15 December 2003

A Week in the Life of a Defense Attorney:

05 December 2003 ~ Friday

Go to General District Court in Powhatan County for a return which is not called because my client has successfully completed his obligations and didn't have to come back to court. At 11:00 leave and drive to Richmond to go to Federal Court for a detention hearing. After a hour plus I arrive in Richmond and meet with the client in the Marshal's office. Then I go down to the courtroom and meet his family prior to court. They go into shock when they find out that the mandatory minimum for the 21 counts is 60 years (and probably more). The AUSA comes to the courtroom and makes the normal noises about how guilty the client is but otherwise seems pretty straight-forward. After the detention hearing the judge sets an arraignment time for 9 a.m. on 12 December 2003 and I have to agree to the date blindly because they took my PDA from me when I came in the courthouse and therefore did not have my calender. When I get back to my office and pick up the file to enter the date in my calender I find out that there are already two cases scheduled for that date but it's too late to do anything about it that day.

08 December 2003 ~ Monday

No court scheduled so I spend the day trying to catch up on paperwork. I download a PDF of the federal sentencing guidelines and put one of my computers to work printing the thing out. It only takes about 6 hours and when finished it looks like this:

left is Va. guidelines - right is federal (twice as big unbound)

09 December 2003 ~ Tuesday

Go to court in the city of Colonial Heights for a felony domestic assault. Meet with the new Assistant Commonwealth Attorney who seems like a decent guy. A prosecutorial witness isn't there so the prosecution is prepared to ask for a continuance but my client decides to plead guilty so he can get his case over as quickly as possible.

Go to court in Chesterfield County for a preliminary hearing on cocaine possession. Case continued because the prosecution does not have its lab in proving that the stuff actually was cocaine.

10 December 2003 ~ Wednesday

Go to the office at 5 a.m. in the morning to try and get paperwork and things done before court. Fax motions for continuances to Powhatan County prosecutor and clerk offices because I have not been able to get the federal court date / time changed.

Go to court in the morning for a really nasty case wherein my client is charged with battery for choking a woman. Prosecutor calls three witnesses during the sentencing hearing telling how he ran up and choked her. My client explains in his testimony that his action came as a reaction to someone attacking him in her name. The entire case is basically a trainwreck during which I can't do much more than stand by and watch. The highlight of the case was probably when I tried to get the judge to put my client into anger management in lieu of some of the jail time - the judge refused and basically said my client was too angry to go to anger management. Client gets the max: 12 months.

Run down to Colonial Heights for a quick motion. The prosecutor is going to move for nolle prosequi (that's a dismissal without prejudice for those of you who work in jurisdictions that use English). The whole thing should take 5 minutes. Of course, the case is not called until I've been there about a hour and half. The client leaves happy but I'm running late.

I jump in my car and head out to Orange County to meet with my federal client. The feds seem to have some unwritten rule that they must keep prisoners at least a hour and thirty minutes away from the location of the courthouse in Richmond. Driving as fast as I can (while of course, never breaking the speeding laws of Virginia), I arrive at the jail at 4:15 p.m. and am denied entrance because the jail shuts down between 4-7 p.m. I'm told to come back at 7. I leave and go look for something, anything to do to kill three hours. At this I fail miserably because the entire Town of Orange shuts down somewhere between 4:30 and 5 p.m. I think they roll up the sidewalks at 6 p.m.

So I end up at the local Hardees. I order a combo meal, set up a mini-office in the non-smoking section, and eat real slow as I go over the facts and laws and sentencing guidelines for my client. At about 20 minutes to 7p.m. I go back to the jail and can get in to see my client. The meeting is a little strange. I leave and enjoy a 2 hour drive home in a pouring rain which is about 1 degree from freezing. And one of my headlights goes out on the way home. Get home a little before 10 p.m.

Miss about 3-4 Christmas parties which various firms / Bars / Courts are having this night.

11 December 2003 ~ Thursday

Go to Chesterfield court at 8:30 a.m. and find out that the case is actually at 1 p.m. Stick around the courthouse for the morning catching up with other lawyers and deputies and officers.

Show up for 1p.m docket expecting two clients to be on the list and there are three. This is not good. I scramble around trying to figure out who the third is and finally figure out that he is a show cause on a case where another attorney had been hired about 6-8 months back and my name is on the list because of a computer error. That deals with one.

The second client is easy. The client is being released from custody in order to enter the Dual Treatment Track program which helps deal with mental problems and addictions.

