“What I’m Thinking About” Wednesday
June 25, 2014
How can I represent those people?
I could easily point to the Constitution and claim that it is necessary to defend individuals charged with a crime in order to maintain a free and just society. The adage that it is better that nine guilty people go free than it is for a single innocent person be convicted is reason enough. And though this is a foundational reason, for me it’s more than that.
I would start by answering the question with a question: Who are those people?
The way I see it, people are people. Those people imply that there are some individuals who are not like the person who asks the question and me. How are those people different than you and I? What is that separation that should deny them from my representation? And what is it that makes the questioner feel superior to my clients?
We live in a disposable society. If something breaks, it is often cheaper to throw it away and buy a new one than it is to fix it. And unfortunately, I believe, the mentality can make it easy or acceptable to have disposable people. We, as a nation, are becoming more isolated from each other. Our disengagement with others reduces empathy towards those that aren’t within our small circle of family and friends. I’ve met a lot of those people in my practice. They have families. They have friends. They have children. Only a few are alone or have only a handful of people who are in their immediate circle. But that doesn’t mean they are any less of a person than me.
We also live in a society fueled by media and entertainment for vengeance. If we’re struck, we must strike back. Harder. It is so ingrained in our society it feels natural. We don’t question why we were struck (or do so at superficial level that is biased towards defending one striking back – take 9/11 for example).
I cannot deny this emotion. When we returned from our honeymoon we discovered our apartment broken into and all of our new gifts gone. I’ve felt the heat for vengeance. But we mustn’t jump to conclusions.
The first on-campus event I attended in law school was sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild. They brought in three speakers who had one thing in common: they had been death row inmates, all released after several years of appeals and the culling of evidence destroying the cases against them. There, before me, sat a man who was weeks away from state execution, discussing his case, living with the conflicting feelings of being innocent but condemned to execution. Vengeance doesn’t always lead to justice. If sought hastily, it can create further injustice.
Life isn’t fair, right. I disagree with that maxim. Life is neutral. It is people that are either fair or not fair.
The police and prosecutor were not fair with Donna Goodwin. They incarcerated a poor, ailing, mature African American woman for one month. After gaining a HIPPA release from Goodwin, I spoke with her doctor. She knew Goodwin’s health and records for years, and would have never referred her to the physician on the prescription pad, mainly because she was from a competitor health care system. When I demanded video evidence or eye witness testimony of Ms. Goodwin at the pharmacy, two days before the hearing the prosecutor told me they were going to dismiss the case because they had no witnesses.
The nosy-body neighbor was not fair to Eddie Lee. She and Gerry made a false claim to get Eddie Lee in trouble. What they didn’t count on was the three witnesses that contradicted her story, and in a bench trial before the judge, Eddie Lee was found not guilty of attempted criminal sexual conduct fourth. Ms. Nosy-body took it further and filed a disorderly conduct charge against one of the witnesses who testified in the trial, who I then defended, achieving a dismissal of that charge.
The rent-a-cops at the grocery store were not fair to Scott Young. At their testimony during the preliminary examination, they claimed that they were several car lengths away when Young pulled up and stopped to pick up his mother. The judge bound the matter over, but in a Motion to Quash, the circuit court judge dismissed the assault with a dangerous weapon felony.
The probation office was not fair to Danny Hugel. I filed a motion to have Hugel removed from the Sex Offender Registry, based on a 2009 Michigan Court of Appeals decision that ruled that having to register after successfully completing HYTA before October 1, 2004 and not required to do so after October 1, 2004, was cruel and unusual punishment, contrary to the Michigan Constitution. While awaiting that hearing, the probation officer levied another frivolous probation violation against him. On a Tuesday, the hearing before the judge to remove him from the Sex Offender Registry was held, and the judge ruled in our favor. Two days later, with the new alleged crime of failing to comply with the sex offender registry and the probation violation, the charges were dismissed.
It would have been easy for these four individuals to take plea deals, or should I say, for an attorney to guide them into taking pleas. Life’s not fair, right?
So it’s a Constitutional duty, and a duty to uphold justice and fairness. But there’s one other element that I have found with most of these clients. I like them. I can relate to them. Those in jail, I don’t mind visiting them prior to our first appearance in court, to get their side of the story that they feel would go unheard but for my visit. For the four clients above – and others like them I have defended – their situation could have happened just as easily to you or to me.
I tend to root for the underdog, and when someone is charged with a crime, there is no bigger underdog. Of course, in a number of cases, the issue is not innocence or guilt, but rather damage control. The act was committed, and a sentence has to be imposed. In those cases, my goal is to get a fair sentence for the client, instead of having the book thrown at them.
People who are charged with a crime are not necessarily bad people. Should a single act define who we are? Think of some of the single acts you may have engaged in that you may not be proud of. Would you want your life to be defined by that?
This is why I defend people charged with crimes.