The rantings of a Public Defender constantly fighting against society's pervasive Police Industrial Complex. Enjoy the unique perspective of one whose life's work is to fight the system through the system.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

"DID HE DO IT?"

This is the question my friends most commonly ask me when asking me about cases. The question is actually hard to answer sometimes.

As a PD, I don't get to choose my cases, they are assigned to me randomly (through some matrix system depending on what court I am working in) or, in the more serious cases, assigned to me by a supervisor who looks at my caseload and determines it's time for me to work a little harder. Turning a case down is not an option (at least not more than once. Maybe you can pull a "personal reason" excuse once, but don't try more than that).

But the question of "did he do it" is a complex one. For the most part, my clients did something wrong to get themselves into custody. The only question is what did they do, and does the provable actions conform to the charges against them? Thus, while my client may have possessed drugs, and should be found guilty of that (a truly absurd crime, but that's another post), the client should be found not guilty of possessing them for purposes of sale. This can have a huge distinction in Cal. In some cases it can be the difference between a small fine and life in prison (in the case of pot, the difference between a $100 fine and life in prison can be a cop disliking you and "opining" that you possessed that eighth for purposes of sale). So, did he do it?

Even in more severe cases such a conundrum exists. In a murder case, maybe my client shot the person, but did so in self-defense. So, yes, he did kill the person, but we will argue that it was not murder, and the DA will argue that it was.

Ultimately, I was not there for any of these crimes (if I was, it would be a conflict of interest for me to represent the person since I would also be a witness). I can only rely on what I read in the reports and hear from the witnesses. Sometimes, the overwhelming evidence convinces even me conclusively that my client "did it," despite his consistent denials. Other times, I can only throw up my hands and say "I dunno, we'll have to let the jury decide."

I used to feel in just about every instance that there was at least some truth to what an officer testified about when they say my client committed a crime, or they found evidence on him. Rampart began to change my mind (if you don't know what Rampart is by now, go to the LA Weekly web site, or do a google search, but essentially it was the largest scandal in LA history for corrupt cops planting evidence and falsely testifying against defendants in central LA). I actually had some cases with these cops, and I had no reason to believe that they would just go and plant evidence on completely innocent people. I figured they shaded the truth at times, exaggerated to get someone convicted, but make stuff up wholesale???? I guess even cynical I didn't want to believe that. Well, it happened.

So, if my client says that he didn't have those drugs the police say they found on him, who am I to tell him he's a liar. And who am I to tell someone, when they ask, that he "did it"?

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