It was a Wednesday morning was like any other. Running around to make appearances in several different courts for calendars scheduled at the same time. When I arrived in Part V, I was exhausted, frustrated, ready to call it a day, and it wasn’t even noon. I walked straight through the courtroom, into the bullpen to speak to the young man I was there to represent. As I passed through the thick steel door, the buzz of a packed bullpen immediately pierced my ears. My nose burned, my eyes watered at the smell of body odor and stale urine. Yes, a Wednesday morning like any other. After I spoke to the young man I was there to represent, I turned to return to the courtroom. Through the drone of voices, I heard a call from the back of the cell, ……. "Andre, ……….. Hey, Mr. Vigh-tahl, …….. " Through the sea of tan and orange, I saw a mountain of a man, splitting the sea of humanity as he worked his way to the front of the cell, shining a wide, gold, and gap toothed smile. "You don't remember me, do you ?" he asked. I admitted I did not. "It's me, Red, ………..Turtle's cousin". Turtle, I remembered. Turtle is not the actual nickname of the individual to whom he was referring; a young man I started to represent in 2008. His case is quite significant to me in a number of ways. First, his remains one of my most significant trial victories. Second, it serves as an example of my transformation from who I was as a public defender before Gideon's Promise, and who I have become since.
When I was first assigned to represent Turtle, I was told he had been caught lying naked on top of a naked six year old boy “humping on him”. He confessed during both a recorded controlled call as well as the recorded police interrogation. He was on probation for a similar offense. To make the case even more daunting, biological material removed from the neck, chest, and genital area of the young boy "matched" Turtle’s DNA profile. Needless to say, this seemed to be a case where a plea seemed likely, if not necessary. The District Attorney made an offer of the minimum State sentence. I went to the jail to tell Turtle about the offer, expecting him to see it was not going get better than the offer being made. "I don't want it" ……. Stunned by this response, I stared at him, asking “Do you want to die in State prison ?"
At the time, my only concern was (1) he had little to no chance of winning at trial (2) the Government’s evidence seemed very strong; (3) he was being made a good offer, and (4) he would get hammered when he was convicted. My only thought was on the case against him and his lack of a defense. I did not consider or even think about the PERSON I was representing or what he wanted. I spent the better part of the next few months trying to convince him that he needed to take the offer. I never asked Turtle what he was thinking or his reasoning in turning down the offer. I never took the time to listen to him or care about what he wanted. My representation of Turtle would have remained the same, but then something happened. I changed. To be more accurate, I was changed.
In the middle of my representation of Turtle, I spent a weekend in Atlanta. There, I met Jonathan Rapping and the amazing people of Gideon’s Promise (then the Southern Public Defender Training Center). Like a caterpillar which transforms itself, I underwent a fundamental metamorphosis which fundamentally changed me, as well as the way I work with and treat every person I represent. It began in Atlanta. The client centered cocoon enveloped me that summer during the week I spent in Birmingham, from where I emerged ready to spread my wings as a new type of public defender. One who is carried by and flying towards the destination of client centered representation. Maintaining this new energy was not always easy because of the headwinds I faced. However, because of the Gideon's Promise family I was able to fight through the winds and always maintain the client centered flight. Gideon’s Promise not only provides training and instruction in how to be a client centered lawyer. All the attorneys who participate as both participants and faculty buy into and support the ideals of the program. They continue that support after you leave, when you return to your own practice, where client centered representation may not be given the same level of support.
My representation of Turtle began before I learned the importance of client centered representation. It was not a focus of mine. In fact, it was not even on my radar. I believed that with me, my clients were going to get high quality representation. I was a good trial lawyer, who fought like hell in court. To me, that was the beginning and end of the client centered representation story. If they didn’t like me or how I dealt with them, I was unmoved, believing they would be happy once they saw me in court fighting for them. While many times this turned out to be exactly how my relationship with clients worked, I was wrong in what it means to be client centered and what I owe each person I represent. I returned from Birmingham having been fundamentally transformed in the way I treat the people I represent. I now understood what it means to be truly client centered. I immediately saw the change in my representation of Turtle. Instead of telling him that he needed to take the offer, now I asked what he wanted. Where before, I heard what he was saying, now I listened. Where before I told him about the Government’s case, now we discussed his defense. For the first time since I started to represent Turtle, we were communicating.
