Thu Feb 26th, 2009 at 03:27:36 PM EST
Its an odd job being a criminal defense attorney. In the State of California those of us employed by the state to provide indigent defense on a regular basis generally work in Public Defender offices. I have worked in my county's Public Defender office for over 20 years. It can be a brutal job, and one that forces you to confront the very worst in people, politics, and law. Some cases are worse than others, of course, in some there is nothing but tragedy all round. I currently-and I earnestly hope, permenantly, work with kids at the Juvenile Justice level, but there was a time when I was involved in Capital (death penalty) cases. This is a tangent of the story of one of them.I have edited this to try to remove identifying characteristics for the client's privacy.
Stipulate this, that there was a very brutal man with a long record; that he killed a woman in such a fashion that the crime was punishable by the death penalty. We were appointed to the case and I was on the defense team. I have been in many a jail cell with many people and have generally not thought too much about it on a personal level, but with this client that was not the case-I felt like a lion-tamer must when he goes into the cage with a new lion. We talked in generalities at first, and I tried to establish some bond of trust between us. The difficult thing is that in order to do this you have to be honest, and the honest picture of his case was exceedingly grim. We had a good team, including the finest attorney I know of as the lead attorney, but the facts were clear and few of them favored us.
It quickly became apparent that this was not going to be a case where we fought on the grounds of guilt or innocence, it was going to be a sentencing case from the start and we were trying to save this guy's life. That left us trying to get Life without possibility of Parole. Not something that really excites the imagination of a defendant and it certainly doesn't endear you to him to have to shoot down theory after theory that he puts up trying to concoct a defense.
With the help of a good social historian and a good Psychologist we developed the story of the defendant from childhood on, and a sad and appalling history it was. Some outstanding lawyering by the lead attorney resulted in some good pre-trial rulings on evidence that favored us and in the end we were offered a plea bargain that included dropping the Death Penalty allegations and pleading to Life Without Parole.
Last week the lead attorney forwarded a letter from the client. I would like to share part of that letter with you.
The last time we saw one another, in 1992, was at the new city jail, where, after I had been handed a LWOP [Life Without Parole] sentence, you advised me to make a life for myself. For years I ignored that advice; opting instead to spend my time smoking pot, participating in racial riots, fighting and knifing skinheads and Serrenos (sic)[Southern Based gang members, generally hispanic], and just being a general recalcitrant (or, as the guards had described, an 'asshole'.
But that drugged-out and violent existence gradully (sic) diminshed following the passing of my [deleted family members]. After -'s passing I took a long look at my life, where I was at and where I wanted to be, and for the first time was confronted with what I was and everything I'd done. I couldn't ignore the truth about myself anymore and what I saw made me turn away in horror...."Finalyy, I understood why the representatives of the State wanted to put me to death. Once I acknowledged my past behavior, all the blood I'd spilled and the people whose lives I'd unlawfully and immorally taken, the forces of evolution began to act on me. I began to evolve from the unthinking, uncaring, and violently destructive brute I'd been and into a human being....
The [-] you knew fifteen or so years ago is dead, Steve. He was a killer, a liar, a thief, bully, and what have you. I slew him and, in doing so, found myself, the man within."
My client will never leave prison physically, but maybe he has left a sterner prison mentally-I don't know.
Added: Thanks for your kind words everyone. These are hard cases to live through, and not pleasant to talk about to others. NN
Again, thanks for the kind words and kudos for those attorneys who stay in the pressure cooker. The real praise in this story goes to the lead attorney in the matter who never flagged or failed to fight for his client.