Thursday, April 29, 2004

Really, Really Dumb Clients

This blog is not about ripping on clients. That being said, there are a couple of realities here that must be shown:

1) Most non-public defenders do not know about the inner workings of our job, and don't realize the characters we deal with. Sure you can have contacts with the same population of people (either socially, professionally, or, less fortunately as a victim), but likely you will not deal with them in the same manner as we do. This means that if you are friends with people who use public defenders, they will not act the same way to you as they do towards us (for better or worse), the same as if you are a DA or Judge, or a social worker, or a co-worker. We see a side of people that most never see, this is part of what makes our job very fun and interesting.

2) Much of our job entails this personal interaction with fascinating people. As much as writing motions, arguing in court, jury trials, or any other aspect of our job, we spend time talking with these people in terrible positions who react in dramatically different, and often bizarre manners. I'm not just talking about poor minorities, lest anyone think this is where I'm going. I've dealt with wealthier defendants on occasion, and I've certainly read about them. I see little difference between some of my clients and Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, OJ Simpson, Jason Williams, Courtney Love or many other high profile defendants.

Thus, one of the major parts of my job that I love recounting are what David Letterman may call "Stupid Defendant Tricks." Today was a classic one.

Client is charged with various charges that can land him in prison for 30 or more years (serving 85% of that sentence, no "soft" time here). At prelim, the DA tells me that the witnesses to the most serious charges have moved out of state, but they will proceed nonetheless and push it to trial (they do not need the witnesses for prelim, they can proceed using the policeman's recounting of what the victim told him) unless the defendant wishes to plead to a lesser charge right now. Instead of making a 12 year (at 85%) offer to the serious charge (the mandatory minimum), they will offer a plea to the other charge they can easily make for 5 years (serving as little as 50% of the time). If my client was charged only with the less serious charge and not the more serious charge, the offer would be a poor offer, but not out of the question (his max was still 9 as to the lesser charge). However, since he is avoiding 85% time and the serious charges, it is a great deal. I tell him that, he says no, he wants the same offer as the co-defendant (who has no record and is offered probation). I tell him it's not in the cards. We do the prelim, he's held to answer on all charges, the case proceeds towards trial.

I visit him in jail, and he's mad at me for not getting him a 1 year deal, and says he wants to fire me and get another state appointed attorney (in California a "Marsden" motion, something that I have never seen succeed, although frequently tried). We go to court, the DA re-offers the 5 years, in front of my client I counter with 1, she declines. Now my client runs the Marsden motion, which is denied (of course), so he says that he wants to go pro-per (represent himself). The judge grants him pro per status, and I'm taken off the case.

A week later, 2 days before trial is supposed to begin, I'm called by the Court, where my client has asked to withdraw his pro per status and have an attorney appointed, so the Judge re-appoints me. I talk to my client, who tells me that he would like the 5 years. I speak with the DA, and guess what she says?

Sorry, no deal, I subpoenaed the witnesses, they are flying in from out of state, and the offer is now 12 years (at 85%). My client begs, no dice.

So, we'll see what happens. 12 years is the minimum to one count, but if convicted at trial, other enhancements would make the minimum 22 years. I can almost predict what happens from here. My client rejects 12 asking continuously for 5, the DA keeps saying no. We start trial, my client gets really scared and says he'll take the 12, but that offer is now off the table, and the offer is something like 18 or 20. My client says no way, but he'll take 12. We keep going, he says he'll take 18, the DA or Judge says too late in the trial, we're going all the way through. My client is convicted and he gets 30 years.

I can see it now, and it's a pity, but it's reality.

A frequent refrain from clients (including this one) is something to the effect of "I've talked to a lot of guys in here [jail] and they got less time than they're offering," or "I know that they are making a high offer now, and if I push it all the way they'll come up with a better offer than this." After this case is over, if, as expected, my client gets a huge amount more time than he was first offered, I want him to do his time in the local jail instead of in state prison so he can relay his story to all future defendants about the cost of stupidity and not trusting your lawyer. Alas, that won't happen, rather he'll blame it all on me.

How's that for a dose of reality about this job?

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