Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Children in Handcuffs...and Shackles

This story bothers me. It shouldn't be true. But it is.

But I think what bothers me more is the amount of people on the web that think this is a joke, an April Fool's Day prank. It just couldn't be true. People, we couldn't make this stuff up!!

I guess none of those people read this story in the Orlando Sentinel. If we shackle them in court, I don't understand why handcuffing them when they are arrested it such a shock to people.

Or maybe I've just become jaded.

I hate reading the paper...

Aside from the fact that I get genuinely depressed by reading about all the war, death, destruction, and turmoil in the world, I really hate reading the local paper. Why is it that small town newspapers always have a "Police Blotter" section?

After working here for a while as a PD, reading the Police Blotter is like old home week. Seeing the police have arrested the client that failed to appear after paying off a bad check. When if the client had only shown up, the case would have been dismissed. Now they not only have to deal with the bad check case, but they had crack in their pocket when they were arrested.

There is a really crappy ruling from the Supremes. I think it should be required reading for anyone that is arrested before they are allowed to be released from jail. Basically goes on for several pages to say this: If you get arrested for a new charge while you are out on bond, you get held in jail with no bond.

Makes sense that if you are in trouble once, it's only going to get worse if you get in trouble again. But you should see the saucer-sized eyes I get when I explain to the client that they are now sitting in jail until their case is done, simply because they wanted that one last hit of crack before they go on drug offender probation.

They act like I can't possibly be telling the truth. I really need to start trying to take myself back to before I went to law school, before I was "taught to think like a lawyer." But I seem to recall the LSAT was made up of a lot of logic questions. And I did ok on that. So maybe it is something that I've always had.

It just doesn't seem to me that it should be that foreign of a concept. I've read the bond paperwork. Even the bondsman won't keep you out if you get in trouble again while you are on his bond. But I go through that same concept several times a week, always to the same reaction.

And before anybody reads this, and jumps on my case about my light-hearted, or heartless, comment about someone with a cocaine addiction, don't. I know perfectly well that an addiction is not something that you just walk away from. I spend my days trying to get every one of my drug clients into rehab, not only for them, but so I don't have to have them as a client again. Not that they are bad people that I never want to see again, but under different circumstances would be preferable.

But I got off track. I hate reading the paper.

It brings me back to the reality of the job I've chosen. It is hard to not notice all the crap in the world. But sometimes, reading the rest of the paper, I am able to step back from the feeling that I hold peoples' futures in my hands. When you deal daily with one of the "realities" nobody else wants to deal with, being reminded that there is one more, or ten more, futures added to the mix is occassionally gut-wrenching. But it also reaffirms why I do what I do, and to all those citizens who bad-mouth the Public Defender, as this post does, why our jobs are necessary.

Monday was a good day...and Tuesday wasn't bad.

I had an old friend come into town Monday. He's a former public defender, now working for a prosecutor's office in a small county. So small there are only three prosecutors for the whole county. Well, there are supposed to be three. But one is out on maternity leave. So that leaves two.

Anyway, he moved about three months ago, and had to come back to testify at a trial. We sat all day and talked, about his new job, and about some of the clients he left behind when he left. He's my best friend and I really miss him. But it was great to see him. Later he and I and our respective spouses all went out for dinner and spent a couple of more hours talking. During dinner, you could see the eyes of our spouses glazing over. We fell right back into our earlier discussion about clients and jobs, law school and bar exams.

I love my husband dearly. The greatest thing that ever happened to me. And it's really a good thing that he's not involved in the law. It does allow me a little break from constantly thinking about what clients I need to see, what tasks I have to complete at the office, etc. And I believe he does understand, to a certain extent, what my job is like. He has spent many a night listening to me bitch and complain about clients, prosecutors and judges. He couldn't help but learn something about every aspect of my job. But unless you have done this, you can never really comprehend everything. I love having a lively discussion over great food with another attorney who has been exactly where you are and can acutely identify with every little feeling you have. Which is what my friend and I did. As I've said, I really miss him. There are other attorneys in my office, sure. But he and I just hit it off instantly. And it sucks that he's not around anymore.

Tuesday, back to the same grind. Sort of.

My friend had to head back home, and came by the office to say good-bye. That put kind of a downer on the day. Then I had to head to court. Thank goodness...a light day.

I took care of my clients, argued with the state, and got the judge to see things my way once or twice.

Then...the topper of my day. I was leaving court, and was stopped by a tall, well-dressed gentleman that asked if I had a moment to speak to him. I assumed he was the father or husband of one of my clients, so I put on my nice face and said sure.

Turns out, he was the victim of a client of one of my office partners. He said he had been to court four times because of the case, and he had an opportunity to observe what goes on in court. And he just wanted to let me know that he was impressed with everything that we, public defenders, had to deal with on a daily basis, and admired us for doing it.

I politely thanked him and walked back to my office. It's nice to hear that every once in a while. Not as nice as to hear it from my clients. But to have my job acknowledge by anyone makes me realize how important my job is. And why I do it.

Then, back at the office, I get a message from a client that she wants to appeal a case she entered a plea to. Said she entered the plea just to get out of jail, and that she really isn't guilty of the charge. I will have to explain to her that we can only appeal the judgment and/or sentence of the court, not her guilt, since she entered a plea to an offer by the state.

I think I'll do that tomorrow. Don't want to lose that feeling of appreciation just yet.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A miracle worker?

Unfortunately, I'm not.

Unlike what most of my clients think.

They bad-mouth the public defender, calls us public "pretenders." Public "offenders." Mostly because we can't get their case dismissed and have the prosecutor and the judge give them a public apology. "If you were a REAL lawyer, I wouldn't be here."


If you didn't have 50 grams of meth in your house, and give the cops permission to search, your case might be dismissed.

