All’s well that ends well with a Not Guilty

Part II cont’d from jury-trial-first-day-on-the-job

Sometimes while trying a case to a jury of 12 people, a transformation would take place when I least expected it.

I’d begin to believe my criminal client had been truthful when he told me he was innocent and didn’t do what he was charged with by Philadelphia police.

That’s what happened in my first jury trial in 1990. I tried a case before Judge Levi Anderson, a crotchety old buzzard for whom no one would “waive” a case because he had no reasonable doubt. He was one of six or seven judges in Philadelphia defense lawyers dreaded to face with a close case, one that a more moderate judge could go either way with a verdict. I could not trust this judge to be fair, mostly because of the countless number of cases he heard, and the many creative “defenses” criminal defense lawyers exposed him to. He heard ’em all.

So, I was “stuck” with trying to a jury whether I wanted to or not!

I know of only one other lawyer in the Philadelphia Defender Association that ever did a jury trial his first day in “Majors.” Mark Wilson, an attorney with the federal public defender’s office in Philadelphia. He and I were the only ones out of hundreds of us serving in the more than 50-year history of the Philly PD’s Office to “get up to bat” our very first day in the “Majors.”

In most cases, new lawyers would go weeks, sometimes months, even years before doing their first jury trial. They’d watch pros in action and learn the craft from both sides, the defense and the prosecution. You’d have two to three months to bring a case to jury trial, before being “rotated” out of Majors and into the “Waiver” courtrooms where cases were tried to judges sitting alone without juries, generally, the less serious and less complicated ones. Our office “rotated” attorneys in and out of Majors to give the new PDs their chance to finally get in front of a jury.

I never expected on my first day to be “sent out” from Courtroom 625, which served as the court system’s “staging area,” to pick a jury elsewhere in Philadelphia’s City Hall building. I walked to the bar of the Court when my client’s case was called. It was a “first listing” with no previous continuances. All cases “older in time” were put on hold when their lawyers could not be located. I later learned some lawyers — even the best ones — would “continue” cases (some might say “duck” a case) when a “bad” judge (a prosecutorial-leaning judge) would become the only one available to hear a case. If the names of certain judges were called (can anyone say Angelo Guarino, removed from the bench in the middle of a trial for violating the rights of a potential juror?) you could not “waive” but had to request a jury. Professional ethics mandated you demand such a trial to safeguard you client’s interest. Either that, or get a good deal to plead guilty.

The trial went smoothly and “broke my way” as the main witness admitted under cross-examination he had only a limited view of my client when he saw a group of similarly dressed persons take part in a crime (drug sale). At that point, I actually started to believe my client may not have committed the crime. I believe it showed in my closing argument. I later learned that a good lawyer would often reserve judgment of a client’s guilt, but may come to believe in a “possibility of”  innocence when facts — or the lack of facts — arose at trial. It became part of my “trial mode.”

The jury agreed with me –that the assistant district attorney’s witness could have been “mistaken.”  They were not convinced of the defendant’s guilt. And they rendered a not guilty verdict.

I didn’t want to tell you during the actual trial, but now I can let you know: this is my first jury trial,” I whispered to my client as we sat at the defense table after the announced verdict. The defendant, who was in his late 30s and not the age of your typical drug dealer, but with a record for old “assault and batteries,” leaned toward me, his hand on my shoulder and said with all innocence, “my first one, too.”

6 comments on “All’s well that ends well with a Not Guilty

  1. Was this Philadelphia jurist named Judge Levy?


  2. Wolfshades says:

    Fascintatimg story Michael! Now the big question: did you ever have to defend someone you knew was clearly guilty? I know that as a defense attorney you’re obligated just to provide the best defense possible but were there any times when you had to (figuratively) hold your nose?


    • contoveros says:


      I hate to give a Bill Clinton answer, but it really does depend on the definition of “know.”

      Lawyers are trained to view words and phrases both broadly and narrowly. A good attorney could argue either side and “believe” his or her definition is the correct version. (“Dependeds on what is, is!”)

      I knew one guy was stone cold guilty, if you believed his story. His case was eventually thrown out for lack of prosecution after police from another jurisdiction failed to arrest him in connection with a burglary in Philadelphia. Seems he stole $50,000 from a drug lord, and left it in a hotel room when some young lady he pissed off, called the cops and dimed him out.

      Cops never brought charges. Kept the drug money instead. Do I “know” whether these facts are true? I like to believe they are. But, I could never tell for sure . . .

      michael j


  3. Phil says:

    Oh, that we could all render such a verdict for ourselves.




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