Over the last eight years, I have volunteered at a couple of public defender offices. I started my legal career as a defender and going back to that work after decades made me remember how hard it is to be a public defender. It certainly was difficult for me at the beginning of my career when I tried many cases.
Because of plea bargaining and dismissals, many defenders and prosecutors try few cases. The overwhelming majority of cases end without a trial, and new attorneys might go a year and more without doing a trial. I, however, tried a lot of cases shortly after being sworn in as an attorney.
After getting a graduate law degree, I joined the Legal Aid Society, then New York City’s public defender. I was a favorite of the chief attorney of the organization because he, as I, was a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. He advanced me quickly, and I was in a major trial position three months after I started, having already done a few misdemeanor trials.
Federal money had come into New York City for special drug courts, and I, with five others, was assigned as a public defender in these newly opened courts. Cases were transferred there from all around the city. Because of the backlogs in the other courts, many of the cases were old, no acceptable plea bargains had been negotiated for them, and a stack of cases was waiting to be tried. Our new courts were for the purpose of trying such cases. As a result, for about a year and a half, I started a new trial about every two weeks.
The pressure was intense. In some sense, I never was not thinking about my cases. I carried a notebook—at movies, parties, dinners, the subway, wherever—to jot down notes about the cases because I could not shut down my mind about them. I put the notebook by the bed because almost every night I would wake up several times thinking about my clients.
Mostly I lost the trials. I knew that this was normal. Defendants are convicted 75% of the time, and the conviction rate for the kinds of drug cases I was trying was even higher. A legendary attorney who mentored me said that it was a miracle if a defender won half the cases. Even though I knew these facts, I had not learned a necessity for a public defender: how to cope with losing. I consider myself sane and balanced, but this was the one time that I felt that I could be close to a nervous breakdown. Of course, it may not have been my fault that a person was convicted—the evidence against him was simply too strong—but even so, each time I questioned whether I was competent to do the work.
Especially hard was a loss when the defendant had been free on bail, then convicted, and immediately handcuffed and shoved into a cell behind the courtroom. I never wanted to see that person at that moment, but I felt that I had to. The bars that separated us always gave me a chill. They haunted me. This feeling always comes back to me when I see the final scene of the movie “The Maltese Falcon.” Although I have enjoyed this film many times, I often turn away at that closing shot, which gives me the creeps. Mary Astor is being led away by the police, and she is hoping that Humphrey Bogart will save her. In a great monolog, he makes it clear that he won’t. The cops take her to an old-fashioned elevator with a gate, and the gate is closed with her on one side and Bogart on the other. The gate’s shadow falls like bars across her face. The horror of what awaits her has now sunk in. She panics. The scene brings back the memory of the queasiness I had to fight when I went to see Abraham S., who had been out on bail, in the cells after he was convicted. His was the real-life face of Mary Astor’s character. Worse yet, it was not clear to me that he was guilty. Sleep was only something to be desired that night.
I did win a few trials, but these did not prove to me that I had the right disposition to be a public defender. I realized that after a not-guilty verdict I did not feel elation or gratification. I did not even feel a satisfaction about my trial attorney skills. I was only relieved that I had not lost. The win did not make me feel good; it only staved off the depression of a loss. After one acquittal, I talked with the friendly presiding judge, and I explained these feelings to him. He responded that with such emotions, I should not be a public defender. I knew that he was right, but I had no idea what to do to survive in the work.
(continued May 31)