Confessions of a Sometime Public Defender (continued)

After trying cases at what seemed like a non-stop pace for a couple years, I left the trial bureau and went into a test case unit of the Legal Aid Society. Doing legal research and drafting memoranda and briefs without having to pick a jury gave me time to reflect on my experiences, something I could not do when I was involved with trial after trial. I thought hard about what I had done well and what I what had not done well. I thought that I was being objective when I concluded that I had performed much better than I had given myself credit for. Yes, I was a good trial attorney, and my clients, even the ones who had been convicted, where lucky to have had me.

Six months into the test case unit, I went back to try a big drug case involving a defendant arrested by an elite, but corrupt, unit of the police. Conviction meant an automatic life sentence, but now I had the confidence that I knew what I was doing. The client, however, was scared and tried to get me replaced, but his mother—a sweet, sweet woman, who, in spite of everything, loved her son–said that she had a vision from God that I was Mikey’s savior. So, he began to cooperate with me. I did do a terrific job, and to his surprise he was acquitted of all the more serious charges. He did not get a life sentence.

From that time on, I felt I was able to look at my trial performances more dispassionately. Even when there was a conviction, I could see whether I had done a good job. I looked back on a trial not to flagellate myself, but to see if there was something to learn for the future. I learned that I had to try each case. By that I mean that I could not let other people tell me how to try it because I was the one who had to live with the result. I learned that sometimes risks had to be taken and the safe path not followed. The safe path, the one that others can’t criticize, often leads to a conviction because that is the usual result in a criminal case. Risks would leave me open to criticism, but I learned that the client came first, not me. If I thought that the risks increased the likelihood of an acquittal, even though an acquittal was still unlikely and even though I would be criticized if a conviction resulted, the risk was worth it. I learned to have confidence in my judgment, or at least I learned that I knew the case better than any observer and my judgment about my own case was better than anyone else’s. I eventually went back to regularly trying cases and trusted that I really knew how to do it. I would like to think—do think—that I served my clients well. I still felt bad after a loss, but now I found joy and satisfaction in winning.

Mikey’s big drug case, while giving me found confidence, also led me to an ethical breach. Defender ethics prohibited me from taking anything from the client or his friends or family. But after the case, Mikey’s mother kept insisting that she had to do something for me. She settled on a Saturday lunch that she would prepare. I said no again and again, but she persisted. She could not understand the reason for the refusal, and I could see that I was hurting her feelings. I decided to bend my ethics and relented. She then insisted that I bring the spouse. I am glad we went because I had an experience that has not been duplicated.

She lived in a cramped apartment somewhere in what was then the shadow of Shea Stadium, the home of the Mets. We quickly learned, however, that after coming from Cuba (well before Castro), she had lived in the Bronx and was a Yankees fan. Her accent was thick, and she kept talking about the love of the New York “Jankees.” I tried not to smile every time she said it. There were religious artifacts around her living/dining room, but then I noticed pictures of a handsome man in the kind of fancy dress that I associated with Cuban men. When I asked about the person in the picture, she lit up. That was her husband who had died, but still lived in her memory. I did not know how to react when I found out that he was a Cuban band leader who primarily led orchestras playing on cruise ships plying the waters to Havana. I did not ask her what she thought of “I Love Lucy,” but here was a woman who had been married to a real-life Ricky Ricardo. She was fascinating talking about that life.

She had us sit a small Formica table, and she brought the spouse and me food. After we ate it, she brought more food. After a few minutes, she brought even more, and after that was sampled, another dish, and another. I felt sick and was hoping each time she served us it was the last time, but I also felt that I would look ungrateful if I did not continue to eat. She had worked on this meal not just for hours, but for days. The spouse and I kept urging her to sit and eat with us, but she refused. She was only there to serve us.

If we talked about her son (who was serving a nine-year sentence), it was only for a moment. She tried to give me some money, but I was insistent on giving it back to her. I didn’t see her again after I waddled down the steps, but for years, until she died, I got a Christmas card from her through her son. I don’t think that she could read or write English.

(to be continued occasionally)