Wednesday, January 16, 2008

on being a public defender: reasons prosecutors make me scream

Most defense attorneys believe that, in general, prosecutors are unjustifiably arrogant about their roles and their individual capabilities.  I've become accustomed to the bravado of the courtroom and accepted the fact that they think the same of us.  Really, it's not personal.  We're just doing our jobs. 
But a surefire way to quickly and vehemently enrage me is to make it personal.  And when a prosecutor personally seeks me out to admonish me about how to represent my clients, violence ensues.
It often goes something like this:
P:  Why won't your client take a plea?
D:  He's not guilty.  He has witnesses.  As I've told you 4 times before, no plea.
P:  Ok, so what if I drop the plea down [one more notch]? 
D:  Go ahead.  Still not guilty.  Still has witnesses.  Still wants a trial.  Still no plea.
P:  But I just don't understand why he won't plead to XYZ.  I mean, you know he did it, and you have ALL THESE OTHER CASES WHERE YOUR CLIENTS REALLY NEED YOU.  It just doesn't seem right to waste our time and the court's time with a case like this.
D:  [jaw drops. violence ensues.]
I've had prosecutors tell me, several times, that I am doing all of my clients a disservice by wasting time and resources litigating certain issues.  Generally the issues I have encountered as a "waste of time" are issues such as 1. a demonstrated alibi, acknowledged by the prosecutor; 2. a procedural error by the prosecutor that results in an automatic dismissal of my client's case.  I've also been told that 3. defense attorneys are doing their clients a disservice by not making them do treatment programs when the clients need them.
I get angry when a prosecutor tells me I am wasting their time because my client refuses to concede guilt.  It is downright horrifying how much the "innocent until proven guilty" is one big *wink wink nudge nudge* in the courtroom.  I have two cases in particular where the judge has actually said as much on the transcript.  I really should have ordered those. 
But I get nearly BLACKOUT angry when a prosecutor admonishes me about the time I won't be able to spend on all my other cases that REALLY need my time.  And I get nearly blackout angry when a prosecutor tells me that I'm preventing her from helping other defendants because I'm wasting her time by litigating issues on that case.  Or when a prosecutor admonishes me for 'letting' my client get rearrested, or 'letting' my client out of jail without a program in place in the community.
I'll set aside the prosecutor's belief that I have some sort of moral influence or flat-out control over my client's life choices - that "reason Prosecutors make me scream" we'll leave for another day.  But I cannot comprehend how a prosecutor can, with a straight face, argue that a case is not worth the court's resources and then adamantly refuse to drop the case.  I cannot comprehend how a prosecutor can tell me that I am actively hurting my client's best interests by NOT advising my client to take a plea when I have at least a 75% shot of complete dismissal.  Or really, the point is, I cannot comprehend how and where a prosecutor gets off by TELLING ME I'M DOING MY JOB WRONG.
You don't have to be an attorney to know what I'm talking about.  There are people in life who always seem to think they have some higher authority.  People who are never wrong.  People who tell you, when you feel a certain way about a subjective issue, that you are wrong.  And these people are frustrating because they are locked in some small little world where things are so certain, and you are here in this much bigger world where things are not so certain, and there's nothing you can do to get them to step outside that tiny little world of theirs to take a look around at all the other things that could be.
I have received several very, very unprofessional calls or personal tirades from prosecutors calling me a liar and a cheat.  One example (and the most memorable because it was the first and most volatile) originated because they forgot to show up for a hearing scheduled by the court.  When ordered to appear, they were not prepared and then accused me of fabricating the hearing myself.  However, when asked by the judge earlier that morning, their office told the judge that they were ready to proceed on that very hearing.  I think what really happened is that they lied about being ready to proceed, and since the left hand didn't know the right hand lied, the left hand argued back that I made up the fact that the case had been scheduled for a hearing.  The tirade was so unprofessional and filled with personal insults that I considered making a complaint with the ethics committee.
I've also been accused of making up, wholesale, a conversation I had with a prosecutor.  When confronted with my screaming rage and evidence of one actual conversation in particular, the prosecutor admitted that conversation occurred but never once apologized for calling me a liar or for openly insulting not only me personally, but my professionalism and ethical duty.
There are occasions when a prosecutor's behavior is so unprofessional and ignorant that it merely reinforces the stereotype of their unjustifiable arrogance.  The real evidence of arrogance is when they think it is their place to call me and 'supervise' me personally by telling me what I, personally, should be doing for my clients and why.  Why do prosecutors think they know what's best for defendants?  That seems so strange to me.  They know nothing other than the charges written on the paper - often times they don't get around to speaking to witnesses - and yet they profess to know what's best for my client.  Furthermore, it's no secret that my job is to represent my client's express interests.  So if my client doesn't want to do what the prosecutor is suggesting, why does the prosecutor think that I am somehow a horrid attorney for working on getting my client the disposition my client wants?  It would be one thing if the prosecutor was discussing the "worth of the case" which really means, what this looks like on paper without regard to the actual specific facts of this case.  But in these instances, when accusing me of "wasting time and resources" the prosecutor makes it personal - makes it about me specifically, and about screwing over a specific defendant, and as a result I'm personally being a bad, bad attorney to all of my other clients.
This is not meant to personally insult or accuse every prosecutor of being a douchebag.  There are only a chosen few prosecutors that I believe have zero redeeming qualities, and that designation was well-earned by them individually.  Most prosecutors I respect / contempt on a case by case basis, and the prosecutors I respect are not the ones who do me favors but the ones who are professional, reasoned, and capable.  (In other words, if you're insulted by this post, it's not really about YOU.  Unless it is.  In which case, you should really REALLY think before you say something - "Is this about the facts of the case or is this me telling someone else what to do because I think I know more than everyone else?")

