5 Realities Of US Courts They Don’t Show On Law & Order
Defense lawyers: If they're helping the good guys -- like Atticus Finch, or Matthew McConaughey in that one movie of his that was good -- we love them. But if they're getting the obviously guilty rich bastard out on a loophole, like in Law & Order, or most of reality, we hate them. But as it turns out, it's actually not so cut and dried. We spoke to two defense attorneys, Kelly and Gordon, who told us ...
The Justice System Isn't Designed For Justice
According to Gordon, most attorneys do indeed have that one case that breaks their soul and convinces them that justice is just a word that comes after "juice" in a dictionary: about as meaningful and a lot less tasty. For him, it was "an indigent defendant charged with an aggravated sexual battery. He was accused of inappropriately touching a 12-year-old who was the daughter of a woman he lived with."
That certainly is the kind of case that would make you lose faith in any number of abstract concepts, but it quickly became clear to Gordon that the accusations were bogus. "Through our investigation, we discovered that the mother had made several threats that she would manufacture this allegation if my client left the home and did not continue to provide her with methamphetamine."
Ah, yes, the ol' whitemail.
Not that "Meth-den-dwelling legal pawn" was a much better situation for the kid involved.
This wasn't a case of "The bitch is making it up, I swear" -- there was evidence, witnesses, everything pointing to this client's innocence. However, "The witnesses were difficult to compel to trial because they were all very transient and involved in drugs," Gordon says. At that point, it was just a matter of getting the guy as little time as possible.
"The crime my client was charged with carried a minimum sentence of eight years, with 85 percent of that to be served," Gordon continues. "Faced with the possibility we could lose at trial due to our witnesses being shady, my client decided to take a plea agreement."
You'd think stopping a parent of young children from doing meth would be a happier ending than this.
That agreement included no jail time, so that's nice, but it also included three years of probation and a lifetime as a registered sex offender. That meant prohibition from a lot of places, including rehab facilities, which was certainly not going to make those three years of probation easy.
"This case still bothers me to this day," Gordon says, "because I feel like his defense was hindered to below a constitutionally acceptable standard because he was indigent and came from a world where substance abuse was the norm."
They say justice is blind, not free.
In other words, his broke ass never had a chance. As we'll quickly learn, that's pretty much standard.
The Entire Court System Runs On Plea Agreements
In courtroom dramas, taking a plea bargain in exchange for a lighter sentence is basically losing. In reality, though, plea agreements aren't an occasional aberration. They are in fact the very bedrock upon which the entire American court system rests.
"Less than 10 percent of cases go to trial," Kelly explains (and he is being tragically optimistic, as some studies say that up to 95 percent of all legal cases end in plea bargains). "Without plea agreements," Kelly continues, "the system would become choked and would likely collapse under the pressures of locally incarcerating defendants who are awaiting trial ... If more defendants refused to negotiate and insisted on trial, the courts as they are constituted today could not meet the demand. Defendants would languish in jail for years awaiting their day in court. The associated costs would bankrupt most counties, as would the demand for more trial courts."
"Looks like your options are 'Serve three months in jail' or 'Serve nine months in jail awaiting trial.'"
There are upsides for everyone -- "[It] saves the state the trouble of proving the case in court and gives the defendant certainty as to what is going to happen to him" -- but it's not all sunshine and regular piss tests. Studies have shown that due to things like mandatory sentencing, a high number of innocent people end up taking plea bargains and confessing to crimes they didn't commit. Then we end up with people like Gordon's sex-non-offender client up there, who didn't exactly come out of the system better for the experience.
"Innocence" Isn't That Important In Court
Sadly, according to Kelly, guilty clients are actually the easiest to represent in court.
"If your client is guilty, then it's just damage control, and all conversations are simple and reasonable. It is hard to represent innocent clients, and this is because you are usually the only one who knows the client is innocent. The police, the prosecutor, and the court are all perfectly ready to see your client as guilty."
Turns out "Innocent until proven guilty" went out of American courtroom style along with powdered wigs.
Of course, that's their job, as much as defending bad guys is often part of Kelly's. Kelly remembers the case of one woman accused of illegally passing a stopped school bus, who hadn't hired Kelly until the night before what would clearly be the trial of the century. When Kelly requested some time to prepare for the case, "The judge told me no, that the woman had had plenty of time to prepare, and that 'She knows what she did.' The jury panel had heard all of this."
