Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Experience with the American Justice System

I recently had an occasion to venture into the American legal system.  I was not a victim, a defendant, nor a juror. I was a witness. I am not by any means an expert on law, but have seen my fair share of fake law practiced in television shows and movies. I cannot help but comment on my experience.

First and foremost, this was a case of assault and an apparent upon-and-shut case. A man, let's call him Smith, specifically sought out another in a restaurant, let's call him Jones, and assaulted him from behind. Besides myself, more than a dozen other people watched it unfold. Despite the crown present, nobody would come to the aid of the victim. I found myself stepping-in to the fray stop it when it was at the point where Smith was strangling Jones and telling him he was going to kill him. I was the only one who acted.

Johnny automatic scales of justice

Justice, sir, is the great interest of man on earth.

- Daniel Webster


I later gave a statement to the police, as did several others at the restaurant. Months passed before I heard from the state's attorney office. In fact, by the time I was contacted, there had already been a hearing. I gave a brief summary to the overworked prosecutor, who suddenly noticed he already had my written statement. I received notice of the next hearing and dutifully attended, as I felt it was my civic duty. The prosecutor spoke with me for a moment, during which he confessed he didn't know who I was. I recapped my statements for him and he took a few notes and nodded. I was the only witness present, other than the victim and his (now) ex-girlfriend.

Court was soon called into session and Smith was called after a short wait. He appeared without an attorney, claiming his attorney hurt his foot and was in rehab. The court had no record of an attorney representing him. The judge sternly admonished him, elaborated on his criminal record, and told him in no uncertain terms that further delays would not be tolerated. She asked him how he pled and offered him 3 choices: guilty, innocent, or request a jury trial. He opted for a jury trial. That automatically put another delay in place as the trial was moved from District to Circuit Court.

This was a guy who jumped another from behind in front of dozens of people and tried to strangle him to death. Now, we were headed for an expensive and lengthy process while he continued to walk free. And, selfishly, I now needed to take yet more time off from work.

A subpoena arrived in the mail for a date three months in the future. I contacted the prosecutor's office to confirm I had received the subpoena and would be present. The time passed and, as of the day before the trial, I had not been contacted. I phoned the office and spoke with the new prosecutor. She had not reviewed the case yet, having just returned from her honeymoon that very morning. I spent time on the phone with her and gave her my version of events. She wasn't sure she would actually need me and said she would let me know that evening. I did not get a call from her, so I decided it would be prudent to show up anyway.

I signed in at the court as a witness and listed the prosecutors'  name and the trial (State of Maryland vs Mr. Smith) and proceeded to seek out the trial location. On arriving at the courtroom, I immediately saw Mr. Jones and his ex-girlfriend, and I also noticed Mr. Smith with his attorney. There were only 15 people in the entire court, with 5 of them being court employees, and I was the only non-lawyer wearing a suit and tie. A group of prosecutors were talking on the side about various things. I had never met the one handling the case so could not pick her out of the group. Over the next 30 minutes, not a one of them approached me nor even looked in my direction, difficult for the small room. When one of the women went to the Mr. Smith's attorney and stepped out of the room with him, I was reasonably sure that was the prosecutor handling the case. There was some in and out as she returned to consult with Mr. Jones, and the attorney spoke with the defendant. Eventually, they both came in and returned to their places. Still, I had not been approached.

Court was called to order and two short cases were quickly handled, both being deferred to new dates. Apparently, nothing was going to be decided in that court on that day. Then our case came up. There was a last-minute deal for Mr. Smith to plead guilty, which he did. I assumed all was going okay, and that a reduced sentence would be handed down. It didn't exactly transpire like that.

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The prosecutor related the facts and a statement from Mr. Jones to the judge. Then Mr. Smith's attorney immediately challenged them and presented what could only be called as a "colorful, fictional tale". This was after the deal was made. The judge looked quite perturbed with him but had to give him his moment. After a back and forth discussion lasting nearly 30 minutes where he denied everything that was said, although his client had already admitted it, the trial was concluded. Sentencing was set to occur in October. I think I was the only person who registered that the sentencing date was exactly one year after the incident.

The prosecutor took Mr. Jones to the hall and began to explain what was happening. I followed them out as the trial was over. As I exited, Mr. Jones motioned me over. I introduced myself and the prosecutor looked surprised, "I am so sorry I didn't call you back last night. But I have to say I am surprised as I have never had a witness show up like this, on their own, in my 15 years of practicing as a state's attorney.". Now, I was stunned.

She did say that the final straw with negotiation with the defense attorney was the existence of a very credible and independent (not aligned with either party) witness that would verify all of the reported facts. The defense attorney claimed that "another drunk wasn't going to be very believable". The prosecutor then gave him my background and he immediately caved in, agreeing to the deal.

In mid-October, the defendant will be sentenced. I am told he could receive as little as 10 days or as much as 10 years. Sadly, he has a long string of convictions, but I bet the sentence is a lot closer to the 10 days than it is to 10 years. Given the case load of the state's attorney, the prosecution did as well as could be expected. What I was shocked at throughout the process was the behavior of the defense attorney. I understand that they must go all-out for their client, but the language, comments, and behavior of this attorney was reprehensible. Yet, there will be no consequences. Here we had an open-and-shut case that still took nearly a year and several court appearances while the defense manipulated the system to find the tiniest hole to drop through. In the end, when no exit appeared, they pled guilty in an attempt for leniency.

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Photograph by: Riki Maltese

I completely agree that every step must be taken to ensure that each person's rights are upheld, including the right to a fair trial. But, defense attorney's of this type are the worst, gaming the system for their own purposes and advancement. This was not a "mission" for him to absolve his client of a unjust charge, it was pure profit for his services.  In the end, what hammered it down for me was hearing him talk to his client as they left. He called him by the wrong name, then asked about his payment.

It is situations such as this, combined with those attorney's who are only interested in the almighty dollar, that are weighing down our justice system. 

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