This site took a long snooze, which included several trials, writing a book (still in a drawer), and changing PD offices.
It’s coming back to life, and will include some cross posts with my new site besustained.org.
This site took a long snooze, which included several trials, writing a book (still in a drawer), and changing PD offices.
It’s coming back to life, and will include some cross posts with my new site besustained.org.
In 1991, I had a summer filled with aha, light-bulb, found-my-calling moments, when I worked as a student investigator at the Public Defender Service in Washington, DC. The first time I watched a young men being led into a courtroom in custody and a public defender fighting for his freedom, I connected with a sense of purpose. Even though I was deeply anxious about public speaking (still am), I had the crazy idea that maybe I was meant to do that thing.
I was filled with pride and anticipation when I joined the Alameda County Public Defender in Oakland, California, an office a few miles away from the Berkeley house I was born in.
This photo, after one of my first misdemeanor trials, shows me holding the eagle art we posed with after an acquittal—the eagle is swooping down toward a mouse on the ground; the mouse is flipping off the eagle. I couldn’t get enough. I missed weddings, family reunions and funerals for trials. I worked a lot. All. The. Time.
Seven years later, I slid into my cubicle desk, opened a document, and watched words appear on the screen that seemed typed by hands disconnected from the rest of me. I was surprised and confused to see my own resignation letter appearing in front of me.
I was 33 years old, seven years into a public defender career I thought I would stay in forever. I had no job lined up, no idea how I’d pay the bills. It didn’t feel like a decision. It felt like I couldn’t stay there for five more minutes, like there was no oxygen left in the room. I fled the blur of motions, trials, midnight laundry, clients dying, vending machine lunches. Burnout.
I didn’t practice law for three years. I had this idea that doing “happy things” would make me happy, so I taught yoga and wrote for magazines and rode a motorcycle. When I wasn’t sufficiently brimming with happiness, I danced on rooftops in Cuba, ran a marathon and spent hours in my darkroom. The happiness quest made me somewhat happier until it didn’t. I felt separated from my own sense of purpose. After three years, I went back to being a public defender.
Since returning to public defense in 2007, I’ve explored how to do it differently. I think a lot about how to stay, how to develop strategies to re-charge my batteries and sustain this work.
At first, I kept this exploration to myself. Public defense is still a professions where tough it out, don’t complain, don’t show weakness culture prevails. When I occasionally whispered to colleagues, I actually burned out and left for several years, the response was not what I expected (awkward sidelong glances and people skittering away from me). It was an outpouring of similar stories. A comment became a conversation became a talk became a well-being workshop became a series of workshops that can’t begin to keep up with the demand. There seem to be many, many public defenders who are eager to have this discussion. How do we stay? We don’t want to leave but we are struggling. How do we sustain this work?
I have some ideas and so I created a site to continue the discussion. Please tell me what you think and send me your ideas if you’d like to contribute to this site.
And all you fierce freedom fighter public defenders out there, please take care of yourselves.
Last week, the Justice Department and the FBI formally acknowledged that 26 of 28 examiners in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed hair comparison testimony in trials for two decades, until DNA testing became available to more accurately test the hair in 2000. Flawed forensic testimony was admitted in 95% of the trials in the re-examined cases (342 cases reviewed so far, 1200 remain). The 342 reviewed cases include 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison.
Witnesses presented testimony that hair associated with a crime “matched” the defendant with near certainty, citing misleading statstics. In one case, later testing revealed the “matching hair” to be a dog hair. FBI hair analysts “committed widespread, systematic error, grossly exaggerating the significance of their data under oath with the consiquence of unfairly bolstering the prosecution’s case,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. Given that FBI examiners trained hundreds of state hair examiners in annual training courses, the errors surely extend to coutless state cases not yet included in this review.
As many, many people have written this week (here , here, here, here, here , here), this is a big deal. Spencer Hsu wrote in the Washinton Post, “The admissions mark a watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, highlighting the failure of the nation’s courts for decades to keep bogus scientific information from juries.”
Finally, a watershed moment! Or is it? How long has it been clear that the misuse of forensic science is causing miscarriages of justice by erroneously claiming to identify defendants by matching hair samples, fibers, or bite marks? By claiming an accident was arson? In the New York Times, Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, makes clear that this is not a new concern: “A 2009 report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies, found that apart from DNA testing, no forensic method had been rigorously shown to consistently and reliably demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific person.” As Scott Greenfield writes, “we’ve rested our faith in crap, scientifically unproven and unjustifiable, because people dressed in expert suits took the witness stand, offered jargonized mumbo-jumbo in official sounding tones, and promised that they were right, because science.”
