PDs Rolling With The Punches

Speaking of dealing with difficult clients (and clearly, some are more "difficult" than others)...

A reader tipped me off to this story from the Connecticut Law Tribune about defendants assaulting their public defenders.

Lawyers on the Bullseye

By Christian Nolan
The Connecticut Law Tribune

In 2006 when Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Miano refused to let Juan Vazquez, convicted of assault and robbery, withdraw his guilty pleas, Vazquez quickly turned and punched his lawyer, public defender Michael Isko, in the mouth.

Isko was taken to Hartford Hospital to be treated for minor injuries.

Last year, former Stamford Public Defender Susan Hankins was spat on by her client, Shaka Shabazz, after a judge denied his motion for a new attorney. Shabazz was later convicted of trying to rob a bank.

And just this month, Stamford Public Defender Barry Butler also was spat on by his client, Hyshon Smith, who is accused of murder. Butler, a true professional, will continue representing Smith.

Physical assaults on public defenders are “infrequent compared to the volume of clients we interact with, but not unheard of,” said Hartford Public Defender Sara L. Bernstein.

Other public defenders say it’s impossible to push personal safety completely out of their minds, especially when they have to go visit a disgruntled client in prison and perhaps deliver more bad news about the outcome of their case.

“It’s no shock [defendants] chose to lash out against the deliverer of the bad news,” said New Britain Public Defender Kenneth Simon.

“That’s what people see,” Simon said of the courtroom incidents, such as what happened to Butler recently. “You never see the stuff that goes on downstairs when you’re explaining things to a client. They start yelling and screaming at you, you haven’t done this or you haven’t done that.”

Simon said that at a prison like the maximum security Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, lawyers are told before they meet with the client that there’s a button they can press if trouble arises. “Fortunately I haven’t had to use that button,” said Simon.

“You get used to it,” he said of the outbursts by clients. “If I really believed that somebody was so angry with me and that they had threatened me, maybe I’d think twice of going to a facility and getting locked in a room with them.”

Gang Initiation

Simon, a public defender of nearly 25 years, recalled his scariest moment -- being told that his client intended to break his jaw in the courtroom to fulfill a gang initiation requirement. Word was passed along to the judge who made sure the courthouse marshals took proper precautions and the client, up on murder charges, remained shackled throughout the hearing.

Simon said sometimes clients think a public defender isn’t doing enough for them and want a different lawyer. They think one way to force the judge to make a switch is to do something violent to their current lawyer. “To them, it isn’t a big deal punching someone in the courtroom,” said Simon. “The defendant might think he’s doing you a favor.”

Chief Public Defender Susan Storey said her office does not keep statistics on the number of incidents involving public defenders and their clients. However, when conducting research for a proposal in 2005 that would have made prosecutors “hazardous duty members” for the purposes of the state employees’ retirement system, then-Chief Public Defender Gerard Smyth provided a lengthy list of all the incidents involving public defenders since 1976.

One public defender was shot after a prisoner grabbed a police officer’s gun. Another was vomited on by a client with tuberculosis, resulting in months of medical treatment. Many others have been spat on or cut, requiring testing for other diseases including HIV and hepatitis. Several public defenders were struck in the face either by fists or handcuffs after giving a client bad news involving their case.

Most commonly, defendants, their family members or friends make threats against public defenders.

“Some people like to kill the messenger,” said Bernstein, the Hartford public defender, who once had a young defendant threaten to kill her. She said she didn’t take the threat too seriously. “We’re the only one the client gets to talk to about this, so they vent to us,” said Bernstein.

Disturbed Kid

Thomas Dennis, the federal defender in Connecticut, agreed with Bernstein and said the threats come with the territory. “You got to let them vent,” Dennis said. “It usually doesn’t go further than that. Let them get it off their chest and then you can get down to representing them.”

Barry Butler is doing just that – providing representation -- after his client unexpectedly spat at him in the Stamford courtroom earlier this month. He said this situation was different than most. He wasn’t delivering bad news; his client is just mentally ill.

“This is not a beef with a lawyer, this is a kid that’s disturbed…he can barely communicate with people,” said Butler who described the incident as “much to do over nothing.”

His client, Hyshon Smith, 18, is accused of murder and a hearing will be scheduled to determine if Smith is even competent enough to stand trial.

