criminalists, and a vast reservoir of out-of-touch retirees to serve as jurors. My clients will be sentenced according to laws that were passed by ballot initiative, i.e. by voters who love double-digit sentences but hate the taxes necessary to house what will become it’s geriatric prison population with some semblance of dignity. Yeah, my client may be guilty, but in many cases the potential punishment is even more appalling than whatever crime he committed. Also, this carries more when you remember my previous point: my client’s family may have always been working against him, too. Often, I am the only person on my client’s side who is thinking of his best interest. With my juvie clients, I sometimes got the impression that I was the only adult ever to have done so.

All right, up until now, I’ve kind of avoided the question. This is because abstract existential issues don’t come up in my day-to-day assignments. In fact, the only client who ever gave me the “willies” was passed off to another lawyer when I changed assignments. But I would have defended him with my very best effort. Here’s why:

The adversarial system is in place so that innocent people are kept out of jail. I presume my clients are innocent. Even if I know otherwise, I am still obligated to act as though (because if I can’t, who else will?). If a guilty client goes free, it means something went wrong in the system: the wrong person was arrested, the evidence was seized illegally, my client was too deranged to know what he was doing was wrong, or the DA screwed something up.

In short, if the system is working properly, I should not win. And if my client is found guilty despite my best efforts, then our society has the satisfaction and peace of mind knowing that we don’t put innocent people in jail without giving them a fair shot. (In theory.)

I trust the justice system to do it’s job. For the system to work, everyone has to do their job and do it well. This means that cops do good police work and don’t resort to harassing citizens. This means that DA’s charge clients with what they actually did instead of trying to trump up charges or use dirty tricks to get promoted faster. (Or, that they actually try cases instead of settling for lesser charges. You might see how this particular fault doesn’t upset me too too much, but it should you!) This means that judges are impartial and enforce the law. This means that I do my best to provide a defense for the accused. I’m only one part of the larger whole.

In short, everything else in society is designed to rain moral judgement (and shocking consequences) upon a client’s head; perhaps his lawyer can be the one person who can restrain the urge to judge him?

I hope that this answered your question, dear reader. Other readers (dear or otherwise) should feel free to submit questions themselves. Informed readers make for better voters and jurors; my future clients will appreciate that.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre