Thursday, May 4, 2017
The Third Man
The first time I defended someone charged with committing a crime against another person, I had the good fortune to be appointed to a young veteran. He had the misfortune of facing a charge of domestic assault. A few nights before we met in court, his sister called the police to report that he had attacked her. The police arrived at the residence and found chaos. Both my client and his sister were pretty bruised and scratched up and claiming they had been attacked by the other sibling. The cops were faced with a "he said, she said" situation and two busted up family members, so they placed both under arrest and charged both with fighting.
My client told his arresting officer that he did not lay a hand on his sister, that she had been in a fight the day before, and he thought there were charges pending against her. To the officer's credit, he checked and could find no record of any such charges. My client's sister told her arresting officer that her brother was a combat vet, had done multiple tours of duty, had come home with PTSD and was very violent. She said that she was terrified of him and believed he was going to kill her one day soon. The officers checked my client's background and confirmed that he had a criminal record full of drunk and disorderly type charges. As a result, they found the sister's story to be the more plausible account of events and they charged my client with domestic assault.
When I received my appointment, the DA and the responding officer pulled me aside and told me that this looked like a case where PTSD had played a role and the DA indicated that he would be open to working out a deal that put my client in a hospital for a brief stint instead of putting him in jail. I thanked him and went to talk to my client. My client was adamant that he had not attacked his sister and he projected an air of quiet integrity. So, I believed him and began investigating. I found out that this guy had voluntarily gone on three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. While over there, he had built up a modest collection of awards for bravery and won friends who were all adamant that my client was a defender, not an abuser. I also spoke with a relative who informed me that my client's sister had gone by different names over the years. I did a background search using those names and came back with quite a criminal history of starting fights and assaulting people...including an assault charge for a fight that had taken place a few days before my client had supposedly attacked her. Fortunately, the DA is a professional and dropped the charges against my client. He also looked at the extensive violent history of my client's sister and he chose to charge her with domestic assault and filing a false police report. In the end, he worked with her lawyer to get her psychological help instead of jail time because they discovered she suffered from several psychological disorders. All in all, a great resolution.
In this situation, the police came in, assessed the situation, spoke with the two people involved, checked both stories, and reached a reasonable conclusion. The DA checked their work, came to the same conclusion, and humanely offered to help my client instead of seeking to punish him. The police officers' job was to conduct a thorough investigation and present their conclusions and findings to the DA. The DA's job was to check their work and ensure that there was enough evidence to support a guilty conviction at trial. Mine was to come in and advocate for my client. I worked hard and assembled enough facts and evidence to support his version of the story, successfully argued his case to the DA, and we obtained a just outcome. This is why lawyers like to talk about an "adversarial system" so much. My client went through two rounds of impartial investigations and both went against him. Even he does not fault the officers or the DA for finding against him. His third round was with an advocate who was partial to him and he won in the third round as a result. This is more or less the way the justice system is supposed to work - a mixture of impartial fact-finding, partial advocacy, and double- and triple-checking the evidence. That was a powerful thing to witness firsthand and I learned to always listen to my clients. They appreciate it and you never know what you're going to discover.
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