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Right To Counsel

Vultures Flitting Through Our Criminal Courts

By James Donahue

In my years covering criminal cases in county court houses as a reporter for various newspapers I have been keenly aware of a cluster of "lawyers" always flitting through the halls or just hanging out in the courtrooms during criminal arraignments.

As the defendants are brought in shackles by police officers from the local jail to stand before a judge, the first thing they are asked is if they have legal counsel. When they say no, the judge then asks if they wish to be represented by a lawyer.

When in a situation like this, and having no idea just how the court system works, just about every defendant will grasp at any straw he or she can find. The natural answer to this question is "yes." And there lies the rub.

At this point the judge appoints one of the lawyers in the room to represent the accused. The lawyer then takes this person out into the hall or into a private little room, talks to them for usually no more than five minutes, then brings the defendant back before the judge where they usually plead innocent or stand mute. The lawyer then negotiates with a court for a plea bargain, or an agreement that the defendant will plead guilty to a reduced charge.

For instance, if the defendant is charged with burglary of a store and theft of $1,000 in goods, the plea deal might be reduced to attempted breaking and entering and theft of less than $100 in merchandise. The case then gets quickly whisked through the court system, the high cost of a trial is avoided, and in the end, the defendant is slapped with a hefty jail sentence and fine that includes an estimated $600 more for the services of his court-appointed lawyer.

I watched this happen over and over again in courts throughout Michigan and Arizona where I worked. I suspect it is standard fare in the county courts throughout the United States.

I always thought that if these accused defendants might have actually been innocent of the crime they were accused of, they literally gave away their right to a fair trial the moment they let that court-appointed lawyer into their lives. His job was to frighten them into accepting the lesser charge or face the possibility of getting sentenced to time in prison if found guilty in a trial.

These people also might have saved themselves that $600 legal fee if they had simply understood the workings of the court and stood mute before the judge, then allowing the same process to occur.

I had a tendency to look upon those flittering lawyers as a band a vultures, all earning a good living by simply hanging around the courts and taking judicial appoints to give defendants those five minutes of private counsel and then collect that big fee. It is a malicious con by the lawyers that has been going on for decades.

So how did this get its start?

There was a case, Gideon Vs. Wainwright, that went before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1963 that brought about a ruling that the Sixth Amendment guarantees every criminal defendant the right to legal representation, even if they are too poor to hire one. A person cannot have a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him, the judges ruled.

That decision placed a heavy burden on the nation’s criminal justice system. The mandate of the Gideon decision forced prosecutors to be fairer and more honest when dealing with criminal defendants.

The idea was sound, but there was a problem that remained unresolved here. Congress and the state governments failed to pay the cost of the public defenders or creating additional judicial positions to deal with the potential increase in public trials. Thus was born the concept of quick legal representation and recommendations for plea bargaining. This satisfied Gideon ruling and helped push criminal cases speedily through the court system.

As the high court has become more conservative since that 1963 ruling, the judges have failed to force state and federal legislatures to repair this vast financial gap, thus leaving criminal defendants dangling in the wind.