When the first day of trial arrived, Turtle and I had developed a truly client centered relationship, cultivated in the teaching and nurtured in the light of Gideon's Promise. We developed and presented our theory of defense in all phases of trial. We challenged the Government's case at every turn, including attacking the DNA evidence. We gave a powerful and emotional closing, intended on getting the jury to discount the State’s case and to see Turtle as a human being, instead of the monster the Government described. The Jury started their deliberations at 2 pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Most believed the guilty verdict would be quick. The Jurors were sent home at 6 pm as no verdict was in sight. Some would have called getting the jury home without a verdict a "moral victory", because it was more than could have been expected given the facts of this case. I do not share in that belief. There are no “moral victories” when you are talking about the life of a human being that has been placed in our care. It was especially so in this case, where the young man I was representing would likely die in State prison if he was convicted. Wednesday came and went without a verdict. On Monday morning, I returned to court and at noon was advised the Jury had reached their verdict. I went back to the holding area to let Turtle know. As we sat talking through the bars of his cell, he asked what I thought the verdict would be. I tried my best to keep his hopes up, but he could see right through me. I have no poker face. I shook my head, staring into his eyes, wondering why he decided to turn down the offer that would have saved him from a life in prison. I found no answers. He then reached his hand through the bars and thanked me for fighting so hard. I was stunned. Here was a young man who understood that he would likely never breathe the sweet air of freedom again, and he was thanking me. That was an experience that never would have occurred before my transformation.
Turtle and I stood together before the Jury as the Foreperson rose to announce the verdict. As to Count One of the Indictment, ……. Not Guilty. As to Count Two, …….. Not Guilty. Count Three, ……. Not Guilty. And on the Fourth and final count, …….. Not ……… Guilty. To this day, I still have trouble believing we were able to achieve a full acquittal. I walked Turtle back to the holding cell. When I turned to leave, he called me back to his cell and once again reached his hand through the bars to thank me. This time I said, “No ….. Thank YOU !! Thank YOU for believing in me, when even I did not. Thank YOU for giving me the confidence that I lacked. Thank YOU for giving me the opportunity to give you a second chance at life”. I let him know that without his strength and confidence, this victory would never have been possible.
When I asked how Turtle was doing, Red’s face lit up, again displaying that big shiny grin. He told me Turtle had turned his life around. He is living in another state; he isn't drinking anymore; he has two children with a third on the way; and is working full time. Now I was the one who was smiling. When I first met Turtle he was headed down a path to self-destruction. Had we lost, he likely would have died in State prison. Now he was living a productive family life. One of which any of us would be proud for ourselves or a member of our family.
When people ask me why I do this work, I think of Turtle and others like him. It would have been very easy to write him off. He was facing the type of charges that even some of the most dedicated lawyers would say, don't deserve a defense. It was a case many would have mailed in, justifying it on the “bad” decision he made in rejecting the offer of the minimum. Client centered representation demands that these types of factors never influence the way we do our work; how hard we fight for the lives of our clients; or how we treat each person we represent. It does not matter what the charge is; how difficult the evidence seems; how difficult the client may be to work with; or even if the person you are representing has turned down a "good" offer. Client Centered representation requires that we treat every person we represent with dignity and respect. That we both listen to and do our best to try to achieve the results THEY want. It should be the client's goals that take precedence, not the lawyer’s. It truly bothers me when I hear lawyers bad mouthing clients because of their "stupid" decisions. It is not for us as lawyers to decide what a “smart” decision is and what is not. It is the client's life that hangs in the balance, not ours. Therefore, it should be the client's decision as to what is the right and what is the wrong decision. Turtle wanted a trial and we fought the fight of our lives to give him HIS trial; to give him a shot at having a chance at the life HE wanted. As a result of that fight, Turtle was given a second chance. A new opportunity to write his own story. Turtle, to his credit, took full advantage of this second chance. He realized the gift he had been given and took full advantage. He followed the mandate that Tom Hanks gave Private Ryan, …….. He earned it !
Turtle's case always reminds me of the type of lawyer I was and who I now work to be every day. It serves to prove that the naysayers who argue that being client centered will make you a less effective lawyer, are just flat wrong. I am not perfect, nor will I ever claim to be. I have my good days and my bad. But becoming a client centered public defender has made me an even more effective lawyer and advocate, as well as a better man. It has transformed who I am, how I work with the people I represent, as well as their families. I consider my transformation into being a client centered lawyer to be a gift and like Turtle, I strive every day to "Earn It".