“What I’m Thinking About” Wednesday
June 11, 2014
The first time I met Donna Goodwin(1) she was in the Macomb County Jail. She was charged with obtaining a controlled substance by fraud. The police alleged that Ms. Goodwin brought a prescription of Vicodin to a local drug store. The pharmacy filled it, then the next day contacted the doctor on the script to determine its legitimacy. The office manager identified Goodwin as a patient, but that the prescription was not legitimate. The frail fifty-five year old, African American woman’s first statement to me was that she was glad to see me and asked me why she was there.
The other day I finished reading a collection of essays edited by Anne Smith and Monroe H. Freedman titled How Can You Represent Those People? The theme of each essay is a response to the cocktail party question asked of every criminal defense lawyer. These lawyers have defended the tough cases – murders, rapes, etc.
The first time I met Eddie Lee was at the district court house for our first pre-trial. Eddie was in his late forties. The short African American man who lived in a low income housing project, was being charged with attempted criminal sexual conduct fourth degree. It was alleged by a fifty-plus year old white neighbor that he tried to touch her lady parts. He said little to me because of his diminished capacity, but the group of six neighbors who came to court in support of him told me plenty.
As I’ve been reading the book, I pondered how I would answer that question for myself. I’m no Clarence Darrow or any of the seasoned attorneys writing these essays. My caseload comes predominantly from court appointments out of Macomb County Circuit and a few district courts involving defendants charged with crimes punishable by five years or less.
The first time I met Scott Young, it was at the district court for a preliminary examination. He was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and conspiracy to retail fraud third – a felony and a misdemeanor. It was alleged that he was the “getaway” driver for his accomplice who was attempting to shoplift from a grocery store, and that in the getaway attempt he came very near to driving his car into the plain clothes security officers following his accomplice. An African American man in his forties, Young couldn’t believe the charges as all he was doing was dropping off and picking up his mother from grocery shopping.
Is it for the money? Hardly. Michigan ranks 44th in public defense spending. In 2012, there were only 4,578 criminal cases filed in Macomb County Circuit Court, a slight increase from the previous year, but the trend has been dropping since 2008 when 6,210 criminal cases were filed (Page 28). Fortunately for me, my law practice is the gravy for our home budget. Were I to rely on my court-appointed case income alone to survive, I would qualify for food stamps.
The first time I met Danny Hugel was at court on the preliminary examination date. He was charged with two counts of failing to comply with the sex offender registry by not providing his phone number and email address. A thirty-something white male, Hugel said there was no way they could charge him with that. After he had been arrested Hugel went back to the police station and talked to the dispatcher and learned that it was probably a clerical error. I looked at his history and how he got on the registry fifteen years earlier and thought there was no way he should have been on the sex offender registry to begin with.
If not for the money, which to some would seem the only reason to go into the practice of criminal defense, then what? These are ‘bad’ people, right? Why would I, a ‘good’ person, want to defend them?
To be honest, criminal law was not the area of law I thought I’d practice. Sure, I read comic books and was immersed in the good guy/bad guy myths which might naturally lead me to seeking employment in the prosecutor’s office. But I was inspired to go to law school at the advanced age of thirty-seven – fifteen years after I graduated college – by two influences; Ralph Nader and because a bulk of the work in the legal profession involved writing. I was working in a hotel at the time, on the midnight shift as a night auditor, when new management came in and began a practice of overbooking the hotel. From what I learned on my own, the practice violated the Michigan Consumer Protection Law. I was ignored, and soon after, I left the life of midnight shift and applied to law school. I discovered Ralph Nader’s book, No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America. That was the spark. I was writing a column for a hockey publication, but having no success with publishing short stories and novels at the time, and learning that being a lawyer required a large amount of time researching and writing motions and briefs, I thought this could be a better way to direct my desire to write. That was the accelerant. The fire began.
Also, before entering law school, I realized that Gandhi had been a lawyer prior to his amazing achievements practicing nonviolence in India. The legal profession as a healing profession felt like a natural place for me. I then landed a clerk position with the City of Detroit Law Department in the Labor & Employment Section.
Law as a healing profession. Labor and Employment law. Mediation. Labor Arbitration. Collaborative Divorce. Exiting law school, I thought this was the path I was on.
Then it took a turn.
(1) All clients’ identities changed.
To be continued next week.