Based on historical review of forensic inaccuracy, widespread error, and numerous lab scandals, there are calls for reform. There is a new national commission tasked with bringing rigor to forensic science. As Eric Lander asserts, “It is now abundantly clear that an expert’s opinion is not a reliable basis for drawing connections between evidence samples and a particular person. No expert should be permitted to testify without showing three things: a public database of patterns from many representative samples; precise and objective criteria for declaring matches; and peer-reviewed published studies that validate the methods.”
You know what still happens when you walk into a trial court and ask for a full hearing on the admissibility and scope of fingerprint or ballistics evidence? Too often, the judge and prosecutor look at you like you’re bonkers, tilting at windmills. Or worse, engaging in shenanigans by creating unwarranted skepticism of accurate science rather than exposing true flaws in non-science that has been accepted with insufficient scrutiny. They give you rolled eyes, exasperated sighs. They have inexplicable confidence that errors only happen in other cases, in other courtrooms. Scott Greenfielf wrote, as this latest story was breaking, “Thing is, I can’t bear writing another post about junk science. We’ve known the answer for decades, but judges don’t give a damn.”
As public defenders, we have the responsibility of raising these issues in the trial courts and reminding prosecutors and judges that it is not acceptable to choose expediency over accuracy. The goal of increasing accuracy of evidence must be shared by all parties in the justice system. As Eric Lander writes, “Insistence on high-quality forensics should unite law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys. It’s a matter of both justice and safety: No one wants innocent defendants in jail — or executed — while true perpetrators are still at large.”
I’ve been wanting to write about Just Mercy since reading it several months ago, but trials and life (and working on my own book) have interfered. With the release of Anthony Ray Hinton from death row this past week, I am reminded of the amazing work that Bryan Stevenson does for each of his clients. His advocacy for systemic change through his speeches, teaching, and writing—including this book—encourages the arc of the moral universe to continue bending toward justice for all of our clients.
Anthony Ray Hinton was finally freed on April 3, 2015, after Stevenson had represented him for sixteen years. Stevenson said of Hinton’s case: “Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice.” Hinton spent nearly thirty years on death row for a murder he did not commit, (based on ballistics evidence that was later discredited, full case details here at EJI.org and interview with Mr. Hinton here). Stevenson writes of Hinton’s case in Just Mercy (at page 298: “I was increasingly desperate to find a way to get his case overturned”) and seeing the smiling photo of Hinton and Stevenson walking free, side by side, is particularly moving after reading the book.
Just Mercy is a hauntingly beautiful memoir that has won many well-deserved awards (listed here). Tracing his career, Stevenson describes feeling disconnected while at Harvard Law School until meeting Steve Bright. Ten years later, I felt the same law school disconnect until encountering the teaching of both Bright and Stevenson. After law school, Stevenson worked with Bright (and slept on his couch) for a few years prior to creating the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 in Montgomery, Alabama. In Just Mercy, Stevenson describes his advocacy for people in prison and on death row—most of whom are poor, black, and had abysmal trial representation.
At times, this book is so vivid and painful that I had to set it aside for several days before I could pick it up again. One example is the description of meeting Joe Sullivan in prison (p. 262). The wheelchair, the cage, the prison. I had to close the book for a while because it was so deeply disturbing.
But Stevenson’s gift is his hopefulness. As he describes the excruciating execution of his client, Jimmy Dill, he moves into his overarching theme of brokenness. He writes (at page 289): “But our brokenness is the also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.”
This riff on brokenness recurs in his presentations and writing and resonates deeply if you too are drawn to this work. I first heard him speak when I was a law student in 1994. Other aspiring public defenders advised, “Drop everything and go if you get the chance to work for Bryan Stevenson–or to take his class, or to hear him speak.”
This was good advice. When I heard him speak, it was like Yo-Yo Ma playing my favorite Beatles songs on a cello inside my ribcage. He was already preaching the themes that weave through his speeches today: Each of us is more that the worst thing we have ever done. The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice. We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. The real question about the death penalty is not: does this person deserve to die? It is: do we as society deserve to kill this person?
Stevenson is unflinching, yet somehow he maintains a tone that is hopeful and– to use a word he often uses– energizing. It becomes clear why he was given a MacArthur Genius Award, and why he is said to have received the longest ever standing ovation for a TED talk (for his 2012 talk, “We need to talk about an injustice.”)
