I never felt more like Don Quixote than when I represented a woman charged with a crime.
And while I didn’t want it, I’d feel called to “champion” her, even when it cost me my reputation, my sanity and my very career as a trial attorney.
I provided dignity to clients as a public defender, especially the women. Heroin addicts became respected ladies who needed someone to tell their story to a Court system most were unaccustomed in doing battle. Many with only a minimum education became learned seers who knew more of surviving in the world than many with MAs and Ph.Ds.
I took up the sword and fought like there was no tomorrow. Two women, both White, come to my mind. Both got lured by heavy drugs. One faced a mandatory sentence for purchasing a gun for a drug supplier who just happened to be a felon. She had cervical cancer and simply wanted to be with her family — and child — for treatment, and not receive it out of the Women’s Facility of the State Prison in Muncy, PA.
The other, also a heroin user, was out on the streets, having just gotten high with her boyfriend when she put the needle into a rumpled jacket for later use and went to a Rite Aid drug store to get deodorant and other sundry goods.
She stuffed them into the jacket — the pocket holding the needle — with plans to walk out without paying. In other words, be a shoplifter. She did it before. At the same Rite Aid.
Someone at the store recognized her, she told me when visiting her in a local Philadelphia prison several months after her arrest. Yes Virginia, there really is incarceration for people with criminal records, despite what others want you to believe. She sat in jail some four months before her case was “called to trial.” I requested a continuance for further corroboration of her story.
See, two men stopped her in the store. A manager grabbed her from the rear and a clerk got to her up front. She tried to leave and resisted as they held her. She claimed one held her by her hair. The other pulled the stolen items from her jacket pocket.
She clutched the needle as it spilled from her jacket, cutting her hand, she told me, showing a slight scar on her finger. One of the men saw the needle and claimed she twisted it and positioned it so that she could “stab” ’em with it. She never did. One man testified that she actually swung her arm in an attempt — he wanted the court to believe, was — to inject ’em with a what an ADA would later argue, a “tainted” needle.
While placed in prison, a test showed she had Hepatitis B.
A specially assigned assistant district attorney (ADA) was appointed to prosecute her, with an initial charge of attempted murder. “It was a false positive,” the woman told me of the test. She claimed she had proof from some doctor that she wasn’t “contagious.” I use the word contagious for lack of a better medical understanding. I immediately got an investigation started to confirm this to share it with the ADA, a woman I had worked with before and respected.
The case came to Court and I advised the young prosecutor of the woman’s claim to show a lack of intent to cause such grave injury. I went into detail, sharing my information in hopes of securing a plea for a lesser offense than aggravated assault, which would have required my client serve a minimum of five years in jail, mainly because of her record. It was long one made up of drug possession cases and lots of retail thefts (shoplifting).
“When did she learn it was a false positive?” the prosecutor asked, refusing to lower an offer of 5-to-10 years. I started to tell her, and she let slip her reason for the question. Had my client not known it was a false positive until after being arrested and sent to jail, then the ADA could prove “intent” at the time of the shoplifting incident.
I went ballistic. Flash-backed to Vietnam. Suffered perhaps the worst episode of Post Traumatic Stress that has ever surfaced in my life.
I reverted to the First Lieutenant who realized a member of his platoon was placed in immediate danger. By me. In my efforts to help, I made it worse.
“Get out of here,” I yelled to the ADA while huddled at the bar of the Court. “Get the fuck outta here,” I added through a clenched jaw while pointing to a door leading out of the Courtroom. A sheriff had just brought the defendant into the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center Courtroom and I felt justified in demanding the prosecutor leave so I could maintain confidentiality with my client at the defense table in the open Court.
Several lawyers, defendants, and witnesses with other cases, as well as police, sat stunned as they watched my “over-the-top” behavior. I didn’t care. Instead, I “played” to them all, pointing out that the ADA — straight out of what’s called the “Habitual Offender Unit,” was — in my opinion — trying to get a conviction for the worst offense, and not seek justice.
I stopped practicing about a month later. Got into a few more “blow-ups” with prosecutors while awaiting treatment for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and clearing my schedule of trial work for a month. That’s the amount of time I thought I would need to “cure” myself.
It’s been two years this month since I left. Not sure what happened to either woman. Other lawyers were appointed to “champion” their causes. Today, I liken myself to a Don Quixote with a foolish hope back then to right all wrongs and tilt at windmills — “they might be giants!” I like what I see in the mirror and, more importantly, the dreamer still within me . . .
Here’s to you, my Dulcinea!