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Whether criminal defendants will throw their lawyers under the bus and other tales

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Fairfax Northern Virginia criminal lawyer/DWI attorney pursuing best defense

Early in my criminal defense career, two different public defender lawyers who were much more experienced than I at the time opined that (1) many of our convicted felony clients are seriously mentally ill and (2) many of our clients will not hesitate to do anything to save their skin, even if that includes turning on their own lawyers.

With the first comment, I already had dealt with clients with serious mental health illness — and most of them have been very kind with me — and have felt that on balance a large percentage of my clients who committed their alleged crimes are not seriously mentally ill rather than that many are challenged with anxiety, depression, impulsiveness, and lack of a feeling of balance and grounding, which often leads to drug and alcohol use and abuse, and to assaultive, stealing/embezzlement, and other criminal behavior.

With the second comment, I recognize that with lying being so widespread in society, there are criminal defendants and their loved ones who will exaggerate and lie about their criminal defense lawyers, including during the habeas corpus/ post conviction process after the defendant already has been convicted and lost on any direct appeal, when this post conviction process is the defendant’s last shot at obtaining relief in his or her case.

Of course, criminal defense lawyers are not the only lawyers who are potential targets of their clients, but today I am focusing on criminal defense lawyers.

No matter how rosy-colored it might sound, I am convinced that fully serving and caring about one’s criminal defense clients helps minimize adverse issues with clients and their loved ones. This includes not only fully defending one’s client, but also fully caring about the client, and keeping the client fully informed and advised every step of the way, and timely responding to the client’s inquiries. A client who truly feels cared for might at least hesitate before telling untruths about his or her lawyer.

Of course, if a criminal case does not go the defendant’s way, the defendant and his or her loved ones might want to find someone(s) or some things other than the defendant himself, to blame for the undesired developments and outcome in the case. Certainly, there are matters beyond the criminal defense lawyer’s control that can incur the upset of a criminal defendant, including the strength of the evidence against the defendant, prevarications and mis-statements by opposing witnesses, developments in case negotiations, contents of discovery, limits in the scope and thoroughness of discovery that is provided, the desirability or not of the judge and prosecutor who are assigned to the case, and the desirability or not of the jury pool.

This all is the lot of the criminal defense lawyer. It should not be a reason for the lawyer to be distant from his or her client. It does inform a lawyer to assure that the client fully understands matters in the case, and that the lawyer is memorializing essential items in the case to the client. It also means that communications between the lawyer and the client’s friends and family members ideally will take place when the client is present for the discussion, although that is not possible with clients who are jailed pre-trial or otherwise. It also means to beware clients who insist that the lawyer may discuss anything that a designate friend or family member wishes to discuss. This is the client’s case, not the case of his or her friends and family members, even when the client says s/he waives any privilege in communications with the the lawyer, which waiver could raise its own can of worms. It is best at the outset that the lawyer make clear to the client the extent to which the lawyer will okay a role in the case to friends and family members.

No matter how idealistic I remain about my criminal defense work, the vast majority of my clients do not care about such idealism except to the extent that it indicates how hard and well I will work and am working for them. They have hired me because they are in a legal bind that they want to get out from. Most understand the necessity for us to fight the case honestly and cleanly, but some will try to feed me untruths along the way. Most understand the importance that my clients and I work as a united front together without barrier of untruths or anything else, but some will try to unload their angst on me. People who feel desperate might take desperate measures, but not all my clients feel desperate rather than imbalanced until they obtain a case result with which they are satisfied.

I think it was Archie Bunker who in an All In The Family episode proclaimed his conviction that most people are rotten, and that his wife Edith disagreed, and affirmed her belief in the basic goodness of most people. My own view is that many people do rotten things — and not all crimes, even if committed, are rotten acts (for instance DWI and drug possession) — but not all the time, and that everyone has the potential of transcending acts of rottenness. I also have found plenty of police and prosecutors acting lower than the allegations against my clients.

If we approach each day expecting to find rottenness in people and two-timing in our clients, we are going to plant and nurture debilitating paranoia, neuroses and even psychoses in ourselves. When a criminal defense lawyer truly cares about and fully serves his or her client, the client appreciates that and is more likely to want to work in tandem with the lawyer. Maybe even Zacarias Moussaoui knew and appreciated how caring and devoted his court-appointed lawyer Gerald Zerkin was, even when Moussaoui was hurling his verbal arrows at Zerkin in the courtroom.

Many criminal defendants feel like they are on roller coasters and feel their own funks. A good criminal defense lawyer can and should fully defend and engage with his or her client, without needing to be on that roller coaster.