On working with indigent criminal defendants


by Jamison Koehler on Might 13, 2022
Jefferson Memorial

With the information that my sensible and socially dedicated niece Somers Brush has begun work as a community defender in Detroit, I have been reflecting on the past 15 many years I have expended symbolizing indigent defendants:  three decades as an assistant public defender in Philadelphia and, due to the fact then, accepting courtroom-appointed scenarios as part of my non-public legal defense apply in Washington, D.C.  

Is there any information I can offer you her?  

Lesson Amount #1:  Never drive a plea

1st and foremost, I have uncovered from bitter expertise that becoming emotionally invested in a client using a plea – even the best plea imaginable — is just about normally counterproductive.  People tend to be contrarian:  If we inform them they have to have to get a plea, they will think of many explanations why they shouldn’t.  

As a final result, I use a kind of reverse psychology when broaching the challenge of a plea with a shopper.  Only soon after going through the points of the scenario and my approach for getting it to trial do I then inform the customer – pretty much parenthetically — that there is a plea offer on the table.  I find that when I do it this way it is the customer, not me, who keeps coming again to the plea.  “That is wonderful and all,” the consumer claims.  “Thank you. But what would transpire if I took this plea?”

If this appears as if I am currently being manipulative, it is true:  I am.  Absolutely.  But it sales opportunities to the greatest consequence.  This is our client’s daily life, not ours, and the determination whether or not or not to take a plea is solely the client’s. The shopper demands to come to the determination on his/her have.  He/she has to affirmatively want to enter into the plea.  Otherwise, the shopper will enter into an ill-considered plea. Or the settlement will fall aside throughout the plea colloquy.  

An additional reason not to push a plea is that, just as I have dropped scenarios I was guaranteed I was likely to win, I have also won scenarios that, at initially look, I imagined ended up lifeless doggy losers.  You never ever know:  complainants recant or transfer absent, the government loses items of proof, and instances are dismissed in advance of trial.  This happens considerably far more than people notice.  Or witnesses improve their tales or lie and you close up with a gain at demo.  Body worn digital camera information are the finest issue that ever occurred to felony protection lawyers.  

When I was a community defender, I applied to admire the more mature, additional experienced attorneys who could choose any crack and open the government’s circumstance large open up. They would see factors that I had skipped. Immediately after several years of performing this, I now have the self-assurance to consider that any case is likely winnable.  All we want is that very small sliver of light-weight.  

In arguing not to drive pleas, I am also motivated by owning interviewed hundreds of purchasers who, when talking about their felony histories, only communicate ruefully about the instances they made a decision to plead responsible.  The regret would seem to past permanently:  My attorney talked me into using that plea, they say.  I ought to have taken it to demo.  

Conversely, I assume of a client in Philadelphia who, after insisting on using a lousy circumstance to trial, obtained slammed with a prolonged jail sentence.  I keep in mind him thanking me at sentencing for my advocacy and then thanking the choose as he was led away in handcuffs.  I never know how he felt the subsequent working day when the fact of a extended jail continue to be commenced to sink in.  But on that day anyway, he experienced the gratification of being aware of that he experienced experienced his day in court docket.  He experienced exercised his constitutional ideal to a trial.  He had been heard.  

Lesson #2:  There is no will need to defend the program

As we assist our customers navigate the felony justice procedure, a process that is often confusing and unfair, we will automatically discover ourselves explaining things. Describing the process, nevertheless, does not indicate that we have to defend it.

In contrast to retained clientele who think we are excellent (they would not have employed us if they did not have confidence in and regard us), numerous court-appointed shoppers will be skeptical of equally our competencies and our motives.  Knowing that our paycheck arrives from the govt, they typically lump us in with the federal government.  I dislike when customers discuss about “you all” this and “you all” that.  

Our legal justice system genuinely does stink. Why have I generally identified myself so unwilling to say so/concur with customer when they complain? Customers require to know that we share their outrage.  They have to have to know that we are on their facet.  

At times when the authorities has performed a little something I disagree with, I have identified myself going off on a long rant when talking with a shopper.  My inclination is to quit myself.  Then I imagine:  Why not allow the shopper hear my disappointment?  Chances are, I am placing voice to precisely what the client is feeling. 

Or, just just before we are about to seem in front of the judge, I will preview my argument for the client.  It is very good to observe the argument.  More importantly, customers love to listen to us screen this passion — both of those privately and before the court.  

There was a private attorney in Philadelphia who employed to choose the defendant’s cash for the original hearing or two and then dump the consumer on the general public defender’s business to thoroughly clean up the mess.  None of us in the general public defender’s office had at any time observed him actually try out a situation.  And he had no clue when it came to the legislation.  

But he did set on a excellent present:  “You have experienced your transform,” he would say when the prosecutor would consider to object.  “Now it is my time to chat.”  Defendants would chase him out of the courtroom when he was accomplished, inquiring for his card.  

Lesson #3: Never contradict your client in court docket

At some place any law firm who does indigent protection will discover him- or herself remaining dressed down in court docket by an disappointed and ungrateful client.  “My law firm does not think in my circumstance.”  “My lawyer never ever will come to see me at the jail.”  Or:  “My attorney never conveyed the plea offer you to me.”  

My favourite criticism was a little something I heard from a juvenile defendant talking about his attorney:  Would it kill him to use a breath mint or two? 

The normal inclination, of course, is to defend oneself:  “Are you kidding me? I have been out to see Mr. Smith at the jail 3 moments in the previous week by itself.”  

Instead we keep our tongue.  We remain expressionless.  We do not switch back to the gallery and roll our eyes.  We never ever contradict our consumer in court.

I have observed colleagues engaged in outright spats with their shoppers in open up court docket.  Not a excellent seem.  “We are likely to act like grown ups listed here,” stated the choose to a person of the lawyers.  

Our colleagues sitting in the gallery will them selves have been on the getting close of this kind of unfair criticism at 1 point.  They will consider what the defendant states about us with a grain of salt.  What they will not forgive is any exhibit of disloyalty.  

Lesson #4: A gentle contact generally is effective most effective.

Prison protection is a major and generally depressing business.  Someone or some thing has been harmed, and our purchasers are struggling with effects that could last for the relaxation of their lives.  

But that does not imply we require to be all doom-and-gloom.  

I have uncovered that clients respond very best to a heat, welcoming, comforting encounter when we display up at the jail.  Who likes dour?

I have learned a great deal from listening to the recorded jail calls of my consumers. Eavesdropping on my purchasers talking in unguarded times with their mates and family members, for case in point, I have figured out that I have had the unfortunate habit of showing rushed or harried in my dealings with clients. 

I have to have to rest, throttle back.   I will need to master not to acquire every little thing so seriously.

Listening to just one of my customers executing an impersonation of me (prefaced with “my attorney says”) with this loud and exaggerated tone of voice has taught me that I have to have to dial matters down a bit.  I need to listen.  I want to act much more like a person and considerably less like a attorney.  This is specially legitimate thinking about I am an more mature white male and most of my indigent purchasers are young black gentlemen.  I need to have to do everything I can to bridge that divide.

And this prospects to my final piece of guidance:

Lesson #5:  A thick pores and skin prevents burn-out. 

I am still working on this.  I am a prickly, slender-skinned dude.  I like praise.  I dislike to be criticized.  


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