The only way to more effectively poison a jury against Kelly's client would be to literally poison them. And that's generally frowned up in the legal system.
"Before the jury retires to determine a verdict, does anyone need help spelling the word 'guilty?'"
But here's the thing about judges: "They like good lawyering," Kelly says. "If a lawyer shows up prepared and is ready and zealous in his cause, a judge will like that and lean toward that lawyer. Judges hate lazy lawyers." Fortunately, that's who Kelly went up against. "Two police witnesses testified about the passing of the school bus and how incredibly dangerous it had been. The state then rested. But the prosecutor had failed to have either of his witnesses identify my client as the woman they'd been talking about." Yes, because the prosecution just plain forgot to ask the cops to point at Kelly's client and say "I totally saw her do the thing with my own see-balls," there technically was no proof against her.
Apparently all those law books aren't enough to be a good lawyer; you also need top-notch Simon Says skills.
The judge had no choice but to dismiss the case. It might have been justice, but only accidentally.
Defense Lawyers Know They Protect The Guilty
OK, so defending guilty clients may be easier, but turning them down and doing the right thing is as hard as it is worthwhile. R-right?
"I do not have any problem at all defending people who are guilty as charged. None," Kelly says. "All of them deserve proper representation."
"As the evidence plainly shows, those nuns were already inside-out when my client arrived."
Yes, even monsters like child molesters. Gordon explains: "What I do when I represent someone in a child pornography case or child sex case is protect their rights. Make sure that the state can prove each and every element of the crime charged. By protecting the rights of the most heinous criminal, we protect the rights of the innocent man who gets brought into court down the line."
That doesn't mean it never gets spiritually icky. "On a personal note," Gordon adds, "the child porn images I have seen make me believe that is the worst thing one person can do to another person ... But when representing a client, you try and focus on the law and the procedures used to get the images rather than the images themselves."
If only to give yourself something, anything else to think about.
... and we've had just about enough of that topic to last a lifetime, thanks.
Plus, it's good practice for when you have some real civil rights shenanigans to call out.
"I have a client who was arrested for possession of marijuana [about 3 grams]," Kelly recalls. "He was nearly blacked out when arrested, and totally unable to respond to police questioning, so the cops took him to the hospital before taking him to jail, where a little bit of weed was found in his sock. Because this occurred inside the jail, the officer decided to charge him with bringing illegal drugs into a correctional facility, a felony, which is supposed to be used for smuggling stuff into jails and prisons. Now this kid is facing a felony, which will ruin his job prospects forever."
That's a lifetime of consequences for barely enough pot to make Transformer movies watchable.
It wasn't exactly police corruption, but it was what is known in legalese as "a real dick move." One that Kelly is currently fighting in court, because nobody else will. (It's not the kind of case that gets you one of those talking head squares on CNN.)
You Eventually Stop Believing In "Evil"
The longer you do this job, the less you believe in free will.
"I believe that we are products of our environments and our genetics," Kelly explains, "and that not one person on the planet has any idea what's going on or what to do to make it better."
Well, at least you can suddenly feel a lot better about not voting.
That's uh ... that's not exactly Care Bear speech material. There was one case in particular that led to this bleak personal philosophy.
"I once worked on a case in which a young mentally ill man had beheaded his grandmother, who was locally known as the Mother Theresa of [redacted] County," Kelly recalls. "The young man had been improvidently released from state care and had killed the old woman over cigarette money. Visiting with him, seeing a truly tortured human soul, even in light of the terrible killing of this woman they all knew personally, stretched my own soul in two directions."
All Kelly saw was a sick man -- one who challenged the preconceived notion of violent criminals.
"Most of my clients are all broken in ways that lead them to do stuff that is criminal. They lose their temper and lash out at loved ones, they are addicted to painkillers and have run out of their legitimate prescription, they are foolish enough to drive drunk, they are dumb and try to steal from Walmart, on and on."
Nobody sticks up a pharmacy because it seems like a logically sound idea.
So what's the solution to protecting broken people from their own almost inevitable crimes? Well, that's easy: RoboCop.
What? We don't goddamn know. Why would we? Even the defense lawyers can't answer that huge philosophical question. All they can do is give us idiots the full protection of the law, and then slip out of court early to squeeze all the fruit in the produce section, because nothing matters now, and probably never will.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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