I had the low point of my little career today.
The thing is, when you're a public defender, you get used to that same old question... "How can you defend someone when you know they're guilty?"
And I usually give the quick and witty response of, "It's easier than when you know they're innocent."
And, I guess because it is quick and witty, I sometimes worry that the listener hears it and just thinks I'm not answering their question. But I am.
Because I do think of it that way. I have clients who easily admit their guilt to me. They'll just say, "Miss Justice, it went down exactly like the cops say it did. What can you get me?" And I have clients who never admit their guilt to me, but I know that they're guilty.
"I didn't hit her. We just be having an argument."
"An argument? Her face is one big bruise."
"She walked into a doorknob."
Fine, they don't have to admit it to me, I know what the deal is. And I still fight hard for my clients, whether I think they did it or not. But, I guess what I am saying is, in the end, I'm not going to lose a ton of sleep when this "doorknob" client ends up doing some anger management program.
Maybe that sounds bad. But compare it to when I really believe my client is innocent.
And sometimes I'm wrong about that too. I had this domestic violence case once. It was a weird one, because my client was the wife, who had been arrested and accused of punching her husband.
"No," "No," "No," she swore to me, she didn't lay a finger on him. And I believed her. Because her husband had a motive to lie - they were divorcing and he was fighting to get custody of the kids. And, it was just weird - why would he even call the police after being punched unless he had an ulterior motive? Suck it up, take the girly punch like a man. Anyway, she fought the case, came to court a million times, and swore all along that she never laid a finger on him.
After months of this, she agreed to let her husband have the kids (she was "too busy anyway") and he must have decided not to cooperate with the prosecution. (Which, to me, just affirmed the fact that he had lied to get the kids, and, therefore, didn't bother to continue with the lie once he got the kids.) Finally, the court dismissed the case for lack of timely prosecution.
On the same day that the case was dismissed, I returned to my office and I had an envelope from the prosecutor on the case. He must have sent it a couple of days before the case was dismissed. It was my client's full and complete confession. Of how she just beat the crap out of her husband.
And I felt duped. And I doubted my ability to evaluate the worth of a case.
But that's ok. I guess it's sort of like the "Better to let one guilty man go free..." saying. Better to wrongly believe a client than to wrongly fail to believe a client's claim of innocence. I mean, look at those innocence project and DNA cases - maybe their original trial lawyers are out there somewhere saying, "Hmmm... maybe I should've believed him. Maybe I should have fought a little harder for him."
So I fight hard for all of my clients. And tend to believe them. But, the fact is, there will always be clients that I believe more than others. Whether it's because I relate to them in age (that domestic violence wife was pretty much my age), or because they're more personable, or because of their lack of a criminal record, or, for the most obvious reason of all, because their story is believable and supported by the facts.
Which brings us to two low points in my short (so far) career.
Twice in my career, I've had clients who I have felt, perhaps known, were innocent. In one case, about a year ago, I let the client make the decision - plead guilty and get out of jail (after a few weeks spent in jail), or stay in jail and fight it out. I really wanted him to fight it out. And, he wanted to go home.
I felt so crappy entering the plea. Which, at the time, was the low point of my career.
But it brings me to something I learned in my law school clinic. Our job, as public defenders, is less centered on guilt or innocence, plea or trial, and much more centered on our clients' priorities. And, rarely are our clients' priorities as straightforward as "Clear my name, prove my innocence, go to trial no matter what it takes" or "Admit my guilt, take my plea, no matter the consequences." Almost always there are other factors - criminal record, the sentence to be served, jobs to be had or lost, family members, immigration, and many many more.
Sometimes it's just routine. Like this post on Indefensible describes.
After the case last year, a senior attorney listened to my concern and then asked, "Is it possible that he pled guilty because he was guilty?" It's possible. I never know for sure that my client is innocent. I wasn't there. But, in the same position, even innocent, I'd probably do the same thing. I don't think pleading guilty always means you are guilty.
And, it happened again today. Lower than before, perhaps.
Today, my client, who I really like, and who I really believe is innocent, and who I think would have had a pretty good shot at trial, pled guilty. To get out of jail. And avoid the risk of prison after trial. I understand his reasoning. I'd probably do the same thing.
But, still, I felt really crappy entering that plea. I felt like I was betraying what I came here to do. What I went to law school for, and what I'm proud of. I felt like a bad stereotype of a public defender - although the plea absolutely wasn't at my insistence.
I just felt crappy about it.
I rambled a lot in this post. I think I'm trying to sort a lot of this out in my head. But, I think it goes back to the very beginning of this post. It's not just a quick comeback to avoid a discussion about defending "those" people. I am losing more sleep over the client that I know is innocent. They are the harder cases to deal with.
And I feel crappy about it. So, I've vented here, cleared my head a little bit. Now let's see if some ice cream and the Amazing Race can take care of the rest.