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

resolve: to find or be found.

I think I'm lost.

I recently went to a small political gathering and had the opportunity to discuss world politics and the presidential primaries and Benazir Bhutto's assassination and the economic and political influence of South America with a handful of people. Although I had signed up to attend, I was dreading actually attending. Who did I think I was? I hardly follow politics anymore, I'm resigned to voting third party just as a big Fuck You to our current system of government, and frankly, I'd rather do nothing at all than get all gussied up to speak with smarmy politicians. But I got there and I met earnest people doing interesting things with a variety of professions and interests and I nearly burst with happiness. I started to remember what it felt like to talk about Big Ideas and thinking about Important Things.

It made me downright giddy. I loved academia, I loved having a physical location dedicated to thinking and talking about Big Things. By the end of law school I was sick of talking and thinking and ready to do. But now "doing" is something I've had enough of, after two years of doing it and doing it and doing it well (Thanks LL Cool J) and I'm ready to start thinking again. I want to muse, to discuss, to learn. I want to stop talking about work all the time, or thinking about work all the time. I want to feel like I'm being an active participant in the world and not just going to work and coming home.

I feel like I somehow, somewhere along the way, stopped really living. I've just sort of been getting by, figuring that one day I'll stop being so busy and then have the time to live the way I want my life to be. There have been a few reasons for this. First, I met someone. Having a boyfriend was a great reason to not doing anything anymore. I have someone to lie around and watch TV with all day, someone who will order in takeout and lie in bed late into the day. Second, work took up so much of my time that in the absence of work, I wanted to do as little as possible. Third, I just sort of forgot what makes me happy, and never really thought to stop and update that list.

I learned last year, but somehow forgot again, that work cannot be the only thing in my life. It has always been important to me to work a job to which I am personally and deeply committed. But I need to remind myself that it's also ok to remember that it's just a job, in the sense that there is no way my job can encompass everything that's wonderful about the world. (As a matter of fact, being a public defender tends to encompass a lot that is deeply tragic about the world.)

I feel some long bouts of self-imposed isolation coming on. Or in the alternative, I need to switch up my scene quite a bit. Too much of my personal life is invested in work and coworkers, and too much of my work life has eclipsed any semblance of a personal life. I am ready to get out there and really participate in the world, to learn new things about people and ideas, to try things I've never done before. I'm going to commit to keeping my life and the people around me positive, and to give myself permission to release the things that are not positive, as painful as it may be. I have to keep learning and seeking and moving forward, and I'm ready to cut a bold path for myself in the world.