May 19, 2017 The persuasive and fighting power of diffusing and de-escalating tense situations
Recently, I was minding my own business, waiting for my client in the hallway of the Fairfax County jail’s attorneys visiting section. Then I heard commotion where three meeting rooms away from mine, an inmate was ranting and raving at his lawyer, a kindly-spoken public defender attorney. His client burst out that he would get another lawyer, and ended the meeting.
The man’s lawyer remained unruffled, empathizing with his client’s plight while of course not agreeing with the client’s outburst. Clearly, this was not the first time he had experienced a defendant going off the handle. Sadly, Rodney Dangerfield’s laments could have been about public defender lawyers, not getting enough respect from enough of their clients; nor from enough judges, who see them as having within their hands the ability to move along dockets, or not; nor from enough prosecutors, who perhaps smell the discord that can exist between a criminal defendant and a public defender or court-appointed lawyer s/he did not choose.
Sadly, too many indigent defendants do not know how good they have it with so many public defenders. Some of the greatest criminal defense lawyers have been public defenders, including Steve Rench, Lisa Wayne, Larry Pozner, and Terry McCarthy. Public defender clients are mistaken when referring to their lawyers as public pretenders or calling retained lawyers “real lawyers“.
An extreme example of indigent defendants’ limited regard for their lawyers was when Zacarias Moussaui angrily shouted out his very committed and capable public defender lawyer Gerald Zerkin’s last name in the courtroom when jurors were not present, upset that Jerry Zerkin was advocating against the jury’s recommending a death sentence (the jury did not recommend death) when Moussaui — whom the trial judge deemed too abusive to continue as his own representative — apparently wanted to die a martyr. Moussaui called his lawyer “a Jewish zealot” (make that a zealot for his clients). After the prosecution rested its case for death — Mouassoui lost his chance to go to trial, having entered a guilty plea — he yelled: “I will testify, Zerkin, whether you want it or not.” At another time, when the jury was recessed, Moussaoui yelled “God curse you Zerkin“. Jerry’s heart of gold helped him persevere to the only available victory, which was to avoid a death sentence.
But I digress. Back to the Fairfax jail inmate who was ranting at his lawyer, it seemed clear that the two deputy sheriffs in the area heard this inmate’s distress. They interacted with him masterfully, simply by talking to him in the same kind and professional manner that they use with everyone, starting with something along the lines of: “If you can just wait there, so we can pat you down before you return to your unit.” Perhaps this inmate accepted the deputy sheriffs as simply acting in their roles as his jailer, and perhaps he had an unrealistic expectation of his lawyer’s role as savior. Even the greatest lawyers cannot spin straw into gold.
This entire situation could have ended up much worse. Sadly, plenty of law enforcement officers across the nation may have had their hands rested on their tasers while shouting for this irate inmate to get down on his belly on the ground, like little more than chattel. Instead, the deputy sheriffs treated this man with dignity, and with that his ranting and raving ended, at least for that moment.
So many of my criminal defense clients, their loved ones and their friends are in distress about their cases, sometimes to the point where they are communicating with me, each other, and themselves from their proverbial roller coaster. When I diffuse and de-escalate tense situations with clients and opponents, I am retaining my grounding, calmness, empathy, compassion, and attention that is essential for all successful battle.