A tattoo can readily identify someone, and sometimes one can become the key to the guilt or innocence of a man facing the wrath of a woman he may have wronged.
A tattoo figured prominently in the last case I tried as a public defender in Philadelphia. I didn’t know it was to be my final court battle. Post-traumatic stress (PTS) had taken its toll on me, and I thought two weeks of treatment at an inpatient veterans ’ clinic would cure the rage and anger that had led to three near-brawls in the courtroom. Turns out I needed the full 10-week course and a complete resignation from 20 years of stress as a trial attorney.
The Philadelphia District Attorney had charged my client with robbery as well as harassment and stalking in a case we were to try before a judge hearing the facts without a jury. The police report said he had repeatedly called his ex-girlfriend at her place of work and eventually stole a cell phone from her.
I wanted him to plead guilty when I got the charges lowered to just misdemeanors. In addition, he would have had to pay for the phone. He refused the offer, demanding to go to trial and get a chance to walk out of court free with only probation.
Violent, ugly visions popped into my head. I saw myself pushing my client’s head through the flat-white-colored wall in the tiny conference room cut out of a section of the courtroom. I yelled at him and asked whom he thought the judge would believe, him or the articulate girl who would have all the sympathy in the world when she told her story as outlined in her statement to the police?
I told him that a misdemeanor conviction would not keep him from getting a job. Most employers ask only if you’ve been convicted of a felony, the more serious offense. “Hell,” I said, “you could tell them the truth if you pleaded guilty to a minor offense to get away from an ex-girlfriend who was out for revenge for breaking up with her.”
“That’s exactly what happened, Mr. Contos,” he said. “And I won’t plead guilty to something I didn’t do.”
The trial went as I expected. The young, attractive African America woman was not only sympathetic, she spoke with a ring of truth while testifying. She said he had constantly called her house and her place of work. Despite her pleas with him to stop, he’d increased the calls and even threatened to confront her at work, she said, if he couldn’t get his way.
However, her story started to unravel under cross-examination. She produced no evidence to support her allegation. There were no phone records, no recordings of a castoff or angry ex-lover, no other witnesses.
It turned out that the defendant did confront her at work, and that he did take the cell phone from her. But she said it was his cell phone that he had given to her when their relationship was healthy and loving.
I knew we had raised reasonable doubt when I asked a question my client requested I pose when whispering to me at the defense table and she was just about to step down from the witness stand.
“Yes, I do have a tattoo,” she answered. “Yes, it’s his name,” she added, nodding in the direction of the man she accused.
My client testified persuasively that she was the real “stalker” after he broke off the relationship. I introduced “good character” evidence, which, in and of itself, could raise a reasonable doubt for a not-guilty verdict, and the judge acquitted him of all charges, explaining that he could not decide who was telling the truth and that therefore, by law, he must find in favor of the defendant.
To this day, I believe the judge reasoned that the woman had more to lose in the couple’s breakup because she had so much more invested in keeping the relationship intact. Mainly, she had his name forever marked on her arm.