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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The mad hatter as counsel for the accused

It takes a certain amount of mental illness to be a criminal defense lawyer. The old public defender’s office was a bag of mixed nuts from the top down. Paranoia was practically a job requirement.

The system and everyone in it was against you. You walked into a courtroom and were met with the cold blast of hostile frost just because you were there to shake things up. If you could handle that, day after day, year after year, you could survive; if it gave you a rush, you could be a star.

You had to be able to stand losing most of your cases, even the rare ones where your client actually might be innocent. You have to be able to restrain your natural aggressiveness and competitive juices because effective defending is often a matter of conceding the high ground to the righteous prosecutors.

Most of the lawyers I have known in this business are severe eccentrics, minority thinkers who, to paraphrase RFK, don’t look at things and ask why, but rather "why the fuck not".

The guy representing my client’s co-defendant in this current trial seems to be close to the edge. He’s got the wild bug eyed look of the heroically messed up paranoid.

When he fails to make a point with a witness due to his inability to overcome the D.A.’s aggressive and persistent petty objections to his poorly drafted questions, he becomes petulant, accusing the judge of bias against him personally, and begins to sulk. Since most of his meanderings and pouts come near the end of a long day in trial, I suspect that his problem is medical.

Early in the day, he is merely scatterbrained and borderline incompetent. But as the clock nears 4 p.m. each day, his affect becomes stranger, his concentration even less focused and his questions less coherent. "Which direction was the car going which was going toward Van Nuys Boulevard?" he asks for the third time. "Objection: asked and answered, vague," the DA shouts. "Sustained," says the exasperated judge. Some jurors giggle.

The lawyer looks confused, as if shocked by the injustice. He asks the same question with the same result. He tries to bring out an inconsistent statement made by the witness at the preliminary hearing, but fumbles it so badly that the D.A.’s objections are sustained. When the D.A. is able to refer to the same prior testimony on another point with the proper foundation, he complains again of bias. When, after the jurors are excused, the judge warns him about his behavior, he stalks out of the courtroom.

The D.A. in her own paranoic way, thinks he is acting this way in a clever ploy to gain a reversal after he is committed to an asylum when the case is over. I feel sorry for the guy, although his bumbling may do some harm to my own case.

Of course, there is a chance that his client may be acquitted and mine convicted, despite or because of the lawyer’s pathetic performance. In the insane world of our legal system, skills and results are often inversely proportional.

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