Since its inception, I had never missed a week blogging for Women Criminal Defense Attorneys – until recently. Last week, the blog was put on hold so that I could prepare for and defend a client in a federal trial, which thankfully ended in a Not Guilty verdict. There was no question the blog had to be shelved, because the client needed and deserved my undivided attention on his case. And when the jury returned the verdict, I cried – which is typical for me. I cried from a place of gratitude and relief that twelve women and men saw the evidence as we did.
It is an overwhelming burden to represent someone who is facing long periods of time in prison. I know there are lawyers out there who can detach themselves from that burden. I have never been one of them. I feel a huge responsibility when a client’s liberty – their life – is in my hands, and I believe it shows in my work. And every year that I do this, that burden gets more real. Or maybe I have just come to understand both the responsibility of carrying it more and the fragile nature of the jury system. Most importantly, with every Not Guilty verdict, I am re-reminded how important our work is.
Clients are dependent on us to be their voice, to tell their story, and to fight for them in a system that is stacked against them at every turn. Without us standing on guard, there would be even larger injustices than we see every day. The Government’s power would go unchecked, and the truth which must be teased out from the facts would be forever silenced. The first time I heard the phrase “Liberty’s Last Champion,” I was a young PD, but with every year that passes, I begin to understand what it truly means.
Trial and trial prep for me have always felt like what I envision participating in an Olympic sport feels like. It requires intense preparation and conditioning. Everything is on the line. There are no do-overs or second chances, and a combination of game day adrenaline and nerves produces razor sharp focus. Defending a client at trial feels more intense than any other roller coaster ride that I have experienced and leaves me feeling like I have taken my body and spirit and slammed it against the wall and floors so many times that it is limp. Sounds fun? Well ironically, it can be the most thrilling and life affirming experience – especially when you hear Not Guilty.
The other thing I have been thinking about is how important it is to try our cases. To put the Government’s case to the ultimate test – a jury. Unfortunately, those of us who practice in federal court get beaten down by the draconian sentences produced under the federal sentencing guidelines. Clients who should not plea decide to plea rather than risk the severe guideline consequences if they would lose at trial. Issues like “the trial penalty” and underutilization of departure or 3553 factors in some districts harness the system and the defendant’s free choice to test the Government’s case. This has to change.
The essence of what it means to be a defender is truly realized during trial. Not sentencing, but trial. And although not all cases are meant to be tried, far more should.