Life in the Public Defender’s office has been great from an education standpoint. I’ve gotten to see tons of cases (sometimes dozens a day) resulting in pleas and trials. I’ve seen cases come in, move through the system, and finish up. I’ve been able to do legal research for actual cases that involve the stupid bone-headedness you expect from life and watch how the legal process picks and chooses elements out of complicated human scenarios. I’ve interviewed clients, police, and witnesses, (supervised and on my own) and scoped out crime scenes, which has impacted (at every stage) how my attorney goes about the cases at hand. I’ve sat in on discovery and attended motions in judge’s chambers. I’ve listened in and observed other interns and attorneys researching lengthier felony trials and sat in on some spectacular jury trials for such. All this has gone a long way to reorient my ideas about how the criminal justice system operates, at least in my part of the country, and sadly, despite the valiant efforts of the office, it’s really not a pretty picture. There was a line used by the chief defender when she first sold the program to us, “No need to go abroad to deal with human rights violations, we have plenty of those right here in X.” That’s proved true.
However, today I saw something totally uplifting.
We were in circuit court for a day of appeals from the general district court. I was surprised to see the number of people who were representing themselves (misdemeanors) in front of the court. One in particular stood out – a smallish African-American man, not quite appropriately dressed in slightly ill-fitting clothing. He seemed early-50ish and looked down on his luck. He didn’t quite look homeless, but looked just one step above it: an uneducated retiree from a blue collar job living in public housing perhaps. The state brought an open container charge against him (which really prompts many questions, such as why the state would bother with the relatively immense cost of sticking with this petty charge through the appeal.) The arresting officer was there to testify and was a member of a quasi-notorious police unit referred to as “the jump out squad” by the locals. These officers cruise about in a plain van and then jump out when they spot such egregious behavior as someone sitting on a stoop, drinking from a beer bottle. More tax dollars well spent I think - arrgh. Anyway, even before the trial got rolling, things didn’t look too favorable for the Little Guy, as judges around here normally defer to the officer’s version of the story.
The trial started with the Little Guy calmly and respectfully sitting through the judge’s explanation of the process and the prosecution’s opening remarks. At this point nothing seemed odd. When the officer had finished giving his testimony in “Official Sounding Police Vernacular With Dates and Times and Locations” about giving the Little Guy a ticket for having an open container of malt liquor, things looked pretty bleak. You have to picture an enormous blue-grey courtroom with portraits of judges on the walls, nearly empty toward the end of the docket, with the prosecutor standing up in her suit, and the policeman in his uniform. The Little Guy is sitting nearly engulfed in his chair, only his shoulders and head visible. We have no idea what he will say – he could be crazy, inarticulate, stuck on a minor point of his treatment by the police which has nothing to do with the legal merits of the charge against him.
However, at this point it all changed. The Little Guy rocked back in his chair, steepled his fingers, and with just enough contempt and aggression, began rattling off a line of questions at the officer. It went something like this:
LG: You say you saw a half empty bottle of malt liquor on the sidewalk next to where I was sitting?
O: I did.
LG: It was half empty?
O: It was.
LG: Was it spilled anywhere on the ground?
O: Not that I could see.
LG: Did you see me purchase this bottle?
O: I did not.
LG: Did you see me drink out of this bottle?
LG: Did you even see me touch this bottle?
O: Um, no.
LG: Did my breath smell like liquor?
O: No, it didn’t.
LG: Did you give me a breathalizer test?
O: Uh, no.
LG: So do you have any proof that I was intoxicated?
O: Um, no, I don’t.
LG: If I wasn’t intoxicated, and the liquor was missing, where do you think it went?
O: I’m not really sure.
LG: There were other people there at the time, moving about?
O: There were.
LG: There were other people sitting down near the bottle?
O: There were.
LG: Why did you think the bottle was mine?
O: Inspector So-and-so gave me your description and said it was yours.
LG: (accusatorily) And just where is that guy?
O: (tentatively) Um. He’s not here right now. I mean, I don’t know where he is. He’s not in court.
At this point I’m having trouble not laughing aloud, watching Jump-Out Cop getting hammered on the stand by some guy they thought would be a roll-over. SurferDude, my fellow intern, sitting next to me gripping his hands together as a physical distraction throughout the whole thing, had to leave the courtroom lest he completely lose it. My attorney, sitting in front of me, leans back and whispers in a very contented way, “Awesome. Just Awesome.” I couldn’t reply since I was biting my cheek and my eyes were tearing up. But it gets better.
The judge, who has probably made up his mind at this point, leaned forward and asked in a very pro-forma way, “Do you have any evidence you’d like to present in your defense?”
“As a matter of fact, I do, your Honor. I have brought a witness.”
Cop shoots prosecutor a nervous look. Scoplaw is trying so very very hard not to break down in laughter. The witness proved to be younger than the defendant, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, and named after a President. With little prompting from the defendant, he told a story that completely aligned with the questions the defendant had asked. They systematically cut off any objection the prosecution could raise – one of my favorite lines was: “I didn’t testify at the original trial, but when I heard he was found guilty, it seemed so outrageous that I knew I should come down to the court today and testify at his appeal.” These guys were great – didn’t muff a single term, delivered everything in their southern accented, vernacular English.
The prosecution declined to cross and the Little Guy moved on to his defense, punctuated by such lines as, “Your Honor, I don’t *need* to have anyone give me malt liquor. It’s not my style. I can take care of myself that way. If I want it, I go out and buy it and drink it myself. This liquor wasn’t mine. I didn’t buy it and I didn’t drink it.”
After both parties had rested, the judge dismissed the case and I sighed a satisfied sigh. The Little Guy stood up with dignity, said, “Thank you Your Honor,” then stalked out of the court without looking at the prosecution. After seeing what prosecutors routinely get away with, I just wanted to stand up and shout, “Punked!” at them. Unfortunately, it says a lot that I felt that way – that I’d be elated such a clearly pro-defendant case would turn out in the defendant’s favor.