Inevitably, during the holidays, I will run into family, friends or meet a new acquaintance at a gathering and be faced with a question often asked of me. The inquiry generally goes, “How do you defend them?” You see, I am a public defender of over 13 years in Baltimore City. Public defense has been my occupation since law school. To me, it’s one of only a few truly altruistic endeavors in the legal profession. So, when my job comes up in conversation, even with people that know what I do, something of the, “How do you…?” nature tends to pop up. Generally, after indulging the “question”, I can twist the inquisitor’s logic around.
My clients, them, are indigent people charged with criminal offenses who are either unemployed or qualify for my services under federal poverty guidelines (which, as income inequality grows, often cut out people who still cannot afford private lawyers). I don’t sign my clients up. I either meet them in jail on the random days that I do bail reviews (shortly after arrest) or I’m blindly assigned their cases through a supervisor at my office. Over three quarters of my clients are African-American and most are young men in their early twenties. I’ve yet to represent a truly evil person without some sort of addiction, mental health problem, or trauma in their life. Now, those things don’t necessarily offer legal defenses to charges, but they are still relevant explanations and mitigating circumstances providing windows in to the minds of the accused as well as larger societal problems. Some of my clients are innocent and most are overcharged.
My clients are, first and foremost, human beings. No surprise, but the public too often forgets this because of skin color and/or socio-economic conditions. We warehouse them in jails in wretched conditions and dress them up in bright yellow or pink jumpsuits before they’ve even been convicted. We think the worst of them simply because of the nature of their cases or their records (which many times have bogus charges on it or reflect where they live). Sometimes my clients don’t understand that I’m schooled the same as private attorneys. However, once they see that I have their interests in mind, and that I’m willing to stand up for them, they’re content. Considering the effects of being in jail or stung with a serious case, my clients are mostly pleasant to me. They simply want someone to fight for them whether it’s in a trial or just ensuring the process is fair (as possible).
“How do you…?” comes from a superficial view of the justice system and who we are as a society. Everyone wants a fair court system, but most folks don’t understand how warped and potentially racist their perception is on the subject. Consider that my clients are policed more heavily than any other population in the country simply because of who they are and where they live. Yet, recently, my home exterminator respectfully posed the “question” to me, but then went on to reveal his own history of run-ins with the law, a 30 day jail stint, and his son’s current long term incarceration. I thought he, of all people, should understand. But he is white and a County resident. Furthering the double standard, friends who have expressed doubt as to what I do, have come to me for private attorney recommendations when they or people they know get in trouble with the law. Also, please don’t question my job and root for the Ravens and expect to have moral consistency. Remember, the Ravens’ history of players getting arrested is not too good. Truth is, we are all one bad decision away from getting locked up- well, save for the caveats that black people may only need a half of a decision and rich and connected folks might get two decisions.
Since the “question” is put to me so frequently, I propose that it be asked where it is more appropriate. Lawyers for Big Pharma who consistently defend price fixing of essential medicines or stick up for the pushing of pain pills (which seems worse than any street dealer’s actions) deserve to be asked. Gun manufacturers’ attorneys probably don’t get inquiries about their clients’ culpabilities towards the waves of civilian shooting deaths. Meanwhile, I get called out for arguing for reasonable sentences for gun offenses. Insurance companies’ lawyers. Wall Street firms’ counsel. Slumlords’ representatives. Attorneys for pedophile priests. Harvey Weinstein’s legal team. Think any of them get asked, “How do you defend them?” The entire White House has lawyer-ed up for goodness sake. Three people close to the president have been indicted thus far (one pled guilty already). Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, who’s father is a convicted felon, is also under investigation. The aforementioned list deserves the presumption of innocence, but let’s inject some perspective into how silly the “question” to me becomes in the face of this hypocrisy.
Still, how do I represent them? A society should be measured by how we treat the most helpless among us, my clients. They are human, people, no worse than us and no more prone to err than us. They are us. Think of it that way.
Todd Oppenheim is a lawyer in the Baltimore City Public Defender’s Office’s Felony Trial division. Email- him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @Opp4Justice.