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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Judge Decides

Some days reveal humanity in the most unlikely places. Yesterday I was sent to a courtroom for a murder prelim and was annoyed (as usual) by the waiting involved. I had other things to do and my schedule, tight as it was, constricted to unbearable levels with any unforeseen delays.

The judge, it seems, had a personal appointment so was late to court that day — one of the moving parts was stuck and the whole apparatus ground to a halt. My temper was calmed by the whispered explanation given me by one of the court staff. “The judge’s wife has cancer and he’s had to take a lot of time off the last year.”

When he arrived, he apologized for causing everyone to wait. At the sidebar, I told him I knew what he was going through because I’d been there myself. He nodded, and we went on with our work until 4:30. Today we resumed at 8:30 promptly and completed the case by 10. The judge was a reasonable man, knew the law and his function, and ran his court smoothly.

It was a murder case. While my client was driving to McDonald’s his passenger fired 6 shots into the rear of an SUV that contained some rival gang members. He missed the baby seat by inches and killed the infant’s uncle. The judge ordered my client to stand trial for his part in the death, denying my arguments for dismissal. We’d both done our jobs according to our oaths.

After the hearing was over, the judge asked me to come into his chambers and we talked like people. Turns out he is about three fourths of the way to where I wound up. Our nightmares started out almost the same way and his was still in progress. I wished him better luck than I had and re-experienced my end scenes for him, with as much advice as I could manage: “Tell her every day that you love her.” After 15 years, my tears still welled up and the man behind the big desk excused himself and went into his wash room and stayed there for 10 minutes while I called my next court and told them I’d be late.

When he returned, he apologized and we talked some more. We talked about how helpless we felt when confronted with things we could not argue or reason our way to a decision. When I left, I think he felt a little better, knowing that someone understood. I hope so. He’s a nice guy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

... Waiting ...

You know those studies that reveal how much of our lives we spend at a particular task? If you sleep an average of 8 hours a day and live to age 75, you will have spent 25 years asleep. Add in the time spent on the freeway, bathing, shaving, urinating, and you actually have precious little time left to solve the problems of the world — unless you can multi-task.

I’ve never been very good at multi-tasking, not when it comes to my trial work. When I am in trial, I need to concentrate on the dozens — or in capital cases, hundreds, — of decisions that seem to be so crucial to the task. I can’t focus very well on other, less critical things, like my other cases, or personal chores such as defrosting dinner in the morning or calling for dental appointments.

Yet, I have spent a huge chunk of my life in courthouses simply waiting, rather than practicing law. Here’s a typical example. Judge orders me to be in court at 10 A.M. to begin the jury selection. I arrive promptly, wait until 11 A.M. while the judge clears his calendar of other cases. After a brief discussion about the trial, the judge recesses until 1:30 P.M., when 70 jurors will arrive.

At 1:30, I arrive promptly, wait until the panel gathers, is counted and we finally begin at 2 P.M. At 3, the judge calls a 15 minute recess, but doesn’t resume until 3:30 because of one more calendar matter to clear. At 4 P.M., we break for the day. Checking the next day’s calendar, the judge orders us back for 10 A.M.

I’m there at 10 and wait until 11 to begin. And so it goes.

Waiting is endemic to the system because there are so many moving parts that must come together before it can begin to grind. Defendants are shuttled from jails (either in central L.A. or Valencia) to courthouse and to holding cells. Each morning and afternoon, long security lines delay witnesses, lawyers, jurors from entering the courthouse. Lawyers on both sides have other courts to go to. You need back up bailiffs, a court reporter, a language interpreter, a clerk, and a judge who may have meetings or phone calls to attend.

Over the years, I’ve seen many lawyers efficiently deal with the waiting. Some read other files, some read case reports. As a public defender, I was amused by the private lawyers at the pay phones all day, with their pockets full of coins and scribbled note pads. Now, cell phones, PDA’s, and laptops occupy them. They wait outside of courtrooms mumbling like hallucinatory escapees, hearing imaginary bluetooth voices.

Some still read the daily newspaper, some do the crossword puzzle. A few doze off while sitting in the court waiting for their case to be called. Some keep sleeping during the trial.