New Haven Public Defender Thomas Ullman said the spitting incident reveals an unfortunate trend. “The problem is we have so many mentally disturbed individuals that are coming into the criminal justice system because there is inadequate health care for them,” he said.

Ullman said he, too, has been spat at, but the projectile hit his suit and not his skin. “These days,” said Ullman, “you get concerned about that with the different illnesses that are out there.”

I've only personally known one or two public defenders ever who were assaulted by clients. I remember one lawyer being punched by a clearly mentally ill client, and I remember one lawyer whose client spit in her face, requiring some testing and vaccines for transmittable diseases.

I guess it reaffirms, for me, the importance of trusting my instincts to separate from a dangerous client before it's too late, and second, when possible, of finding ways to maintain and repair the attorney-client relationship in hopes of avoiding dangerous situations.


I haven't had much to write about lately, but one thing came up lately that might be worth writing about.

I got a new client at the beginning of last week. His case is very serious, he is facing a lot of time. And it's not as if he's new to the "system," he's done quite a bit of prison time in the past. Some clients who have done time "get it" - they get what their case is worth, they get how the sentencing guidelines work. Some clients, despite their past, are shocked (or act shocked) that they're going to get jail this time. Really? You got jail time or prison on your last ten arrests, but you really thought you would finally community service or something this time?

Anyway, I met this new client early last week. I told him he was facing time, I told him what I thought I could do to help, I told him what some of his options were, I told him what was likely to happen. I spoke to his family, I did quite a bit of research relevant to his case, I negotiated with the prosecutor again and again.

At the end of the week, I met up with the client again. I told him what I had worked on during the few days since we last saw each other, I told him that I had spoken to his wife, I told him what I had found that might help his case, and I told him what the prosecutor had said which might be bad for his case.

When I got to the bad news, the client was very upset. Which, to some extent, I'm used to. I deliver bad news sometimes, I understand that I'm the messenger.

When a client is upset, there are a few tactics that I usually take to help the situation. One is to try to agree, "Yes, you're right, it's not fair, I get that, but the best thing we can do right now is focus on our next step..." Another is to try to explain the situation and reason with the client, "Look, you did three years on your last drug sale. Now they've caught you again, the prosecutor thinks the sentence has to be more than three years this time. With every arrest, the punishment is probably going to get worse." Sometimes I just sit back and let them vent it out - some people just need to have their say, and they have no one else to say it to. If I sit and listen for five minutes or ten or twenty, they might be able to focus on their case once they get it out of their system.

But with this client, this week, I didn't really have the chance to do any of those things. He was just screaming absolute profanity at me.

And, maybe it was me. Maybe I was overtired and overworked and fighting a cold for a week. Maybe if I was feeling sharper, more on top of my game, I could have talked some sense into him, or waited it out while he vented. But I didn't.

I walked out of the pen, and at the next opportunity, asked the judge to assign a new lawyer to my client. I was upset and exhausted, and I just quit. The judge doesn't know me well yet, but he agreed to assign a new lawyer since it was early in the case.

But getting off the case didn't really make me feel any better. I felt like a quitter. I know what I did was fine ethically, but I know that personally, I could have done better. I felt disappointed in myself.

I know it's not a big deal. In the scheme of things, it's a small percentage of my cases. And I got rid of a difficult client and a serious case. I should have felt good, at least for that. But Friday night, I couldn't sleep, I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking I could have sat back down and said... well, there's probably a lot of things I could have said. I don't know if they would have made a big difference.

I feel like I'm beyond the point in my career where I get upset over things clients say, I think I'm at the point where I can turn any disagreement in a positive direction. And it's not that I couldn't with this client, it's that I didn't make the effort.

Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow I will try harder, and do better. That's all I can do.

It Always Comes Back To Eyewitness IDs

I don't know about you, but I feel like I can study it for hours, and I still can never fully wrap my mind around how our minds can trick us when it comes to identifying other people.

Dahlia Lithwick on Eyewitness Identifications at Slate.com


"So, how's my case look, Miss Justice?"

"I'll be honest with you, from what you told me, it doesn't look too good. You were caught red handed robbing a bank. When you got back to the police station, you made a statement in which you confessed to the bank robbery, and then you went on to confess to three other bank robberies that they didn't even have you on. So, right now, I'm thinking it doesn't look too good."

"Oh yeah, I guess you're right. But I want to withdraw that statement."