Thursday, August 06, 2009

Why Fight for Those People?

I haven't written forever, but have been busy. One thing is on my mind about the job and that is the motivation behind the job now that I'm well into it. Sometimes one would wonder, is the job worth it? Will I do this forever? I am sure this is not a unique thing for indigent criminal defenders. Of course many people have to question their jobs, heck, especially when in this economy people are laid off. It is good to keep things in perspective, how bad things could be.

I wonder when or if it will get easier for me to see children sent off to adult prison. Even my adult clients, it is so sad. With many of them, I can see the young person they once were before life jaded them, if the show me. So far, it is still a terrible tragedy for everybody that has gone to prison, even after all these years. These people are never evil people with nothing redeemable in them. I can see that but for the grace of god, any of us could have gone that way. The people that don't see that are too full of hubris and lack empathy.

Even if the judge's decision makes sense in a way (if you see it from the prosecutor's perspective), when a kid goes to prison it is sad. Heck, even when I've won trials and people tell me to celebrate or that I should celebrate, we're not talking about winning a game. If it is a game, it is a game about somebody's life. Somebody who has loved ones, or even more tragically, has nobody.

I don't know what's more pathetic, for a supportive family to come and see their son or daughter head off to prison, or when the only person who is there to support this young person is me, somebody paid by the government to represent them.

And of course if a person was hurt, the case is very tough. Just because there is a person hurt, perhaps a person that I can sympathize with, this doesn't allow me to ignore my duty to represent my client. But it makes it even more sad, even if it makes it easier to accept the prison sentence when the state has a victim other than themselves.

So the heartrending emotional work is draining. Begging a judge to care for my client and see them as a person who has made bad choices instead of seeing them only as those bad choices, as if they cannot change, is painful. It is very rarely that the child heading off to prison was given the chances most of us take for granted. Instead, they have typically been abused and neglected in ways that should themselves be criminal. Many of them have mental or developmental disabilities, and often they resort to substance abuse to ameliorate the pain they feel.

And often nobody provides respect. Typically, the clients are most respectful. Not all of them, some of them are so unused to attention that they don't trust me, but many of them appreciate it, see that I am trying to help and are thankful. But overburdened prosecutors bite my head off. Judges often get so focused on moving cases they don't care about what must have motivated them to seek the bench in the first place.

But so many people don't understand why I would represent criminals. How weird? If you have to represent bad people, why not rich people who can pay you lots, people think. Heck, I don't know if I could handle that aspect, I feel the draw to me is in representing the truly needy, there is no such great necessity to help fill the need in representing the rich, they are pretty well covered. And I doubt that I would like that sense of entitlement from wealthy criminals, particularly if they are seeking to further their societal advantages using my skills. And it would be tough to represent average people, or feel bad I had to turn away poor people if I didn't work for the government.

The people I represent now are mostly the worst of the worst in terms of skilled criminals. They are not skilled, very few of them are what could be called savvy criminals. They do really stupid things. Even if I win a particular trial for them, they will likely continue to have problems in their life. Perhaps I can only delay the inevitable problems that come from the problems that they have that led them to my door.

So why would I want to represent so many hopeless cases? At such a low wage when I owe so much, may never have enough for what many consider are necessities for the upwardly mobile. And what about having children, maybe supporting a spouse and children? Forget about it in this career.

But I think about it and I still do. I make enough to be comfortable. I should pay off my student loans before I am 50. And like they say, more money more problems. People kill over money. I am not only countlessly more wealthy than my clients, what about most of the rest of the world?

Despite the tragedy, the hopelessness, I think I savor the role of representing the underdog. Maybe I have a masochistic streak running through me? And not that I'm perfect, but I am good at what I do. I help people try to make better decisions. I make fewer mistakes than most, or at least feel that I do. I feel that I make a difference. Even if the difference is simply to help people understand what is going on and helping them choose from the limited decisions now available for them, that is good.

Plus I put a check on the government. I am a constitutional attorney, protecting the civil rights of the poor. I save and have saved many poor people from many, many years in prison. I have gotten thank you notes from my clients, telling me about what they have done positive with the years I have saved them. People keep offering to pay me for help, despite the fact that I know they have so little. That's way better to me than getting a large retainer from a person who thinks that is nothing, right? And I don't get accused of not being a real lawyer that often anymore ;-)

That's why I must do what I do. Please, I hope that my feelings are never blunted. I don't want the job to change me, I don't want to lose my capacity for empathy, despite the difficulty that can cause. I hope I can look back consistently and feel the same way. Maybe I won't do this forever. But I can see that I might want to. Who knows what the future will hold, until it is gone? I doubt that at the end of my life (hopefully not soon, maybe in 70 years or so) I will say 'geez, I really regret that time I worked as a PD.'


Blogger Tarra Slovan said...

I am dealing with something that helps me relate and to really appreciate your post. I am an indigent defendant who was facing informal diversion because the whole thing is a aham.

It involves something too strange to tell you without sounding insane. There is an actual consiracy to have me plea or to get me convicted -- solely, so the lawsuit against them might go away.

But, I am without money, broke, penurious at this point -- and I would not take their plea, two public defenders were too overworked and I learned too much and knew how little it could take to dismiss it. But, continuance after continuance. I know that they were overworked but their seeming apathy in the face of injustice disgusted me.

The charges were filed in August of 2008. Now they've added two false charges and now that I am pro per and have filed 7 very decent motions and the after a year have asked for a competency hearing . if you saw how they did it and what they did-- rank desperation. The PD's all gave me the warmest looks and smiles.

The real truth is that I can't tolerate evil and I can't tolerate a lot of what I've learned about this system and I have no choice but to not let them beat me.

I can't think of a dirtier job than trying to convict an innocent person.

I'll stop before I sound truly incompetent.

Great post and only meant to come on and give you props, but I can't shut up. America needs to hear so much more from you PD's and from anyone in that system who sees wrongs.

There is so much that can be done via the internet that make a difference and I hope to be a big part of that because I am one egotistical and indignant indigent.

1:25 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It tru Even if I win a particular trial for them, they will likely continue to have problems in their life. Perhaps I can only delay the inevitable problems that come from the problems that they have that led them to my door.

1:13 PM  
Blogger jeremy said...

And those people who suffers from abusive acts.
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5:36 AM  
Blogger Cofer Law said...

I’m not trying to be funny. I think it is fair to say that many great criminal defense attorneys (maybe I’ll be one of these someday) are motivated by duty, but also by something that can be stronger. Vanity, can be a powerful motivator in difficult cases. Often, regardless of how reprehensible my client’s conduct is, a great trial lawyer can find themselves driven to win. Although vanity is not often viewed a virtue, it probably fuels as much high quality advocacy as altruism.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Denver Criminal Defense Attorney said...

My former boss at the PDs used to brag about how he defended the Constitution every single day. I agree with him. PDs do the necessary work that protects everyone from a government that can become overbearing at times. Too often people cast people off as being guilty before the State has proven anything. We are the last safety net for a lot of people and it is truly noble work.

6:50 PM  
Anonymous T. Charles said...

True, sending someone to prison is a bit disheartening.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer said...

I am also a criminal defense attorney - and I just remember America's founding principles of justice, that I am helping to make sure justice is done and everyone has the right of representation. It is better to see a guilty man go free than an innocent man convicted. Everyone deserves support through their trial, even the accused. I would hope most criminal defense attorneys simply see it as their duty and do not flaunt their job in everyone's faces.

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