Be Careful Out There
“You mean I could knock you out right now and get away with it?” He stood close to me, fist in my face, menacing. We were in an isolated part of a rural jail. It would take several minutes for anyone to hear me. My client was angry that I was discussing issues of competency and insanity. He stood, unable to sit while he made his point. We were at a standoff that lasted for a minute, until he sat down and our conversation continued. He was able to calm himself.
Later, one of our Kentucky public defenders was cold cocked during a motions hearing. He was arguing for a continuance, and was blind-sided by a fist to the side of his face. Our defender went down, remaining there for several minutes. The video went viral.
I thought about those incidents and others recently when a Brevard County, Florida, judge challenged a public defender to fight. The defender was asserting his client’s right to a speedy trial. The judge wanted the defender to waive that right. The defender stood strong. The judge first expressed the desire to throw a rock at the defender, and then when that intimidation didn’t work, used that familiar junior high school invitation, “let’s take it outside.” Once outside, allegedly the judge grabbed the defender and started hitting the defender, quitting only when a bailiff intervened.
What do we do with that? These incidents of courtroom violence seem to be somewhat on the increase. What’s going on? Are people angrier now than they once were? I don’t pretend to know what’s in the water, but do have a couple of observations.
Public defenders, investigators, mitigation specialists, and support staff are exposed to a lot of angry people, including their clients, police officers, family members, victims, prosecutors, and yes, judges. Violence and intimidation cannot be tolerated. Public defenders, like judges, must be protected by whatever reasonable security is available to other courthouse personnel.
Public defenders can minimize threats from their clients by establishing a good relationship with their clients. Time that is spent with a client is an investment into that relationship. Of course, many of our clients have mental illness. Many of them have never learned how to express frustration and anger. Nothing we do will totally eliminate the possibility of violence. But establishing a good listening relationship, spending time with our clients, is essential.
Public defenders must be treated like the professionals that we are. Judges must stop the intimidation, the demeaning talk, the quiet threats of contempt, that all too many judges have used over time to get their way or to move their dockets. Judges must treat public defenders like every other member of the bar. They need to stop over-scheduling defenders with multiple trials on the same day and they must stop putting defenders last at motion hour. Defenders, like prosecutors, need to be paid on par with prosecutors, and both need to be paid like legal professionals.
Public defenders need to understand the environment they are in and not be afraid to express security concerns. It’s not a badge of honor to be stupid and ignore what might be a threatening situation. In the immortal words of Phil Esterhouser, be careful out there.
What have your experiences been? What thoughts do you have on this?