Saturday, September 30, 2006

Of Politics and Prisoners

As November approaches, politics becomes unavoidable. Politicians want to help everyone: children, the elderly, and the poor. What's the one thing that everyone wants? It's not money or power. Everyone wants to feel safe. Safe from crime, safe from terrorism. Safe from anything that might hurt them. I want to be safe. I do not want to be the victim of crime or terrorism. So our elected officials answer the call. They propose "tough on crime" legislation and "homeland security" legislation. Our governor even ranted and railed against our state legislature a few months back for being too slow to pass some of his tough on crime legislation. I understand. I do not like crime. However, I'm not willing to give up the rights that we, as citizens of this country and state, have in exchange for being safe. We have the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. We have the right to confront and cross examine our accusers, and we have the right to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I value and cherish these rights, and I am not willing to give them up even if it means giving up a little security.

How is it we have these rights? Our forefathers believed that everyone had these rights. "All men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These rights are inherent in us, as human beings. Neither criminals nor terrorists are excluded.

Our governor's big "tough-on-crime" agenda focuses on DWI and sex crimes. Therefore, it is now common practice for police to pull you over in your car and conduct a DWI investigation when the only evidence they have is an anonymous tip that a "vehicle matching the description" is being driven by a drunk driver. The tipster does not need to testify in court, or have any basis for his belief that the driver is actually intoxicated. The police officer, however, may testify about the tip. What happened to the right to confront your accusers? What happened to the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures?

An 18 year old kid was suspended from school last week because he is charged with a sex crime. He has not even had his first court appearance yet. So now there are noises about passing a law requiring schools to be informed when a student is charged with a sex crime. Not convicted. Charged. What happened to the right to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?

This is not limited to the state level. Our President just signed off on a bill establishing military tribunals to try those detained in Guantanamo and elsewhere. Here's the law:

It provides for secret hearings on the guilt or innocence of detainees. It provides that such hearings are not bound by the Constitutional requirement of a speedy trial. (Nor any other Constitutional provision, apparently.) It permits the conviction of detainees based classified information, which they cannot see. It permits the use of evidence (including statements) against the person acquired through coercion. It allows for the use of hearsay. If found guilty, the person can be sentenced to any number of punishments, up to and including death.

For a country and a government that pride themselves on taking the "moral high ground," this is appalling. We are a country that prides itself on its fair and just court system. We would rather let ten guilty men go free, than condemn one innocent man. We accord criminal defendants more rights than any other nation in the world. Where are our Values now? Our belief in the inherent rights of all?

We are currently engaged in two wars in the name of Freedom and Democracy. Perhaps we could start here at home.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Of Predator and Prey

As mentioned in previous posts, there is a village of prairie-dogs behind our office. If you have never been Out West to see them, prairie-dogs are rodents about guinea-pig sized but without perpetual bed-hair. They live in villages made up of holes and tunnels underground, from which they tend to pop up and down like Whack-a-Moles (the arcade game where you try to bang plastic rodent-looking things on the head with a hammer before they disappear down their holes). Prairie-dogs are much too cute to bang on the head with a hammer. We have at least 20 prairie-dogs happily doing their rodenty things in the field behind our office. We watch them while eating lunch or when we just need to hide from our phone for a few minutes.

We can tell differences between them, and have even named a couple. Chubby is by far the fattest, and he stands guard next to his hole a lot and barks at the others. He pivots about when he gets bored looking in the same direction, and will occasionally make a foray into the tall grass to eat. He is quite brave, and gets very near us. We can sometimes hear him chewing. Pudgy is another one. So named, because we often confuse him for Chubby, except when Chubby appears and is obviously much more rotund. Chubby and Pudgy live in holes very close together, and very near the office.

So yesterday, I was out watching my fuzzy neighbors when a beautiful red-tailed hawk dove for one of them. It was quite impressive. So quick and silent that I didn't notice it until the hawk actually touched down and began hopping, trying to grasp the small rodent in its talons. I was near enough that I could see the brown fuzzy shape running around and between the hawk's feet. I cheered when I saw the frightened prairie-dog disappear into its hole. And again when I saw him re-appear this morning, apparently unscathed.

I wondered later why I was on the prairie-dog's side and why I cheered for him, rather than the hawk. The hawk surely has a right to live and eat, same as anyone else. And I have always admired and been fascinated by birds of prey. He was large and graceful, swift and silent. Beautiful. I didn't want to interfere. I wanted to merely observe the age-old dance between predator and prey. But I was happy that the prey won this dance.

Monday, September 25, 2006

And so, it continues...

And so, today is Monday, and we begin another week: Another set of crises; another bunch of clients calling me about the same things they called me about last week, and the week before that, and the week before that; another day of arguing with the same judges, attorneys, clients, and co-workers who never seem to listen to what I am saying, but argue with me emphatically nonetheless (or completely ignore me); another day of listening to so many other people's problems with no way to solve them. This would be so much easier if there were actually something I could do to fix everyone's life for them. There isn't.

I know that I help. It's what I do: I help. A little. And listen. A lot. There are just so many things that I cannot help with. So many things that I cannot fix. I want to help and fix everything, but it is not possible.

But, I will continue to help, a little, and listen, a lot. And sometimes, it is worth it all. I've had people send me letters or drawings (some of my clients draw really well), and I even had one guy write me a poem. (Not a sappy love poem, a really sincere one.) Sometimes they just say thank you. And then it is all worth it. I changed someone's life. I helped. It doesn't even necessarily happen after I win a trial or something major in their case. It's unexpected.

