[In my quest for regular content, I’m starting a new feature in which I write about some of the websites in my blogroll.]
If I ever have the misfortune of getting arrested in Virginia, I know exactly who my first phone call is going to: Ken Lammers. He runs the CrimLaw blog and writes most of its content. The best parts of his blog are his stories about what it’s like to be a defense lawyer.
I point to a statement my client made to the probation officer as to his plan for self help after completing his sentence: “I don’t make mistakes twice, I’ll never do that again.” I then proceed to argue to the judge that he should take my client at his word: “You see that the probation officer lists Mr. Smith’s IQ at 76. Well, I just don’t buy it. We can see from the record that Mr. Smith learns and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. In ’85 he was convicted of felony larceny [edit. comment: he stole a dog from the local pound – any theft of a dog is a felony in Va.] but he never made that mistake again. In ’92 his charge of felon in possession of a firearm was taken under advisement and we never see him making that mistake again. Now we see him before the court on the only drug charge ever on his record. I tell you he’s learned this lesson just like he did previously and it is obvious that a long sentence is not needed to drive the point home. I ask you to take him at his word and sentence him to as little time as possible.” The judge listened politely and then proceeded to sentence my client to ten years on each count with eight years suspended, all three sentences to run concurrently.
You can see why I’d want him on my side. Yeah, his client went to prison, but wow…Ken’s got some big shiny brass ones.
Now, I’ve never been the victim of a serious crime, so perhaps my view is warped, but I’ve always liked the idea of a defense lawyer. If I thought I could do the work, I’d want to be one. I admire the breed.
But I know I don’t have it in me. Lammers’s client got two years in jail. It’s in the nature of criminal defense work that Lammers loses a lot of cases. Well, maybe lose isn’t the right word, but total victories—a not-guilty verdict or all charges dropped—are few and far between.
Ken doesn’t talk about his feelings too much, so I don’t know how that sort of thing hits him, but I don’t think I could take too much of that. In my business, computer software development, failure is pretty rare. A project may take a little longer or require a little more work, but unless you’re trying something exotic, it will eventually work. With hard work and careful thought, success is inevitable. That’s not the case in the lawyering business and it would drive me nuts.
To read Lammers’s accounts of it, Virgina law is a lot like the “Shire Law” that governed Valkenvania in Dan Ackroyd’s Nothing But Trouble.
Then he calls my next case and, despite my best efforts, refuses to give my client a continuance so that my client can get his fines paid. He points out that my client has had 5 or 6 continuances already over a 7 month period and there have been no payments made at all. I show him medical records from my client showing that he had congestive heart failure about six months ago and has only been back to work recently. The judge isn’t having any of it. With my client almost crying next to me (in fake “whispers”: tell him this – tell him that – what’ll I do?), the judge sentences him to 30 days in jail but agrees that he can do the time on weekends if I can find a jail which will take him and sets his date to report off for a week.
So the guy had heart failure and lost his job, but the judge still sentences him to jail for not paying his fines. Then—and this part just kills me—the judge makes him look for a prison that will let him do the time on weekends. You mean a judge can’t just make the prison comply with his sentence? I wonder, do Virginia’s death row inmates get threatened with impalement unless they can find an executioner willing to be more humane?
Actually, I guess this counts as leniency in Virginia. God, don’t ever let me be arrested in Virginia.
That’s another reason I could never be a defense lawyer, the unfairness of it all would break me down. If I were defending a woman arrested for prostitution, I’d be fighting the urge to scream at the prosecutor “She’s addicted to drugs and selling her body on the street! Don’t you think she’s got enough trouble without you jackasses piling on!”
I have enough self control not to do that, but the struggle would make it hard for me to concentrate on the job.
Of course, you do explain your client’s position to him (sometimes quite emphatically – I have been in more than one yelling match). If there is videotape of him robbing the bank, two nuns saw him running out the doors, and the police found him with dye matching that of a dye pack on his pants you make very sure that he knows the situation and that he knows the odds of winning at trial.
Did I mention that Lammers takes a lot of court-appointed indigent clients? It makes for some eye-opening reading. My interest in the law arises mostly from my concern for our civil liberties and the great principles that protect them. Like the right to representation by a lawyer, which is respected even in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
As long as it doesn’t cost more than $395.
That’s for a felony. For a misdemeanor, the legislature only pays Lammers $112. To put that in perspective, I recently paid a lawyer $500 to draw up an 8-page contract. Well, not to draw it up from scratch, just to revise it a bit. For that kind of money, Ken Lammers would defend me on a felony burglary charge and throw in disorderly conduct just for fun.
To be fair, if the potential penalty is 20 years or more, they pay Lammers $1096, and if he ever gets a capital case there’d probably be a lot more. Keep in mind that Lammers is not employed by the government, so this money has to stretch to pay for all his business costs. I think the government covers some of his expenses if he gets them approved by a judge.
Lammers’s CrimLaw isn’t just about street-level lawyering. He also does some analysis of interesting recent court rulings. Well, interesting to lawyers, anyway. I find most of them go over my head. He does do some serious thinking about defense lawyering and its purpose in the world.
Basically, whether you are trying to get a good deal or a verdict of not guilty (as few and far between as those are), as a defense attorney you almost invariably represent a client’s liberty interest against society’s long term interest in making him conform and the government’s use of power to either force conformity or seek vengeance.
Lammers makes fun of highly-paid lawyers who get the same results that he does on his government fee, but I imagine that one day he’ll find that he’s one of them. I think he’s on his way to becoming a tough old Virginia defense lawyer. I selfishly hope so, because by then he’ll be writing books about his big cases—where he can afford to hire investigators and everything—and I look forward to reading them.