By A.P. DuJardin
There’s a real basis for concern over free attorneys. Free seems too good to be true and there are good and bad in every group. Outside of California pay is often low and case loads unreasonable. However, it’s also quite common for people who make poor decisions to also make poor judgments about the quality of assistance they receive. Their evaluations of their attorneys are based on limited experience and they have a strong incentive to lay the blame on someone else. Their lawyer, most commonly a PD, makes the most obvious target. This is why clients attack (and kill) their own lawyers more often than they attack the district attorneys prosecuting them.
In a sense, public defenders and defense lawyers generally are culpable because the “criminal justice system” would not work without them. It would catastrophically fail without defense attorneys negotiating the plea agreements and making it appear to the public that “someone is looking out to make sure the criminals don’t get walked all over, so the system must be fair.” That’s the attitude of most citizens until they get personally involved, at which point they suddenly realize how completely fucked-up the laws and procedures can be. PDs have tried taking every case to trial to break the machine, with decidedly mixed results.
Innocent clients are the exception, but they are usually quite easy to exonerate. Most clients have a strong incentive not to accept responsibility for their circumstances, or they ignore the fact that they were actually breaking a law —especially if they disagree with that law. They ignore the fact that the cops lied to create the probable cause for arrest, ignore the DA who would not agree to a reasonable plea agreement, ignore the “tough” judges and the people who vote them in simply because they don’t ever research the politicians much less the judicial officers they’re voting for.
They blame the PD who had to explain that the jury will believe the cops, the video, the bloodied victim, etc. Often the injustice of a circumstance gives people a feeling that they should be completely exonerated. “Yeah, I had some meth on me, but it wasn’t much and the cop was only fucking with me because I look like a tweaker with all my missing teeth and the other dozen times I was arrested for meth…”
The courts and legislators go to great lengths to avoid dropping cases just because of “harmless error” or “mistake.” This results in massive injustices. Your PD is probably the only person in the world who agrees with you that these things are injustices, but they’re not helping you if they send you into a trial where the reality of unjust laws and systemic support for police and “The People” will get you a hell of a long time in prison. Your lawyer is doing what they can while constrained by completely fucked-up rules; they are not the one making the fucked-up rules just because they were the only person who took the time to explain those rules, and what they mean in your case, to you.
The private defense bar badmouths public defenders because that’s how they get clients: “You don’t want a PD, they have too many cases to properly help you and they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re dump trucks just trying to get cases off their desks.” The private lawyer might get $5,000 to plead someone out to a DUI and many don’t even know what they’re doing. They have to come to me and ask what to expect from the DA or how to even fill out the paperwork. They do NOTHING except show up in a suit. I get a call every day from a different private attorney asking how to handle a case, what the state of the law is, or for information about the judges or DAs. I answer because I don’t want to help the DA or court roll over anyone. But as soon as I tell these private lawyers this info, they turn around and pretend to their client that they’ve got the inside dope, they know what to expect because they’ve dealt with this judge before, they’re friendly with this DA, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
The calibre of lawyers applying to be PDs has risen in recent years. Last time my office was hiring, the finalists for the position were from top tier schools, spoke Spanish fluently, had more than three years specifically in criminal practice experience. We get extremely competent lawyers. Our case load is not bad (other states are in different circumstances: much lower pay, many more cases, etc). I’ve met Long Beach PDs. They’re great, they do good appellate work and loads of training to remain current. If the person Pebbles was talking about is considering representing himself he’s a fool and if she thinks that’s a better alternative than a PD then she is hurting her friend’s chances. There are great private lawyers too, but I’d put the top PDs against them any day of the week.
To be honest, it doesn’t get to me when clients say it, often they’re ignorant (an important distinction from stupid) so I give them my best and let them make the decision to stay or go with a private. But I literally get calls from the private attorney they go to the next day and the he or she asks what I think about the case, what the DA will give him, if the judge will do x, y, z. I should start billing them.