12 May 2004

A Week in the Life of a Criminal Defense Attorney

Monday: In the morning I go to a court wherein my client's charge is raised from unlawful wounding to malicious wounding. Client was originally going to testify against codefendant but that didn't happen so his deal for a lesser charge went away. Client's trial is put off and his Codefendant is having a jury trial for malicious wounding on this day. The trial is over a fight. Client had done something first but the most egregious event of the fight was when Codefendant jumped on Victim and whaled on him with a beer bottle.

Codefendant's attorney tries to talk me into going to trial with him that day but I have little confidence in Codefendant's claim that he was justified in hitting the Victim over the head - and cutting him - with a beer bottle because victim had grabbed onto him first and would not let go. So after we put off my client's case I leave to go file some paperwork at another court and take care of some jail visits.

Tuesday: In the morning I call the court to see how Codefendant's jury trial went. A couple minutes later I am in absolute shock. The jury found Codefendant only guilty of Assault and Battery and sentenced him to only 30 days in jail (compared to the 5 years mandatory the jury would have had to sentence for malicious wounding). A sound decision the day before not to go to trial now appears - with the help of 20/20 hindsight - to be a disastrous decision. Calamitous. While I am a great believer in juries, the odds of getting that same result with a totally different jury, even though my client is far less culpable, are small. My client may be doomed to an unjust result because I made a sound tactical decision. How wonderful.

I, once again, travel 2 hours to visit my federal client in the case where nothing has happened because everything keeps getting put off because the family is hiring another attorney. This meeting lasts longer but the result is the same: I leave without anything being accomplished and drive the two hours back.

Wednesday: My only court case for this day is a sentencing hearing on a pretty standard possession of cocaine charge. It's a residue case and, although the sentencing guidelines recommend 3-6 months, my client has been accepted into a strict drug treatment program which the court oversees; I am hopeful for probation and mandatory program attendance. The only problem is that when I walk into the courtroom there is a class of High-Schoolers sitting there watching the proceedings. This is never good news for a Defendant. I get up and make my pitch about how it would be better to send Client to the program and put him on probation rather than warehouse him at the expense of the taxpayers and the detriment of his multiple children and his wife. Then the prosecutor, who often might not even choose to speak on such run-of-the-mill case, stands up and makes an impassioned plea to throw my client in jail to punish him for the evils he has inflicted upon society. The judge looks down and starts into a stern lecture of my client about how he hears people pleading the effects of jail on their families but how nobody seems to think about that when they commit the crime. Then he sentences my client to probation and orders him into the program. Because my client is the last one for the judge that morning, the judge, the prosecutor and about 4 defense attorneys stay and answer the kids' questions. Most are pretty standard but at one point, in answering a question, I opine that the Virginia system is wrong because it is biased against people exercising their right to a jury. The defense attorney standing to my left actually physically jumps away from me when I say this (while looking at the judge).

Thursday: In the morning I have another sentencing hearing. This time it's a guy convicted of possession with intent to distribute less than 5 pounds of marijuana and the recommended sentence is probation; he has also been accepted into the local court-overseen drug treatment program. The only problem is that my client has missed a lot of meetings he was supposed to have with pretrial services for drug screenings. Client gets probation and the program but the judge gives him 10 days to serve over weekends for contempt because of the pretrial problems. As we are standing out in the hall afterwards, when a deputy and the court clerk walk up Client starts telling them how great a guy I am: "I came to court with about 8 different reasons why I missed pretrial meetings but Mr. Lammers told me that he wasn't going to say all that to the judge because all that could do was make him angry and I wouldn't get my program. And he was right! You know, my paid attorneys in NY would come speak to me five minutes before trial and then go out and talk to the judge like they forgot everything I told them. Mr. Lammers listened to me and figured out the best thing to do. And he's only a court appointed attorney!" Right up to that last statement my head was swelling a little bit but when he said the last line with a confused look on his face Client managed to bring me back to Earth.

The afternoon is a little busy. One of my clients pleads guilty to a felony DUI and has her driving suspended charge dropped. Another of my clients waives his preliminary hearing in order to get a charge dropped and another reduced to a lesser felony. A third client comes to court his 5th time on a bad check charge and, after the prosecutor refuses to agree to any further delays, the money to pay restitution magically appears. He gives it to me and the prosecutor amends his charge to a misdemeanor with all his jail time suspended. After court I drive down to the store to pay off my client's restitution. The store won't take it because the lady at customer service doesn't know how and she cannot get a manager. So I leave and mail it to them later.

While I'm driving around the federal prosecutor calls and tells me that while my client has me in limbo the AUSA went and got a superseding indictment which increases Client's jeopardy. I also get a call from David Boone (in the Richmond pond, I'm probably a bluegill while Mr. Boone is a whale) who is calling to tell me that he has not been hired by the federal client. I'm a little impressed he returned my call personally as I had expected I'd probably get a call from his secretary. He even extends the courtesy of offering to let me use his office when I'm in Richmond for federal court. Gotta admit that this caught me a little off guard and I think I said something brilliant like, "Really? Well thanks a lot." Fortunately, at this point I pulled into the store's parking lot to go offer the check and had to get off the phone before I was able to further dazzle him with even more of my conversational repertoire.

Friday: Today I am scheduled to go to a Continuing Legal Education seminar in Northern Virginia. About 5 a.m. I get up, walk the dogs, shower, and throw on some comfortable clothes. A little after 6 a.m. I stumble out of my apartment, get in the car and start driving. The first couple hours of the drive are spent with my foot jamming the pedal to the floor in a barely successful attempt to keep from getting run over by semis and SUV's. Then traffic stops. I spend the next 40 minutes traveling somewhere between 5mph and 0mph. I finally reach a turnoff which goes to a road on my path and get off the interstate - 45 minutes later I have traveled the back roads to get where I need to be. I walk in 30 minutes late and, of course, there are absolutely no seats in the back three rows. I have to find a seat on the row second from the front while a judge is speaking (wonderful). It was an interesting CLE although it was a little basic and more oriented toward the civil side (nobody really spoke from a criminal law perspective except the judges). By far, the more interesting and useful parts were those done by the judges. Heck, at one point Judge Humphreys even recommended How Appealing to the assembled lawyers.

As the CLE ends, I ask the lady next to me if there's any way to avoid the traffic jam on my way out of the DC area. She opines that I would be better off going across the street and watching a movie and then travel South after rush hour. So I go over and watch Laws of Attraction. When the movie ends at 7 p.m. the advice seems to have worked; 495 is moving at a brisk pace. As I drive along two things stick out. First, DC radio channels don't often play music - all they have are DJ's who prattle on and on and on. Second, it is a bit disconcerting to be driving along in the right hand lane and see signs which say "Hazmat Trucks Keep Right." Then I get to I-95 and the traffic is jammed from the off-ramp to about half way to Fredericksburg. Aaaarrgggg!!!!! But eventually I get home - at around 10:30 p.m.

And thus ends another week.

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