Last week, a jury found my client guilty of three counts of dangerous crimes against children. I sat next to him in court as the clerk read the verdict, and he broke down before the clerk made it through the second count. He knew he would spend the rest of his life in prison.
This isn’t the first trial I’ve lost. It pains me to say it, but it’s also unlikely to be the last. No matter how hard I try, I’ll probably again have to experience the feeling of knowing someone trusted me with their life and made a gamble that didn’t pay off. It’s a twisting, sinking, hopeless malaise that consumes you. You’re in a nightmare. You know you can wake up, but the person who trusted you can’t. Someone had faith in you. You did your absolute best, and it wasn’t good enough.
The word “guilty” overflowed with significance. My client testified, so “guilty” meant the jurors did not believe him. Twelve people must have unanimously agreed he was lying when he looked them in the eyes and said he did not do the charged acts. “Guilty” meant that my client would never again go for a hike, drink a beer, or even order a meal from a menu.
My client sat next to me crying, and I was incapable of comforting him. I had nothing to offer. There will be a motion for a new trial. He’ll have appeals. From now on, however, the deck is even more stacked against him. This was his best chance to fight for his freedom. I can’t tell him everything is okay because everything is not okay. He heard a word that signified the end of life as he’s known it since the day he was born. I can’t dull the pain or fear for him.
Strange memories of my client popped into my head. I thought about when I visited him the day before Thanksgiving and he said to me, “I hope you have a great turkey day, Matt.” I thought about one witness describing him as being obsessed with Xbox and football. I thought about how on a weekday roughly one year ago he went to the auto parts warehouse where he’d worked for years and began a day just like any other. Instead of working a full day and going home, though, he was arrested before his shift ended and held without bond. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but that was his last day of freedom. He will die in prison.
I know the terrible feeling in my gut will go away eventually. At some point, it will probably be entirely replaced by a desire to make sure this never happens again.
When the jury left to deliberate, I felt good about how the trial went. Now, I agonize over every little thing I could have done better. Details of trial that would’ve escaped my memory forever had I won now pop into my head one after another. After losing, I get the overwhelming feeling that every case can be won with the right defense.
This was a tough case. The state had two recorded confessions from my client, but he insisted he was innocent. Two attorneys before me had heavily pressured him to take the plea. He went through with two settlement conferences, never once even considering the offers the state put on the table. Should I have pressured him more? Would it have made any difference? If I had done something different, could I have won the trial?
The guilty verdict was followed by the aggravation phase. As my client sat there weeping, I felt callous getting back to work. It was work on his behalf, but it didn’t matter. A life sentence is a life sentence. What middle-aged man cares if it’s seventy years or eighty? Aggravation took away an important time for him to come to terms with what was happening. It thrust him back in front of twelve people who just judged him, twelve people who without knowing took away everything he ever knew.
Criminal defense is not an easy job, and it’s never tougher than when you’ve just lost a trial. The only benefit is that a loss leads to reflection. It’s no consolation for my client, but I am never more acutely aware of the lives of the people I represent or the importance of what I’m doing. A loss does more to make me a better lawyer than any win could ever hope to do.