Thursday August 30, 2012

Learning to Redefine Winning

Law student Catherine Tatum writes about an important lesson she learned during her internship at the Public Defender's Office in Petersburg, Va., this summer.

This summer, University of Dayton School of Law students provided pro bono legal assistance with support from the Lisa A. Kloppenberg Public Interest Award, which helps pay living expenses during the students’ volunteer internships. To be eligible for the award, students must work 200 hours in a public interest internship without pay or course credit.

Law student Catherine Tatum writes about her experience working at the Petersburg Public Defender's Office in Petersburg, Va.

By Catherine Tatum  

Minimizing a client's sentence so that they can serve weekend time and still take their children to school during the week is a win. Obtaining work release for a client who cannot afford to lose their job is a win. Getting a client a deal that will not impact his or her housing options is a win. When working in the public defense field, you quickly learn to redefine winning.  

Public defenders face insurmountable odds and overwhelming caseloads, which make acquittals and dismissals pretty rare occurrences. On top of that, unlike other attorneys, “PDs” do not choose their clients and must represent anyone that the courts appoint them to. As a result, public defense work is extremely client-centered and more often than not becomes about achieving the client’s desired end goal rather than obtaining a traditional legal win.  

For many indigent clients, avoiding incarceration isn't as important as the other consequences that can come along with a conviction. So even when there is a viable legal argument to be made on their behalf, many clients would rather take a plea bargain because the possibility of winning simply does not outweigh the effects that losing will have on their access to jobs, housing, and other forms of federal assistance. However, there are always some clients who want to fight the system. As one incarcerated client faced with a pending appeal deadline put it: “We’re going to take it all the way.”  

Ultimately, every client is different. Some have been in-and-out of the system for years and just want to take whatever deal the prosecutor is offering, while others are facing charges for the first time in their lives and have no idea what they want to do. Either way, it takes a while to build trust with indigent clients because they often mistakenly believe that the public defender’s office is somehow conspiring against them with the prosecutor’s office. At least once a week, a new client asks how they can get “a real lawyer” instead of a public defender. But in the end, through all the meetings, phone calls, motions and court appearances, clients usually come to realize that their court-appointed public defender is fighting for them.  

It doesn’t always take a complete jury trial or endless appeals either. Sometimes a single motion can mean everything. One client, upon hearing that we had won the motion to suppress all the evidence in his case, reacted with a look of utter disbelief and a single word: “Really?” By using a factually analogous case, we had persuaded the judge that the police officers lacked a reasonable articulable suspicion to justify their search. As a result, all the evidence was thrown out and there was no way for the prosecutor to go forward with the case. For that client, a single motion made all the difference and his drug possession charge was dismissed.  

The outcomes may not always be as advantageous for clients, but you learn to truly appreciate the rare victories and use them to keep you going the rest of the time. Because in the end redefined wins are great, but the occasional legal win is even better.

For more information, contact Bob Mihalek, communication specialist at the University of Dayton School of Law, at 937-229-4683 or