The Plea

It is Tuesday at 9.30am and I am in the booth.

The booth is a tiny box where I have the honor of talking to my client through an inch of bullet-proof glass. I say “talking”, though it’s really more like yelling, since it’s pretty hard to hear through that glass.

“Booth” is a misnomer too. “Booth” reminds me of the precursor to something fun. You buy tickets to a movie or carnival rides at a booth. No such fun was happening today.

Really, the booth is purgatory, a limbo my clients sit in after they’ve made their way from the prison and to the courthouse basement’s holding cells, but before they enter the courtroom where they await final judgment.

This particular morning, I am wearing a navy flannel Brooks Brothers No. 1 sack suit, a white shirt I freshly pressed at 5.30 that morning, and a somber tie that reflected my mood.

In gross juxtaposition, my client is in an orange prison jumpsuit and has a thermal on underneath to keep warm. I guess this hell follows Dante’s rules.

My client is a good man who’d recently made a series of terrible decisions, all of which led to where he is today. Despite his cock-ups, he was truthful and admitted his mistakes not only to his family, but to members of his community.

Then the police became involved.

And he got arrested.

And his mistakes became a “case.”

And that’s how we ended up on opposite sides of the same sheet of glass on Tuesday at 9.32am.

Today, he is ready to plead guilty to the charges against him. In exchange for giving up his Constitutional right to a jury trial, he is offered a sentence far less than what he would see if he were found guilty at trial.

Though we’ve already done this before back up at prison, I review with him one last time his written guilty plea colloquy, and explain to him word by word the rights he is giving up by pleading guilty. I’m reading it to him like I’d read “Hop on Pop” to a kindergartner.

But he’s not a kindergartner. He’s a grown man. And this isn’t “Hop on Pop.”

It’s 9.34am. I’ve finished reviewing the colloquy with him. He’ll sign it out in the courtroom, since now his hands are shackled behind his back and we’re separated by an inch of bullet-proof glass.

It’s 9.35am, and I can only watch as my client sobs and tears stream down his face.

You see, up until this point he’s been a man of god. An educated guy, he’s worked the same job for the last 25 years, and been married to the woman he loves for the last 30. He’s lost all of that now.

(Did I miss the day in law school they taught you how to handle this?)

According to the arrangement with the District Attorney’s office, he faces up to five years in a state correctional institution for the crimes he’s pleading to. If he’s really good (including credit for time served) he’ll get out in about two years. If he runs into problems in prison, he’s going to miss his son’s high school graduation.

I ask him if he as any more questions for me before we go into the courtroom.

“Lord Jesus, what have I done? Will God forgive me? My wife’s left me. Leo, what am I going to do?”

He spits out this sentence between sobs. A man, broken. But in an instant, he musters up all the dignity he has left. He toughens up his features and tries to wipe his eyes on his elbow—which is difficult seeing as his arms are handcuffed behind his back—and puts on an air of stoicism.

And I tell him. “Bill [not his real name], when the court officer asks you how you plead, you say ‘Guilty'”.

He nods.

According to that fancy framed piece of paper from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hanging on the wall of my office, I’m an attorney and counselor at law. But the three years of schooling and two years out in practice hadn’t prepared me for this—telling a grown man, through bullet proof glass, who until thirty seconds ago had been crying like a baby, that he was going to be spending the next five-ish years of his life outside of the city he’s lived in his whole life, shipped out to Bumblefuck, Pennsylvania (which alone would be enough of a shock) to take up residence at the taxpayer’s expense in a state correctional institution. And I can tell you that a state correctional institution is no Sandals resort. Hell, it’s not even a Howard Johnson.

“Leo, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” He asks me. While his expression is still stoic, his bloodshot, watery eyes belie his terror. That look—the feeble attempt to cover fear with toughness—it’s a look that will quickly become familiar to me.

(Remind me, what the fuck did Two Ships Peerless do to prepare me for this?)

At 9.37am, two knocks on the door interrupt us. The court crier pokes his head in. “The Judge is ready,” he says, then shuts the door behind him.

I stand up. Bill stands up, hands cuffed behind his back, and the sheriff walks in prepared to lead him out to the courtroom.

Through the glass I shout: “Bill, I’ll see you inside. It’s been my honor to represent you. Remember — everyone is better than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

I turn and walk out of the booth, prepared to meet my client in the courtroom for judgment.

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6 Responses to The Plea

  1. Marianne says:

    Leo, I practice out here in Bumblefuck, PA. We like to call it Huntingdon. Your guy will be OK. He will meet men of integrity inside. I litigate for prisoners who experience violations of various constitutional rights inside the state and federal prisons in central Pennsylvania. If your guy meets some of mine, then he will be profoundly enriched — if he can open himself to appreciate their wisdom and insight. Your guy can continue to become the person he wants to be, even a “man of God.” At your end, please don’t reinforce his despair. Pennsylvania SCIs are tough places, but the sun shines out here too.

  2. Max Kennerly says:

    The Peerless case did a lot to prepare you, and it can help you now. You are not a social worker or a psychiatrist, and trying to be one will just make the problem worse. You are not even the client’s friend, at least not in this context, no matter how friendly you might get. You are just like the lawyers in Peerless: a trained, licensed professional performing a specific service, one that requires a dispassionate detachment to perform correctly.

    We have a tragic case in this office filled with heartbreaking facts and gruesome images. Most of those I can handle without complication. There is, however, one simple fact in that case that makes me almost burst into tears whenever I see a reference to it. When that happens, I stop, remember my role, and compose myself. Empathy does not help my client; zealous professional advocacy does.

    Next time you feel like sharing a client’s despair, remember that your work here is no different from the work in the Peerless case: you are to represent the client’s legal interests as best you can, and taking the case personally will rarely help, it will just cloud your judgment.

    When I mention that concept to other lawyers, some respond with a concern that the client may come to view them as disinterested if they don’t try to bond with the client over their feelings. I have found the opposite to be true: clients tend to believe (rightly so, IMHO) that their lawyers are incapable of truly empathizing with the totality of their circumstances, and so they view those expressions as insincere, but they respect and respond to zealous advocacy on their behalf.

  3. Rosen Otter says:

    OK, so he did something illegal. he’s a man of God. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him, but you don’t say what he did or why he shouldn’t be punished. Who are we supposed to feel sorry for? You or him? Was there a victim to his crime? You don’t mention one. Your job isn’t to fix victims, your job is to get that man as little punishment as possible, because that’s your frickin’ JOB. Your job is to prevent people from being punished for their crimes, regardless of what they did. maybe they were caught with a little pot. Maybe they put a baby in a microwave and poached it lightly. Perhaps they broke an obscure tax law. Maybe they screwed a five year old. Maybe they’re innocent. Why should it matter to you? It’s not your job.

  4. […] for you scream “You didn’t learn to write persuasively and use proper fonts!” Criminal defense lawyers scream “How do I live with the constant stream of humanity that I see being […]

  5. Ryan A says:

    Nicely nicely done. Thank you for sharing this. I think it has impact beyond the legal sphere and that’s a great thing.

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