Monday, March 01, 2004

The Ghosts of Clients Past


A few weeks ago, on a whim, I typed some of the names of my long-past clients whom I had long ago represented, into the Michigan Department of Corrections "Offender Tracking and Information System.

The first two I looked up were clients I represented on appeal, under a program offered by my law school and the State Appellate Defender's Office, I briefed the cases for appellate attorneys who signed the briefs and argued the case. One of the cases was very interesting to brief, and I put together a compelling argument that the defendant was convicted on the basis of an improperly obtained confession, but as they say, "bad facts make bad law". The facts made it almost certain that the woman had killed her boyfriend as the result of a fight which resulted from his spending the woman's welfare check on crack. The woman's sentence was rather light - one lawyer speculated that the trial judge gave that relatively short sentence to "make up" for the bad ruling permitting use of the woman's statement - and her appeal had been delayed for several years for various arcane reasons. Although her conviction was affirmed, she was paroled soon after the appeal was decided and, apparently, has not since been in trouble.

The second was a man whose conviction made me angry - in part because he got such a raw deal, in part because I suspected from the outset that his appeal would be unsuccessful, and in part because I pay taxes. You rarely win criminal appeals by arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support conviction. Correction - you rarely win criminal appeals, period, and almost never when the issue is sufficiency. This man, who couldn't speak a word of English, unquestionably showed very poor judgment - agreeing to ride along with a friend on an infamous drug route from Illinois into Michigan, while both consumed alcohol in the car. They were pulled over, supposedly for driving below the speed limit. A keen-eyed officer noted that the rear seat was unbolted from the floor of the car, and cocaine was found beneath the seat. Beyond what I just described, the strength of the case against the passenger was that it appeared that the name "Juan" had been written at one time on the plastic which had been used to wrap the Cocaine - and that was his middle name. (Well, not actually his middle name, which I changed for this narrative from something about as common.) Based upon the quantity of cocaine, he received an automatic minimum sentence of 20 years without possibility of early release. The driver, guilty as the day is long, had not yet been tried - he entered into a plea bargain for a five year sentence. The client, though, benefited from the revision of Michigan's drug sentencing laws, and was released from custody after a "mere" twelve years. Cost to Michigan's taxpayers for trial, appeal, room and board, probably not less than $400,000.00.

The last was convicted of assault with intent to commit murder, and a host of associated crimes, at the age of seventeen - in Michigan, making him an adult in the eyes of the criminal justice system - and had been sentenced to a great many years in prison. The law school's clinical law program was representing him in a civil rights suit. He was polite, well-spoken, and witty. What struck me most about him was that we were almost the same age. When I was starting college, he was going to prison. As I was about to graduate, he was clinging to the false hope that he might be released in less than two more years. Were we switched at birth, I like to think that my personality would have kept me from following his path - but his changed upbringing would almost certainly have led to his leading a very different life. His picture is in the OTIS database. In some ways he looks young for his age - probably as the result of having spent most of his life incarcerated and thus out of the sun. He looks tired. He'll probably be in prison for at least another decade, probably longer.

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