In Just Mercy, he writes (at p. 289): “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it.” All of us who advocate for the indigent in the criminal justice system know that constantly fighting a system that bullies broken people can make you feel that you will spontaneously combust from the frustration and fury of it all. Stevenson describes his own response to feeling discouraged: there is no time for that, there’s work to do. Simple as it is, this is a motivation that works: however beaten down you feel today, show up tomorrow to help one client and that will propel you forward.
This is a wonderful book to gift to people who are interested in understanding the motivations to work as a public defender. I gave it to my parents. My father speaks of it often, my mother was just talking about pulling quotes about liberation for Passover. I took my dad to hear Stevenson speak in February at a capital punishment seminar. In a giant packed auditorium, I heard hundreds of thick-skinned capital defenders quietly sniffled as Stevenson told his milkshake story, which he also tells in the book. I got teary even though I’ve heard the story several times. While providing an account of intolerable injustice, Stevenson’s gift is that he tells it in a way that makes us all feel re-energized to keep up the fight.
Sonoma County has had a dedicated Early Case Resolution (ECR) court since 2009. Felony criminal cases (other than treatment-qualifying nonviolent drug possession offenses) begin in ECR, a courtroom that has the goal of resolving a high percentage of cases as early as possible, in order to reduce court congestion and costs. This week, the Criminal Law section of the Sonoma County Bar Association raised the question of whether the ECR court should continue to exist.
This question was raised the same week as the publication of federal Judge Jed S. Rakoff’s article “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” which raises concerns about current practices of plea bargaining. Rakoff is a United States District Judge on senior status for the Southern District of New York. Though Rakoff references federal practice, I believe he raises some of the same concerns for due process and factual accuracy that are raised in local scrutiny of our own ECR court.
First, Rakoff sets forth federal statistics: “In 2013, while 8 percent of all federal criminal charges were dismissed (either because of a mistake in fact or law or because the defendant had decided to cooperate), more than 97 percent of the remainder were resolved through plea bargains, and fewer than 3 percent went to trial.”
A review after the first year of ECR in Sonoma County placed its 2009 case resolution rate at 83 percent. (Jan. 13, 2010 Press Democrat article here.) (This does not imply that the remaining 17% go to trial. The majority are resolved through plea bargains in the trial courts, so they are not counted as early resolutions.) Based on conversation with colleagues who have staffed the ECR courtroom and regularly reviewed the statistical reports, it appears that the resolution rate has varied in the low eighties throughout the existence of ECR.
Since its creation in 2009, there has been a mix of praise for and concern about ECR. In 2011, “Some defense lawyers said they feel pressured to plea before having all evidence before them. And at least one law enforcement source said the emphasis on clearance rates hurts public safety.” (Press Democrat article here.)
On November 20, 2014, the Criminal Law Section of the Sonoma County Bar Association posed these questions: is the pressure to resolve cases early compromising due process? Is there a prosecutorial policy that the ECR offer is the “best offer” and later offers will only increase, never decrease, no matter what information is revealed by litigation or investigation? Are defendants being punished for requesting preliminary hearings?
Rakoff’s observations are applicable to this discussion and his article should be read in its entirety. He first addresses the power imbalance in current plea bargaining, in which prosecutors can readily overpower the defense and force guilty pleas. He describes how prosecutorial charging decisions impact bargaining: “it is the prosecutor, not the judge, who effectively exercises the sentencing power, albeit cloaked as a charging decision.” He describes how the defense is disadvantaged in situations of high pressure to plead early: “the information-deprived defense lawyer, typically within a few days after the arrest, meets with the overconfident prosecutor, who makes clear that, unless the case can be promptly resolved by a plea bargain, he intends to charge the defendant with the most severe offenses he can prove.” He describes how unequal and unfair the process has become: “The Supreme Court’s suggestion that a plea bargain is a fair and voluntary contractual arrangement between two relatively equal parties is a total myth: it is much more like a ‘contract of adhesion’ in which one party can effectively force its will on the other party.”
One obvious impact of pressure to resolve cases early–prior to investigation, thorough discussion, and evidentiary hearing or trial– is that a defendant does not get his or her day in court. The trial system does not have the opportunity to achieve its truth-seeking function. Cases that are mischarged, overcharged, or mitigated may not be identified. There is a tendency toward inflated charges and inflated sentences.
