Published: Mar 10, 2009
At my office there are no fancy lunches, cocktail parties or salaried interns. I am spending my summer working as an intern in the office of the San Francisco Public Defender. After having worked at the Eviction Defense Collaborative and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco prior to law school, I became very interested in public interest law. So while a first-year student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, I applied for an internship.
In the early afternoon, I am assigned to an attorney, Paul Myslin, to whom I will be responsible for the rest of the summer. The time for training and introductions ends quickly and I am thrust into the role of a public defender. We rush off to county jail to interview a few clients. Within seven hours of my first day on the job, I am sitting in an interview room with Paul awaiting the arrival of our client. After a few moments, I see a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye, and the guards bring a tall, skinny, middle-aged white man to the door. His T-shirt is orange, his trousers orange, his socks orange, and he wears black, jail issued flip-flops. The guards remove the shackles from his ankles and the handcuffs from his wrists and he walks through the door and sits across from us at the table. The guard closes the door and walks off. In that room, sitting directly across from this man, nothing to separate us, and a small button across the room to press in case of an emergency, I have to admit I am a little uneasy. He shakes our hands, he is happy to see us.
He explains that the car he was standing next to he did not plan to steal and the screwdriver he held that night was not for any purpose other than protection. He is a hardened crack addict and trembles slightly from what I assume is withdrawal. He tells us that the whole arrest is a misunderstanding, but he would gladly plead no contest just to get out of jail. I believe him. He begs us to call his brother and ask him to sell his guitar to raise the $500 needed to make bail.
We try to gather some personal information about him and discover that he had gone to the University of California at Berkeley, my alma mater. Now, however, we sit on very different sides of the table. Despite Paul's encouragement to the contrary, he has no interest in a rehabilitation program. I soon learn that our role is first that of a lawyer, but we are also social workers, advisors, and, at times, friends. But in this case, I fear there is little we can do to help. I feel that soon this man in orange would be back out on the streets, continuing his life of hustling and smoking.
I accompany Paul to court for a morning of "calendar" where the lawyers present current issues to the judge, new clients are arraigned, diversion progress reports are heard, and pre-trial conferences take place. This week Paul is assigned to "ins," all the newly arrested currently in custody. He meets with them in the holding tank and goes over the charges, asks how they want to plead, discusses prosecutorial offers, and finally represents them in front of the judge.
Paul calls a matter, and the bailiff brings out a man from the holding tank. Paul asks that this man be released on his own recognizance. His crime? He has failed to register as an arsonist, which California requires of all convicted arsonists. He takes a deal and pleads no contest, and will be released later that day with a few months' probation.
Three days later, when I walk in the office, Paul asks if I have seen the newspaper and hands me a printed page from the San Francisco Chronicle. I read it closely, instantly recognizing the name of the prisoner from the day before. He was arrested for carjacking, kidnapping, and then raping a nun in the mission district of San Francisco. I begin to question my desire to join the public defender's office.
After waiting almost a week for a courtroom to become available, we are finally sent out for a trial. We are representing an accused shoplifter. Paul and I put in long hours. I wrestle with the idea of putting so much effort into defending a woman when I honestly believe her to be guilty. Paul keeps telling me, "we don't get to pick the client, we just do the best job we can with what we've got." It begins to make sense. My personal feelings on any one case are entirely irrelevant, as it is the job of the jury to decide guilt, and my focus must be on doing my job.
We pick a jury, the DA gives his opening argument, and Paul delivers his opening statement. We know we are fighting a losing battle, but we put all we can into it, and I am proud to be sitting next to Paul in court. The DA shows a surveillance video of our client apparently stealing, he puts security guards on the stand who provide our client's signed confession, and questions the arresting police officer who also testifies to a confession. All we have is our client, who we cannot let testify (she has too many prior convictions that we know the DA will ask her about). Her friend, or "accomplice" depending on how the jury sees it, was convicted of a prior shoplifting event herself. Paul delivers a closing argument. We return from lunch, the jury is sent to the deliberation room, it takes them twenty minutes. Guilty.
We pack up our papers to leave, and our client cries a bit. We knew she did not have much of a chance, but we did our best. The clerk jokes with the DA, commenting that had he lost this case he would have had to drop his legal career and look into becoming an accountant. We nod.
Paul writes up the result of the case on the office white-board. Just about everyone stops by to congratulate him on a good trial and, despite the result, tell him he did well. The head of the felony unit stops in for a word. Years ago Paul interned for him, he congratulates Paul on a job well done, tells him he is proud of him. Thing is, I am proud too.
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