I spent last week in trial. My client was charged with one count of aggravated assault. If he had been convicted and the state proved his priors and its allegation that he was on probation, he faced ten to fifteen years. The theory of the state’s case was that my client kicked his live-in girlfriend in the face five or six times, causing her “temporary but substantial disfigurement.” The jury acquitted my client after a four-day trial and an hour of deliberation. Like any trial, it was an interesting experience. A few things stood out though.
I only had the case for about ninety days, and I was the client’s fifth or sixth lawyer, depending on whether you count his third (and last) public defender. I know his first two public defenders pretty well, and I could tell from the file that they really worked his case. They are great lawyers, and he was lucky to have them. Unfortunately, he didn’t agree. He filed some documents with the court saying not-so-nice things about the public defender’s office and his first lawyer in particular.
My client’s friend only brought him one shirt for trial, and I didn’t find that out until the second day of trial. My office is an hour from court. My house is even farther. Knowing the public defender had trial clothes for defendants, I asked if I could borrow a shirt. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked, but I did. I’ve had appointed clients complain about me being a “public pretender” in letters and pro per pleadings, and I’ve never taken it personally. People tend to undervalue what they don’t pay for themselves. I’d have given any of them a shirt. Not doing that just inconveniences their next attorney.
Well, the public defender felt differently. The receptionist was okay with me perusing their wardrobe, but the public defender herself came up and asked me who was going to get the clothes. Not just a public defender, but the public defender, the county official in charge of the office. She told me she would not let my client wear one of her office’s shirts because he “dissed” one of her lawyers. I got to spend a morning recess shopping for my client.
I’d consider the public defender who got the brunt of my client’s ire a friend. We’ve even discussed the case over beers. He later told me he would have gotten me a shirt if I’d asked him. Does anyone think I was wrong asking his office for a shirt? Does anyone think the public defender was right refusing to give me one?
Another thing that stood out was my conversation with jurors after trial. Win or lose, I haven’t had much luck with jurors wanting to talk after trial. These jurors were different, and what they told me increased my faith in juries.
All of the jurors said the case came down to reasonable doubt. They doubted the victim’s story, they doubted the physical evidence in the case, and they doubted the police investigation. It made me feel good that they actually thought about the burden of proof and the fact the state had to prove my client guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. After a 2009 with nonsensical and even internally inconsistent verdicts for and against me, it made me happy to hear from smart jurors who clearly took their duties seriously.
Finally, the trial made me think about risk tolerance. On the first day of trial, the prosecutor offered my client a plea to time served. My client could have walked out of jail that day, but he rejected the offer. He spent three extra days in custody during trial and risked spending a decade or more in prison. The gamble paid off for him in the end, but it wasn’t always clear it would. The victim recanted prior to trial, but she eventually recanted her recantation. Over a plethora of objections, the prosecutor even admitted into evidence a letter from my client telling her what to say. Some of the time, my case looked downright ugly.
I can honestly say I would have taken the plea. Innocent or not, I would’ve done it. No doubt about it. I don’t mind risk, but in my client’s situation, it would’ve been too much. I firmly believe there is no such thing as a guaranteed winner at trial. Should I trust the system more? Would any of you have done what my client did?