ambivalent imbroglio home

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June 07, 2004

WIR #3: When clients are crazy

Week three of the public defender summer internship was short but eventful. I feel I'm settling in a little, getting more comfortable with feeling lost, perhaps. After three weeks, I'm impressed and surprised with the human pace of the work. The attorneys in the office stay quite busy and there seems to be plenty of work to keep a posse of interns busy, as well, yet only a handful of the attorneys seem to stay late or come in too early, and the atmosphere of the office is serious but not oppressive or too fast-paced. I'm sure not all public defenders enjoy this kind of pace, and I'm sure it feels different as an attorney than it does as an intern, but so far it seems that the promise is true that this sort of law practice is less all-consuming of time and energy than BigLaw.

Highlights of this week included some fireworks in court, a crash course in criminal procedure, and a visit to jail.

The fireworks in court were shocking, really, from the perspective of someone learning about and considering becoming a public defender. First, I watched as one of our attorneys (a public defender) entered the lockup adjacent to the courtroom to confer with a client prior to that client's appearance in court. Through the closed door, we could hear the client yelling at the attorney, and several minutes later she emerged looking stunned and on the verge of tears. She immediately left the courtroom, and I soon learned that outside in the hall she had passed the verge and was crying, after her client verbally attacked her competence and intelligence. Apparently she didn't feel physically threatened because the client was restrained in his cell, but she was still seriously shaken by his yelling. Later, after the attorney had recovered, her client emerged and asked to represent himself. I'm told that usually this judge would be loathe to grant such a request, and would usually order the public defender to act as assistant counsel to the pro se defendant. Not this time. The judge lectured the client on how stupid he was for giving up such good representation, and then granted his request. The public defender didn't mind.

The same day, one of "my" attorney's clients (by "my" attorney, I mean the attorney I'm working for this summer) showed up for trial in an apparently "altered" state of mind. Long story short, he tried to dismiss his own charges by signing a dismissal order as if he were the judge. "But that has no authority," my attorney told him.

"No authority?" he asked. "I put my copyright on there, it's authority."

"But the judge will know he didn't sign it."

"I am the judge!"

Ok. So my attorney told the client she was going to have to raise the question of his competence before the judge, the client got angry and said he was going to ask for different counsel, my attorney said fine. Then, while waiting for the case to be called, the client decided to leave the courthouse. He just took off. Not a good day.

I rushed through that story, but trust me, it was a pretty crazy experience. How can you help people as an attorney if they try so hard to make it impossible for you to help them?

The crash course in crim pro was just that, about four hours covering the basics of how to run a case from the time an attorney meets a client to trial. I was shocked by the degree to which state legislatures are free to depart from federal rules and procedures, and the degree to which states are free to stack the deck against defendants when it comes to rules of evidence and discovery. Although prosecutors have an ethical duty to provide all exculpatory evidence to the defense, they don't always do so. What's worse, according to our attorney-teacher, they're probably less likely to do so in bigger cases.

People are gonna tell the truth in a traffic case. But they might not tell the truth in a murder case—there's too much at stake.

This is consistent with small and large reminders I've picked up in the past few weeks that people working in law enforcement and criminal prosecution don't always care too much about the truth. In just three weeks, I've seen police lie on the witness stand, and I've heard prosecutors bully defense attorneys over very minor issues. Such things certainly diminish whatever respect I had for the criminal justice system, but they also increase the incentive to go into criminal defense—the need for good defenders is real.

Finally, the jail. Unfortunately, the jail will have to wait because I have to run to work. I'm sure I'll be visiting the jail again before the summer's over so I'll say more about it after I've been more than once.

I also wanted to send good wishes to my fellow 1Ls and beyond who are doing fascinating legal jobs elsewhere, but I've run out of time to track down the links so instead I'll just say: Have a good week, everyone!

See also: WIR #1 and WIR #2.

Posted June 7, 2004 05:43 AM | 1L summer

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