The third client ain't good. He's charged with concealing a firearm and brandishing a firearm. He decides that he wants to plead not guilty. We go up and plead. The prosecutor puts on his primary witness who is a little creepy. He testifies that he sees Client waving his hand tailgating him and then realizes that Client has a gun. He testifies on cross that he can see the gun clearly despite the windows of Client's truck being tinted. He testifies with confidence that Client's gun is a silver barreled gun with a black handle. He testifies that after he calls 911 to tell them he has been threatened by someone with a gun, the dispatcher tells him to follow the person who threatened him with a gun and he proceeds to follow Client's truck thru hell and high water as Client does all sorts of lane shifts to try and shake him.

Prosecutor calls the officer who responded. Officer shows a gun which was sitting on the passenger side seat and it is an entirely black gun. Then officer shows the gun which was concealed in the back of the extended cab, in a sack, in a pouch on the wall of the cab behind the client. This gun, which could not have possibly been used by Client, matches the victim's description exactly. Hmmm . . .

I call my client. In previous discussions Client has been a little slow but lucid. When called he turns into mush. He can't string three words together. Finally, with a little bit of indulgence from the judge and prosecutor I am able to lead him thru his testimony. He says he passes a car and it starts tailgating him all thru the area. He pulls out his pistol and places it on the seat next to him because he is scared. Finally, he thinks he has lost the car and goes to his ATM machine to withdraw money to make his truck payment - and is swarmed by police.

I know Client's lost the concealment but I think the witness' suspicious statements and ID'ing a gun which could not possibly been in use have at least placed the brandishing very much in play. The judge discusses the concealment charge for a few seconds before finding guilt and then just baldly finds guilt in the brandishing without addressing any of the "interesting" parts of the witness' testimony. I'm not happy with the verdict but I bite my tongue.

Then comes the fatal question: "Tell me something about your client." This judge does that to me every so often and I think I have something of worth to tell him about 1 out of every 4-5 times. Sometimes I've nothing because my client has just gotten out of a couple of months in jail, is unemployed, and lives at a motel we all know is a drug hangout. More often, it is because the client never comes to see me (despite my weekly open office hours from 2-5 on Fridays) and I only get the information from him on the fly when we come to court on his trial date. Most often the excuse for not having come to see me is work. So, I turn to the Client and ask him where he works. "I used to work at . . ." And it just went downhill from there. I knew my client's criminal record so the judge asks me what is on his traffic record (even though it is inappropriate to ask a Defense counsel about his client's record because counsel is not supposed to reveal what his conversations with his client might have revealed and Defense counsel does not have easy access to official records as prosecutors do). The judge sends the prosecutor to go get the official record and the three speeding convictions are introduced. The judge calls the guy's mother out of the gallery and asks her questions which basically reveal what is obvious to all in the court: the Defendant is slow but not mentally deficient in any way which would effect competence or legal sanity.

By the time I leave the court I am ready to spit nails. I kept my mouth shut and bit down pretty hard on my tongue but I'm afraid it did not do much good. I'm light skinned and when I become upset I turn red, when I become very upset my ears turn red too and I can feel them burning. My ears started burning from about the moment that the judge pronounced guilt and kept going until I walked with my client back to the holding area so he could start serving the 6 months the judge sentenced him to serve. The case is now being appealed to the Circuit Court.

When I arrive back at the office there are messages. I put out a couple fires and then the very last message is one from another attorney who has been hired by the family of my federal client to take my place (because it's always better to pay $10,000 to get the same result with a "paid" lawyer). By the time I calm down and get everything finished for the day it's after 9 p.m. and I realize that I have missed another Christmas party a firm was having that night.

12 December 2003 ~ Friday

In office at 5 a.m. Realizing that I have not received a fax copy of the judge signing an Order continuing my State court cases I send a fax to the clerk's office in Powhatan County telling them that if they have not continued the cases to please hold them because I expect the substitution in federal court to be quick and I will probably be able to make it to Powhatan by 10:30 to handle my cases.

I leave for federal court about a hour early because I expect to get caught in commuter traffic. Of course, there is none and I get to the courthouse 35 minutes early. I go to the cafeteria and drink a cup of coffee. Then, when I go back to the courtroom I realize I've gone to the wrong one and, with the help of a Marshal, I figure out which court I'm supposed to be in and rush over there. I get substituted out and watch the whole 5 minute arraignment wherein the Defendant pleads not guilty to all charges and then his new attorney sets a disposition date about 3 weeks out (meaning that the Defendant is probably going to plead guilty).

Then I burn rubber for Powhatan County (once again never exceeding the posted speed limit). I get there about 10:20 and realize that one of my clients was not shipped while the client who was on bond is present. After I've been sitting there for about 10 minutes, the judge stops in the middle of his docket and tells me that my cases were continued so I don't have to stay.

I return to my office and spend a glorious afternoon cleaning because I must be in the office between 2-5 p.m. for open office hours. Nobody showed up but I was there.

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