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.


  1. I haven't ever been physically assaulted while with a client but I have had my share of threats and a colleague had a chair thrown at him once.

  2. Two years ago I got into a serious fight with a federal court appointed client in the attorney's meeting room at a local jail that has a contract with the Marshall's service to hold folks on federal detainers. It lasted about 45 seconds, but that's a hell of a long time for a fight to go on. The jail guards, a pretty sorry lot, were laughing as they pulled us apart, until my client, who only now had room to wind up, blasted one of them in the face and broke his ocular bone and nose.

    Neither he nor I were badly injured in our fight, it was mostly a wrestling match with short punches, but after that we got along great, tried the case to a jury and won. Unfortunately he did three years for assault on the guard.

    I have not since, and never will again, go into a locked or controlled attorney visiting room.