Confessions of a Criminal Lawyer: The Client Is Always Right?
They never told us in law school that it would be like this. I know it's hard to feel sorry for a lawyer, but they could have at least told us that on most days as a criminal lawyer, there is nothing we'd be able to do for our clients.
The first thing that struck me when I started practicing criminal law was how easy it was for an attorney to just walk into the county jail. My briefcase wasn't searched. I wasn't patted down. And I was able to gingerly step around the metal detector. I didn't even have to show a picture identification, just my bar card from the supreme court.
There was a big sign on the front door reminding visitors that they could not bring their firearms into the jail. As if anyone would need to be reminded of such a thing.
But this lax security didn't really matter in the overall scheme of things. I soon learned that few of my clients had the mental faculties to remember to brush their teeth or tie their shoes on a regular basis, let alone mastermind a massive prison break from the local county jail.
The client is always right?
Most of my cases would start by me receiving a telephone call from someone other than the client. A long-suffering parent, spouse, relative or significant other would be on the phone with a tale of woe of how local law enforcement had once again conspired to arrest and incarcerate their innocent child, spouse, etc. They wanted to pay whatever it takes and have me do everything possible to prove the innocence of their loved one. They wanted me to drop whatever I was currently doing and devote the rest of my career to fighting for this noble cause.
And by the way, could I give them a discount on my hourly fee and set up a payment plan while I was at it? Could I take a postdated check, make them a loan or accept firearms, vehicles or perhaps some livestock in trade?
The second thing that struck me about practicing criminal law was the fact that even after decades of television and pop culture blasting the important words, "you have the right to remain silent," most criminals simply could not compel themselves to stop talking after an arrest. I knew -- and the prosecutors knew, too -- that my clients were guilty, because they usually confessed. And there was not a thing I could do about it, once they had run their mouths off to the authorities.
They would confess when there was absolutely no logical or rational reason for doing so; they would actually confess when there was absolutely no evidence linking them to the alleged crime.
Confessing all the way to the clink
I still remember listening to the interview taken at the sheriff's department of my meth-addicted client, who had left behind his child pornography at an apartment he once rented.
Sheriff: "Are these computer discs yours?"
My client: "Yup."
Sheriff: "Do you know what is on these discs?"
My client: "Yup, pornography."
Now was my client guilty of downloading child pornography? Yes.
Should he have gone to jail for doing so? Most definitely.
But should he have gone to jail longer than those who molested actual children? Certainly not.
But he did just that, because he confessed to every single element of the crime. His public defenders (who took over after he ran out of money to pay me), were unsuccessful in getting this confession thrown out. In his case, law enforcement had no fingerprints on the discs. The apartment was full of junk, had been left unlocked and abandoned, and so the material could have been owned by anyone. My former client would have been convicted of something, surely, but he probably would not have been convicted of 10 counts of pandering child pornography. If he could have just kept quiet, at the most he would have been convicted of would have been a count or two of possession.
You can't win for losing
They should have warned us that often we would have nothing to bargain with. That despite the fact that our clients had handed a cream puff of a case to the prosecution, with all that confessing, they and their family would still blame us for not being able to get them a better deal. And to top it all off, they would fight us over paying the bill.
On second thought, maybe it's good they didn't tell us it would be like this. If they had told us, who really would do this job?
Actually, I gave it up. After practicing for five years as a criminal lawyer in central Ohio, I now work as a business and public affairs consultant. Perhaps I will go back one day, but only if I can convince every one of my potential clients to go mute the moment they are arrested -- and stay that way!
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