If you didn't give the police a taped statement about the multiple times that you have had sex with your underage girlfriend, your case might get dismissed.

If you didn't blow a .249 after the police found your car up against a building and you passed out behind the wheel, your case might get dismissed.

If you didn't call your wife from the phone at the jail, with the sign below it that says "This line is monitored and recorded," asking her to tell the police that she lied and that you didn't hit her, your case might get dismissed.

But by the time I get involved, it's pretty much too late, with few exceptions. Accept it and get over it. I AM NOT A MIRACLE WORKER.

And don't write the state attorney and the judge and tell them I'm not doing anything for you. Ok, maybe I didn't spend as much time with you as you would have liked. Sorry about that. But I have 100 other people whose cases are just as bad as yours that I have to work for also.

If I could ask two things of my clients it would be this:

Give accepting responsibility for YOUR actions some thought, instead of coming up with more extensive and creative ways to try to insult me. Remember when you were little, and you broke something at home, and blamed it on your little brother or sister? And your mom found out it was actually you? And you got punished, not because of what you did, but because you blamed somebody else? What lesson did you learn from that?

And don't tell me that I don't know the law. Don't tell me I'm wrong when I tell you the prosecutor doesn't have to prove that you were intending to sell that dope to convict you of trafficking. Don't tell me that the prosecutor can't convict you of driving on a suspended license because the suspension period was up, even if you didn't go get your license back. Don't tell me that you can't be convicted of possession because the cops didn't find anything on you, even though the dope was locked in the safe in your bedroom. I didn't spend three additional years in school, LAW school, for you to tell me I don't know what I'm talking about.

Do you think that you are endearing yourself to me by insulting me? Think again.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Just another day at the office...

After struggling for a couple of days coming to terms with the fact that my client, in my opinion wrongfully convicted, will likely be going to prison, I go back to work to try and get another client out of jail. She's had the third death in her family in three years. The funeral of this very close family member is in another state. But she is being held in jail with no bond. Lots of discussions with the prosecutor, begging two different judges to hear her case on an emergency basis, and waiting for the privates, who appear sometimes to believe they are paid by the word, and she is finally seen. Pleading to an offense she says she didn't commit, because it is the only way she can get out of jail to attend the funeral. She is grateful and thanks me for my help, as does her family.

This takes a little of the sting out of the guilty verdict in the trial earlier...but not much.

After court, I return to the office to read through discovery, and letters from my clients in jail. It doesn't take long for the minimal lift from a few minutes earlier to completely deflate. The please come see me letters, the suggestions for defenses and the requests for plea offers are routine. As are the next three letters I open, unfortunately.

"You ain't doing nothing for me." "You are working for the state, not me." "You get paid to send me to prison." "I need a lawyer, not a public defender." "Public Pretender." "I'm going to get my family to hire me a real attorney." "Why can't you get me out? get me probation? get the state to drop the charges?"

Thirteen letters. One "I understand you are busy, but please come see me." Every other one contains some derogatory comment or slur, even if it's not the entire letter.

And then the one that kind of cracks me up. The one that wants to know how the police could arrest them and the court could hold them when they have no evidence of a crime, much less that they committed the crime. Why is it that people who aren't new to the system believe that if they tell the police what they want to hear, the police will let them go? And why do they write letter to the prosecutor saying they know they did wrong but they have a family they have to support and need mercy? And then turn around and lie to the one person that cares if they get out of jail, the one person that is trying to help them?

Client: "I never told the police I did anything!"
Me: "Did you give them a statement? They say you did."
Client: "No way! I know better than that!"
Me: "Then what is on this tape that I got? The tape that says 'defendant statement'?"
Client: "I don't know."
Me: "Well, here's the transcript. This is what they say you said on this tape."
Client: "I never said that. They faked that transcript. I bet the tape is blank and they will say there was a problem with copying it."
Me: "Well, I've got a tape player. Let's give it a try."
Client: "Uh....ok."
tape starts playing
Client: "That's not me."
tape continues with client giving name, birthdate and SSN
Client: "Well, they didn't read me my rights! I didn't know I didn't have to talk to them!"
tape continues, Miranda, and "you understand you don't have to talk to me, right?"
Client: "Shit. I didn't know they were recording that. I was just trying to go home. None of that is true. They can't use it if it's not true, right?"

Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence. And the client wonders why the prosecutor feels they have a good case!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sometimes I hate this job...

That's not true. Really, it's not. I love my job. It's so frustrating though! Seeing the same clients over and over and over again, same crime, different victim, same crime, different drug, same crime, different location, yada, yada.

But today has to be the most frustrating kind of day. The occassional client that you get that you believe really is innocent, not just not guilty. Because the case has been around a while, you develop a sort a relationship, almost a friendship with the client. A case that hangs around for a while, because of an obstinate state attorney bordering on unethical. The state attorney offers misdemeanors, client thinks it over, and decides to go to trial. And the jury comes back guilty as charged.

I have been told on more than one occassion that the thing that makes me feel the way I do right now is the same thing that makes me good at what I do. I care. Sometimes I feel like just walking away. It is really agonizing to watch a client you have come to know, and actually like, be placed in handcuffs and led off to the jail. To have them thank you as they are being led away, the occassional client that actually appreciates you for what you do. And always will appreciate you.

Is it possible not to feel discouraged with the system? To not feel that you can't compete with a society whose motto appears to be "guilty until proven innocent?" To not want to throw in the towel and go to the high-priced corporate law firms where you deal with dollar signs instead of lives? Numbers instead of families?

And to know that you have no time to mourn this loss, because there are 100 more clients just like the one that you couldn't save from jail, that need to be defended. And know that it will probably be another 100 clients (or more) before you get another thank you?

Sometimes I hate my job...