Sunday, July 17, 2011

Working for the Public Defender

My first day at the office of the public defender, my attorney was late. She showed up minutes before we were scheduled to be in court wearing gaudy red pumps, a black suit, and swearing like a sailor. “Call me Julie,” she replied to my stilted questions directed to “Ms. Charles.” On the way to the courtroom, she railed against the prosecutor's office, specifically, the attorney she was facing down that morning. “She is – pardon the expression – a bitch,” Julie said, dropping her voice just slightly. I nodded, I hoped, sympathetically. The officer Julie was scheduled to cross examine she referred to as “a cocksucker.” Again, I nodded. Prior to accepting this internship, I had worried about the strong ideological bent of the public defender's office. At a brown bag lunch I attended my 1L year, a PD attorney recruiting law clerks responded to a question about his sources of motivation by thundering at us, “There’s a war going on here, people, and if you don’t see that, I don’t know what to tell you!” It was pretty clear he was not talking about Iraq.

Before coming to law school, I lived in a low income, majority minority neighborhood in Austin, TX for about 10 years. I had many interactions with police and crime. I experienced firsthand how police can denigrate, undercut, or ignore concerns from residents of “bad” neighborhoods. I remember being told by a police officer that there was nothing he could do about the crime in our neighborhood, and how hopeless I felt when he advised me to move if I didn’t like living around the corner from a crack house. I remember asking a different officer to do something about a prostitute meeting johns in front of my house. With a voice full of distain, he said to me, “Do you know how hard it is for me to arrest a prostitute?” Then he turned back to his coffee and conversation with the clerk at the corner store.

I had no doubt that there are some really bad officers out there, a few psychos or bullies, as in any profession. But I also had dealt with good police officers – ones who came to neighborhood meetings, and sat patiently through litanies blaming them for official racism undertaken before they were even born. After a drug dealer threatened me with a gun, I broke down in tears in front of a kind female officer who listened sympathetically to my complaint. She wrote everything down and told me she’d drive around the neighborhood looking for the guy based on my vague description, even though we both know this would probably be a waste of her time.

Basically, before coming to the PD's office, I felt like I had a pretty realistic outlook on the police, and I had little patience for people who acted like police were uniformly racists and sadists or uniformly helpful and professional. I took Julie’s railing against the prosecution and police with a hefty grain of salt, and wondered how professional she herself was, anyway. On the walk to the courthouse, I referred to the man she was representing as “the defendant”. “The client!” she corrected me. “They call them defendants.” As we headed into the courtroom, Julie seemed disorganized and frazzled. When she introduced herself to the judge as counsel for the defense, she spoke quickly, with an air of anger tinged with resignation. The detective testifying for the prosecution started out calm and confident, but as Julie got into the cross examination, his demeanor became more evasive and defensive. He made assertions that no witnesses were pressured to testify as part of a plea bargain, then admitted that he had not been present for any of the witness interviews and couldn’t testify to what had taken place during them. He often claimed that he didn’t know, couldn’t remember, or hadn’t clarified crucial details of the witness testimony on which the prosecution’s case rested. Under duress, he finally admitted that one witness was a drug dealer angling for a plea bargain. The anger in Julie’s voice increased during the cross examination, and the resignation disappeared. During questioning, the detective let slip that an additional person had been present at the crime scene, and that the police and prosecutors conspired to keep this information from the defense. Even the judge was shocked.

After admitting this, the detective looked up, somewhat shame-facedly, I thought. Our eyes met. I was, honestly, flabbergasted at how evasive the police officer was under oath, and I wondered if my shock and disappointment in him was obvious on my face. “You see how shady they are?” Julie demanded after the hearing was adjourned. I nodded, but with more feeling this time.

We returned to the PD's office across the street, and Julie spent some time venting about the experience to one of her co-workers. They laughed at the unfair judges, the lying cops, the stiff prosecutors. They both cursed liberally. Eventually, the conversation wound down and I prepared to leave, assuring Julie that it had been absolutely fascinating and that I was looking forward to coming back the next day for more. Julie made a comment to the effect that the cross examination was perhaps a baptism by fire into the reality of criminal defense. She swore again, laughed, and mused, “And this morning you were calling me ‘Ms. Charles!’”

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