The more alarming concern is the reality that innocent people plead guilty. Every day. In a courtroom near you. Rakoff writes, “possibly the gravest objection of all, the prosecutor-dictated plea bargain system, by creating such inordinate pressures to enter into plea bargains, appears to have led a significant number of defendants to plead guilty to crimes they never actually committed.”
Rakoff tries to quantify the problem. “How prevalent is the phenomenon of innocent people pleading guilty? The few criminologists who have thus far investigated the phenomenon estimate that the overall rate for convicted felons as a whole is between 2 percent and 8 percent. The size of that range suggests the imperfection of the data; but let us suppose that it is even lower, say, no more than 1 percent. When you recall that, of the 2.2 million Americans in prison, over 2 million are there because of plea bargains, we are then talking about an estimated 20,000 persons, or more, who are in prison for crimes to which they pleaded guilty but did not in fact commit.” (I’ve also written previously here about the error rate of the criminal justice system.)
We are not immune from this problem here in Sonoma County. While the rate is unknown, it is undeniable that innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes that they did not commit. Pressure to resolve cases early, under threat of increased punishment, raises the risk of wrongful conviction. In a system with insufficient resources to have a jury trial in every criminal case, this risk of wrongful conviction is balanced against pressures for efficiency. In the balancing of court costs against due process, concerns for fair and factually accurate outcomes should not be overlooked.
I’m packing up my juvenile office this week, moving back to trying adult felony cases. For eighteen months, I’ve been making the long commute through the rolling vineyards of Sonoma Valley to the Juvenile Justice Center. Tucked incongruously behind two swanky wineries (Ledson and St. Francis) are the juvenile hall, two courtrooms, and the juvenile branch offices of the public defender, district attorney and probation departments.
Within the first week at juvie, I was assigned the case* of a kid I’ll call Jamie, who had previously been placed on deferred entry of judgment (DEOJ), which is a special category of probation supervision available in California after a kid admits a first offense. On DEOJ, a minor has an opportunity to successfully complete one year of probation and have the case dismissed and all records sealed. This is about as close as it gets to going back to pre-arrest status, as if it never happened. Jamie had been working hard to complete counseling and community service; Jamie wanted that successful dismissal and record sealing.
However, Jamie faced a new petition to cancel DEOJ for giving a urine sample that tested positive for marijuana. But Jamie denied using marijuana and seemed baffled by the test; the parents concurred that they monitored Jamie closely and did not suspect any drug use. We decided to request an evidentiary hearing so I could ask the criminalist who did the urinalysis some questions about false positives, creatinine ratios and the failure to do a confirmatory test.
When we went to court to set the hearing for Jamie’s case, the judge announced, “a noncompliance petition has been filed, DEOJ is lifted, we’ll set sentencing in two weeks—“
“Wait,” I said, startled. “I object to the court setting sentencing. The violation hasn’t been proven. Jamie is denying the allegation and requesting an evidentiary hearing.”
“Denied! Set for sentencing! Read the statute!” The judge shouted. The next day, on the wall of the courtroom, there was a giant enlargement of the portion of the statute containing the phrase “must lift DEOJ.”
I read the statute (Welfare and Institutions code section 793) and the pertinent rules of court (Rules 5.800(h)(2) and 5.580.). Minors facing DEOJ termination had a right to an evidentiary hearing at which the violation had to be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, prior to the lifting of DEOJ and scheduling of the sentencing hearing. I filed a brief outlining the pertinent law.
Then I received a probation report that stated that Jamie had admitted the new violation in court.
“Why does it say it was admitted when it was actually denied?” I asked the probation officer.
“The court minutes say it was admitted,” he said.
“That can’t be,” I assured him. I checked the minutes. He was right.
“Why does it say it was admitted when it was actually denied?” I asked the court clerk.
“I can’t go to the next screen unless I check that box,” she replied. “I have to move to the next case. I have to move out of that screen to finish the minutes and go to the next case.”
“Can’t you just check that it was denied?” I asked.
“Not unless it’s set for hearing. If it’s set for sentencing, I have to check that it was admitted,” she explained.
Well, of course. Deep in this particular rabbit hole, it makes perfect sense that the computer program requires that denials become admissions, and that kids be sentenced for conduct that has been neither proven nor admitted.
