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CONFESSIONS OF A COURT-APPOINTED CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY




    It was classic.  As a brand-new lawyer in private practice, here I was going to court on my first case.  It was classic.  I didn't know where, exactly, I was going.  In other words, I didn't know my way to the courthouse.  Soon, I learned how our criminal court system works and how defective, even corrupt, is our criminal justice system.  If it is that corrupt, even with murder cases, as we shall see, then how can we send people to their death with such an insidious system?

    Though I was new to the private practice of law, I had been a corporate lawyer in the business world and hated criminal law.  One of the lawyers of the small-town law practice I had joined did court-appointed criminal cases as a defense attorney and I was covering for him.  Here is how the local court-appointed criminal defense system works.  Most small-town criminal defendants can't afford a lawyer, so the municipal court appoints local lawyers to defend them.  It is a system that seems to work----at first blush.  The lawyer benefits by getting assigned several misdemeanor (minor criminal), cases at the same time in the interests of efficiency.  The lawyer can then schedule discovery, usually just the police report, and interviews with the defendant, in an assembly-line fashion.  Most cases are plea-bargained, meaning that the defendant's court-appointed attorney and the city prosecutor work things out if the defendant admits guilt and there are no technical defenses.  Of the few cases that go to trial, they are simple and straight forward with six (6) person juries.

    Where the wheels come off on this nice and tidy system is that police lie.  There are intentional prevarications in almost every police report, so the criminal defendant looks bad and the police work looks good.  Worse, few police have any problem with lying on the witness stand for the same reasons.   It became routine for me to be able to catch the police in their lies and secure a satisfactory result for the criminal defendant albeit it was rough justice.
 
    In fairness to the system, it must be said that the local judge was reasonably honest and gave reasonably unbiased rulings in the face of the fact that the prosecutor's paycheck and his paycheck came from the same city budget.  The court-appointed criminal defense attorney is paid from the same budget too, but is really based on the amount of fines paid by the petty criminals.  

    Then the wheels fell off.  After having tried several drinking-and-driving (DUI) cases with mixed results, I was impressed with how fair this judge was to the driver who had succumbed to drink.  That is, until the MADD mothers filed in one day in the middle of a jury trial on just such a DUI case.  The judge totally changed his demeanor and all of a sudden I found his rulings cutting against my case with zeal and the judge was issuing sweet kindness to the prosecuting adversary.  We lost the case with nary a second thought by the system.  My naivety was over.
 

    Soon, I was on my own and my criminal practice burgeoned, but mostly on small matters such as shoplifting and assault cases.  Sharing space with me and others was Dunsten Thomas (name changed to protect this poor soul) who did the big-time court-appointed cases for criminal defendants in Circuit Court.  He was one of the few that defended capital murder cases in my local county.  He was a punching bag.  I befriended him and occasionally covered for him on less serious felony cases.  Eventually, I got a good look at what was really happening.  Mr. Dunsten Thomas was dysfunctional and possibly an alcoholic, but clung to defending these capital murder cases because that was his only meaningful source of income.  But the system is rigged in yet another way.  District Attorneys are the prosecuting attorneys.  There is a systematic pipeline for these district attorneys to become judges.  When someone from the court-appointed defense attorney ranks aspires to become a judge, there is a meat grinder system of the right that chews up any qualified lawyer who is not from the district attorney's office.  This recently dispatched an extremely qualified local circuit court judge to the unemployment ranks even though he had been appointed to his judicial position by the state governor.  So, while running as an incumbent, he was beaten by the mustered-forces of the district attorney's office.  

    Dunsten Thomas's clients had no chance.  The judges didn't respect him and he has never won a capital murder case to my knowledge.  No wonder OJ opted for the dream team.  

MORAL OF THE STORY  -- Our legal system is dysfunctional at every level.  It is wildy unfair justice by any measure.  I am FOR capital punishment, but not with our legal system that is entirely broken. We cannot execute people under our legal system that is so imperfect.   

Posted on Friday, August 29, 2008 at 11:07AM by Registered CommenterLAUREN PAULSON in | Comments4 Comments | References16 References

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Reader Comments (4)

The same thing is happening currently in Columbia county. A governor appointed judge, Judge Grant, is facing a race against a DA. Possibly excited by the outcome (albeit poor decision IMO of the Washington county voters) of the race against Judge Rogers. There is a new push to continue to stack county benches with prosecutors. This unfortunately furthers the scales of injustice in Oregon.

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