Being an Effecitve Advocate for Your Client – Part I

People in Positions of Authority
Certainly prosecutors are in a “position of authority” as are many of us in some form or fashion. Before becoming a state public defender in Pensacola 21 years ago, I spent a few years as a Florida State Prosecutor. I can still remember how it felt to be the “proverbial good guy with the white hat” (my boss told me that), the sense of power having a badge gave me and how it felt when I began my new job right out of law school as a new prosecutor. For goodness sakes, I was able to make decisions about the proprieties of arrests by law enforcement officers who had many more years of experience than I did! I also remember the “cloak of credibility” jurors seemed to give me merely because it seemed I was on the “good guys team.” (Something else my old boss told me).
Like many people, being a prosecutor was my first job out of law school. I was fortunate that being a prosecutor was not the first job I ever had in my life. I was economically very poor during different parts of my life and financially struggled to get through college and law school. This still didn’t instill in me an understanding that the fact I had a law degree really meant very little when it came to trying jury trials. In fact, much of what I learned and who I had become because of the law school experience hindered my effectiveness in the courtroom. Albeit I had some “life experience” I still didn’t fully appreciate, at least to the extent I do now, the power I instantly had over people’s lives merely because of the job I held.

Does Being an Advocate Skew an Attorney’s Perception of the Facts?

A young person fresh out of law school who becomes a prosecutor is especially vulnerable to the personality changes that may accompany the power over people’s lives they are given merely by their positions as quasi law enforcement officers. Some of the people with the best temperaments to cope with such authority may not stay at the prosecutor’s office long and are merely there to gain some trial experience before they move on in their careers. However, there are prosecutors who appreciate the power they hold over citizens lives and really seek justice and the truth. They learn and accept that some police officers and/or complaining witnesses will exaggerate facts to justify making an arrest or having someone arrested. These prosecutors want to learn facts beyond those facts stated in a probable cause affidavit and know when to be merciful in their plea negotiations and will dismiss a case when they come to realize they cannot in good faith proceed. However, like all people, they see the truth through the prism of their own experiences. After being entrenched in the criminal justice system, a prosecutor’s perspective, like the rest of us, may become skewed. After being part of the criminal justice system and defending people for 24 years, I have come to accept that I may not always see my client’s cases entirely objectively myself. I want to believe my client’s story. However, I try to make a sincere effort to evaluate the case honestly; if my client tells me some story that sounds bogus, I tell him. If he or she demands to go forward with that bogus sounding story I tell him or her they need to find a different lawyer. Sure, everyone deserves a defense, but I believe a client deserves a lawyer who believes in their story as well. (Unfortunately, the courageous people at the Public Defender’s Offices can’t be so choosey).