On the date set to argue the motion I’d filed requesting an evidentiary hearing for Jamie, I stood ready at the front of the courtroom, with a stack of cases and statutes tabbed and highlighted in front of me. I was anticipating a showdown. Instead, the judge quickly and anticlimactically conceded that Jamie had a right to a hearing.
I won! I thought. I believed—naively even after all these years—that DEOJ violation cases would be handled differently going forward. I expected the kids to be asked if they admitted or denied the allegation, and whether they requested a hearing. I thought wrong. When the next DEOJ non-compliance petition came in, the judge lifted DEOJ and set sentencing. Over the course of a year, one judge routinely granted DEOJ non-compliance hearings and two refused. It became clear that I’d have to litigate the same issue over and over again, case by case.
A week ago, more than a year after I first started objecting to this truncated DEOJ violation procedure, I watched a private attorney request a hearing on a DEOJ non-compliance petition.
“Denied!” screamed the judge. In unison, the judge and the prosecutor and the probation officer pointed to the giant enlargement of the phrase on the wall “must lift DEOJ.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the attorney marveled to me in the lobby ousted the courtroom. “From allegation straight to sentencing with no trial or hearing!”
“Speeds things up if you don’t require any evidence and cut out the opportunity to defend against the allegation,” I joked. He looked glum.“The law’s on your side on this,” I reassured him. “So if you file your brief and ignore everyone yelling at you and push for the hearing, you’ll probably get the hearing.”
This is the special insanity we face as defense attorneys. We push the same boulder up the same hill over and over like Sisyphus, in a system that too often prioritizes expediency over fairness.
*This “case” is not one actual case, but a composite of similar cases, with no actual names or case-specific confidential information revealed and several details changed to protect client confidentiality.
The apples are in.
We live on a gravenstein orchard. In our region, many apple trees have been cut down and replaced by the more lucrative grapes, but some of us still grow apples. The gravensteins have a short, early season and don’t transport well. So they lack market value, despite their perfect blend of sweet and tart.
During these weeks when the apples are ready, I hustle home from court to catch them at the perfect ripeness, when they are golden-chartreuse with crimson stripes, and fall into my hand at the lightest touch. After dinner, I stir cinnamon and ground cloves into a giant pot of applesauce, sometimes so long that it reduces to smooth apple butter. I fill mason jars to gift to friends and family, sealing the jars with a simple boiling water process that has been used for two hundred years.
Working in the criminal justice system can break your heart every single day. Last week my fifteen year old client was sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice, aka prison for kids. I fought this outcome for months with every hearing and motion I could. In the end, I felt I’d failed my client. I swore. I paced. I drank a bit of scotch. Then I picked tomatoes. And zucchini. And apples.
I picked vegetables to grill at our annual apple harvest party this past weekend. Friends streamed in with bowls of delicious food, and empty baskets to fill with apples. Kids climbed apple trees and ate apple crisp. The band played and we drank hard cider. I watched my dad and my daughter kneel in the garden and dig up a giant pile of potatoes to grill, with fish caught by friends and chickens raised by neighbors.
This connection to a small agricultural community fuels my optimism, even for the broken, heart-wrenching criminal justice system. In a small community, we rely on each other, we take care of each other, we value each person. Though I have always believed it, I find it easier to argue that it is flat out wrong to throw a person away, even for a terrible act. Some of my clients participate in a restorative justice program, during which they seek to repair damage they’ve caused and ask the community to welcome them back. Despite mean-spirited and unforgiving societal trends, many are given a second chance. I hold out hope that my fifteen year old client will find his way back to earn a second chance in our community.
When I started as a PD, I went to a high volume urban office in search of interesting, abundant cases. Fast pace, action, front lines. My counterbalance to tough days as a young PD in the Oakland trenches was riding a motorcycle and staying out too late at dive bars. Now my counterbalance is plunging my hands into the warm dirt in the garden.
Life in the country gives me a new perspective about my place in the struggle for big goals like fairness and justice. Sometimes they still seem lost, unattainable. Other times, I see that they are always there, inevitable and right, emerging bit by bit against all odds, like a root crawling along a crack in the pavement.
We prune them and stake them and tend them, but our apple trees have a life of their own. The gravensteins in our orchard grew through the civil rights movement, through the punitive trend of mandatory minimums, and into the current movement to reduce over incarceration. They grew in the El Niño rains we had several years ago, and in the drought this year.
Since I’m new to this farming thing, I was foolish enough to ask, because of the severe drought, “will any apples grow this year?” In fact, the drought has made the apples sweeter.