It was just another day in court.
After I served as bench warrant court appointed counsel a month before, I had received an additional five court appointment letters. As I always do when I receive new appointment notices, I fired off letters to my clients:
123 High Street
Re: I am Your Lawyer in Case 1234•2012, Next Court Date 4/20
I have been appointed by the court to represent you in this matter. I have enclosed my business card with this letter. Please contact me as soon as you receive this letter. It is important that we meet before your court date to prepare your defense. I look forward you meeting you and serving as your attorney.
Very Truly Yours,
Leo M. Mulvihill, Jr.
And to the DA:
123 Prosecution Way
Re: Case 1234•2012, Next Court Date 4/20
I represent John Client in the above matter. Please send me all discovery, and contact my office with any questions.
Leo M. Mulvihill, Jr.
Well, today was now that “next court date”, and I hadn’t heard from any of the several clients I had scheduled for today. Not a huge deal, since usually today was the first point that I’d get discovery from the DA anyway.
After I checked in with the court staff, I went over to the paralegal for the District Attorney’s Office to get my discovery.
“Jim Client, number 32 on the list”, I said.
“Here you go” the paralegal said, handing me a stack of papers. “Oh, and here’s the offer on your case…”
Generally speaking, today would be the first time I’d see discovery regarding the charges of which my client’s accused. Unfortunately, today is also the first time I meet many of my court-appointed clients. This doesn’t give me a lot of time to review their file, adequately evaluate it, and intelligently discuss the matter with them.
Often, it’s better to ask the court for a trial date, and then have the opportunity to review discovery, and discuss the case with my client. As I see it, it’s worth coming back to court another day if I can find something to support a motion to suppress, or keep a conviction of my client’s record. Heck, the extra hours I’d spend preparing are absolutely worth it.
I called my client’s name. “Jim Client?”
A man – really a kid – an unfamiliar face, wearing T-shirt and jeans, raises his hand. I ask him to step outside with me.
I explain the situation to him. “Look”, I said, “I need some time to review your file. Here’s my card. Give me a call so we can talk about this case. The DAs office gave you an offer on this case that will keep you out of jail, but you’ll have a conviction on your records. Let’s talk about it first. I’m going to ask them to hold that offer open to the next court date. That okay with you?”
“No. I’m going to take that deal”, he responded. I was temporarily speechless.
“Are you sure?”, I asked, as I continued to explain the ramifications of pleading to the charges.
“Yeah, I’m sure”. He wasn’t interested in what I had to say. “I don’t want to come back here anymore. Besides, I got to pick up my son from school cause my girl’s got work today. So let me just plead so I can get out here”.
“Well, after taking a quick look at your discovery, you might feel the beat th-”
“No”, he said with resolve. “I’m going to plead. I never wanna me back here again”.
I reiterated the ramifications of a conviction for him in this case. But he had made up his mind.
And so, plead he did. After 3 hours waiting in another courtroom for his case to be called, we stipulated to the facts of the case and received a stipulated sentence. As a result of the sentence, he got no jail time, but still had a conviction on his record.
He was happy to get out of there. The DA was happy with another conviction to add to the tally. But I wasn’t happy.
“We could have beaten that case”, I thought to myself.
You know, it’s strange. No matter how much I try to put myself in the position of my clients, there are sometimes things I don’t understand. Here, my client would rather plead to a case – which I told him I thought we could beat – than come back to court one more time.
It’s my job to provide my clients zealous representation. And frankly, it’s an honor to do so. I guess I need to learn to resign myself the fact that sometimes the practical roadblocks in life–like picking up your son, or not wanting to come back to court–outweigh the legal arguments one could theoretically make.
No matter how hard I try, I think I’ll never understand taking a couple extra hours out of your life to avoid a criminal conviction. Perhaps it’s my youth. Maybe it’s my naïvety. Hell, let’s blame my idealism.
But this job isn’t about making me happy. The PACDL certificate on my wall isn’t there to make me smile. My job is about about zealous representation, advising my clients, and giving direction. But after that, the decision’s ultimately the client’s. Even if it doesn’t make me happy.
I can’t understand pleading to a case that one might be able to win. I probably never will. But it’s what my client wanted to do.
It’s all a matter of perspective.