I can’t do any of that. I just wait. And think, ruminate, worry. I do mental “what ifs” about my trial, pre-experiencing every eventuality, imagining all the bad things that may occur during the trial. It is fatiguing and gets worse as I get older. My long experience has fueled my imagination, because I can foresee more bad things happening than I used to, and I have less energy and even less patience with the foreseeable wastefulness of the process.

I can see all too clearly how the jurors will answer questions, what the DA will argue, how the judge will rule. I foresee the futility of my efforts and the prospect of “going through the motions” — a phrase which seems perfectly suited to this process — is daunting.

I am like an old man who has walked miles through the desert, standing at the foot of a steep mountain, gathering all the energy left to make one more trek. Waiting. Until I can finally rest.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Guest Blog: The San Gabriel Crime Wave

Just in case you think I've been exaggerating the foibles of my life in courts in these bloggy rambles, I asked a friend of mine to guest here with his recent experience. Bill Collins tells his story in his own words:

Last week I tried a case involving a claim of prostitution.
Apparently, the good male citizens of San Gabriel are the victims of rampant acts of masturbation being performed upon them by female masseuses.

This came to the attention of the Chief of Police of the City of San Gabriel and he leaped into action by setting loose upon the unsuspecting massage parlors, the Special Enforcement Team.
This consisted of approximately eight detectives, and other members of the aforementioned police department who skillfully recorded the crime in progress. Part of that skill was knowing where to place the "wire" since the undercover was part of the "disrobing cadre" (defined as "Departmental approval to get naked").

Unfortunately for the jury, the voices on the CD were very difficult tjo understand, and for reasons known only to the police department, they used an English speaking officer to obtain an agreement to perform a lewd act for money from a Chinese speaking suspect. This, notwithstanding the fact they did have a Mandarin speaking officer in the department.

One thing that was very clear on the CD however was the exclamation of the undercover officer: "Oh God, Oh God!"
He explained to the jury I meant "Oh God, I have to go to the bathroom."

As I walked across the courtroom to engage this 6'2", 275 pound behemoth in cross-examination, I could barely miss stepping in the horseshit he had left strewn about the witness stand.

After an initial "good afternoon" we got down to the first question.
"Officer in your line of work isn't it helpful to be deceptive ? In other words, it's advantageous to be a good liar. Correct ?"
And so it went.
The U/C was not only huge, but was completely bald, with a goatee and mustache. He looked like he was from another planet, or perhaps from central casting for the role of a fat Emperor Ming in the Flash Gordon Serials.

The jury deadlocked at 6-6. The case will be dismissed at the next court appearance.

I am sure the citizens of San Gabriel sleep better knowing the scourge of unsolicited acts of masturbation have been excised from their community.

Did I mention the robbery and homicide rate in the community of San Gabriel ?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Jury Of Your Copland Peers

I spent the day in voir dire, questioning jurors in San Fernando. Some fun. All 80 filled out questionnaires with some rudimentary questions. About half gave as residence Santa Clarita or Canyon Country, two way out San Fernando Valley suburbs known for white flight. Almost all of those folks wrote that they had friends, relatives or neighbors who were in law enforcement. Many seem to know only cops - it’s like a paramilitary community. Let's just say the NRA does better there than the ACLU or Democrat Party. The schools are more likely to teach creationism than constitutional law - except for the 1st and 2nd Amendments.

So it was very interesting when I asked them if they could be “fair” to a defendant in a criminal trial. Several disagreed with the proposition that a person is presumed innocent until proved to be guilty. Many asserted that they would not believe the testimony of a defendant, because he’s the one accused.

One young man, whose father and uncle were police officers and who himself admitted such aspirations, stated quite proudly that the police work hard at investigations, weeding out weak cases before arresting and charging someone.

He conceded my conclusion that in his view there was no need for jury trials at all. Several others in the panel slyly smiled their agreement, although even their ardor to avoid jury service couldn’t force them to admit to this overt brand of fascism. Most were content to lie and claim impartiality.

When I got home, I read my L.A. Times and found the following headline:
“Wrongly convicted man wins suit” (May 1, 2007, B5) which reported a $2 million judgment for a man who spent 12 years in prison for a rape which DNA tests later proved he didn’t commit.

The federal jury found that a Riverside County Deputy Sheriff had fabricated incriminating evidence and withheld exonerating evidence in the case in order to get the conviction.

No wonder cops don’t like juries.