So, I continue in hope and faith that I haven't helped all I can or fixed all I can, yet. There is more. There is much more that I can do to help.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Brief Respite from the Merry-go-round

Well, I made it through two of the more chaotic weeks in recent memory. I am required to do absolutely nothing all weekend. So naturally, I'm in the mood to do laundry, the dishes, clean the bathroom, vacuum, and am even considering yard work. There is one thing I definitely will not do: go to the office! I've been in the past two weekends, and finally, there's nothing there that can't wait until Monday.

In the past two weeks, I had 8 trials set in addition to normal court hearings. I won one, lost one I should have won, and I won part of one that surprised me. Three were dismissed by the prosecutor the day before trial, and two pled on the day of trial. We lost two attorneys in our office, and have been furiously interviewing new candidates. Our boss has been out for most of the past two weeks, and we've been covering his stuff as well as surprises that we didn't know about. There's still the run-of-the-mill internal office political nonsense, but it seems to be simmering down, at least temporarily. (My, how I loathe office politics!)

I'm in an amazingly good mood today. Maybe it's the weather. It's one of those gorgeous fall days where it's cold in the morning, but warm in the afternoon, complete with bright sunshine and the leaves just beginning to turn. The air is crisp and crackly, and you feel like throwing a football around, if you had one and someone to throw it to. All in all, I'd say today more than makes up for the craziness of the past two weeks. I'm perfectly happy and content, and I think I'll watch some football on t.v.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

That black robe

I have been wondering today whether there is some chemical agent contained in the fabric of a judge's robe that changes the personality and even essence of the person who wears it. Perhaps something in the robe creates some type of amnesia, the only symptoms of which are that the wearer forgets completely ever having been a lawyer and what the practice of law is about. There is apparently also something about it that enlarges the only part of the individual not covered by the robe, i.e. the head.

If this is not the case, I am at a loss to discover what would lead a judge, who was once a public defender himself, to the conclusion that a defense attorney's only purpose is to make their clients plead guilty! What would make such a person, whose life-time profession has been the law, believe that a trial by a jury of one's peers is a waste of time? How can it be that a heretofore completely personable and reasonable attorney has suddenly taken to yelling at the attorneys appearing before him when they request that the prosecutor follow the Rules of Evidence and even (gasp) the Constitution?!

I am truly at a loss for any reasonable explanation, so I will stick to my original conclusion: There is something about that black ROBE!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

And sometimes there are good days!

My guy got discharged from probation and out of jail. He had (only) been waiting for a hearing for 2 months. I *don't* have 2 trials set for the same day. (Thursday). Certain internal office difficulties got ironed out in a very good way. The prairie-dogs and horses that live behind the office were in very good moods. I think it's the weather: cold in the morning and still getting up to 75 in the afternoon.

The prairie dogs are so cute getting all fat and happy in preparation for hibernation. They look happy anyway. They're definitely getting fat. I think prairie dogs hibernate, anyway. I'll have to google it. We have probably 20 of them making a village behind the office since spring. There are also horses and cows in the adjoining field. There's a colt and a filly as well. They're getting almost grown-up size. They were very frolic-y today. It looks like so much fun to eat grass and roll around without a care in the world. I figure if prairie-dogs and horses and cows can all co-exist like this, people will figure it out eventually. Or, if not, watching the prairie-dogs and horses and cows is definitely a happy diversion from life and the law.

All and all, a very positive day.

Monday, September 18, 2006

One thing I've noticed...

Trials are much more fun when one actually has something to say. Seeing the glass half-full, though, I did get a not guilty verdict on the petty misdemeanor. Incidently, the two most wonderful words in the courtroom (if not the entire English language). Not bad, considering my guy confessed. Last week's was better. I got an acquittal on everything. Pretty rare for a drug possession charge!

Anyway, I believe I will now have a well-earned beer and watch a movie that I've seen before.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Well, I'm on the bandwagon!

I figured that since I've been commenting so much on other people's blogs, it's only fair to give them the same opportunity! So, here it is...

About the title: I am always being asked what I do, and why, and I never seem to have a good answer. I've told various people various reasons why I'm a public defender, and those reasons have all been true. But none of them really answer the question. Possibly I really don't know the answer to that question. But considering that I've been doing this for nearly 5 years with no end in sight, there must be some reason for it!

I mean, it's a fairly thankless job. For example, I spent nearly all afternoon preparing for a trial tomorrow that I'm almost certain to lose. I hate losing, by the way. Even if I win, the guy isn't getting out of jail. He's got another trial set for Wednesday that he is even more likely to lose. One certainly doesn't win popularity contests defending indigent people charged with crimes. No one wants "criminals" to "get off on technicalities." Even in the legal community, public defenders are pretty much tolerated as necessary for the system to function. My own clients would prefer to have a "real" lawyer, rather than me. They want to know whether a "real" lawyer could get them out of jail. I can't tell you how many times I've had to clarify that yes, I am really a lawyer, I did graduate law school, and I do have a law license!

Maybe that's part of why I do it, though. I am needed: To defend people who need defending, and no one else feels they "deserve" it. To ensure that people's rights are not violated, when even they don't appreciate what I do. To not allow our Constitution or the principles of freedom and justice upon which our country was built to be trampled upon for the sake of efficiency or security.

I am a public defender because I care about Truth, Justice, the Constitution (and fuzzy puppies).