Friday, January 21, 2011

2010: A Review

2010 was my second full year in private practice as a criminal defense lawyer. Compared to 2009, I took on about half as many cases but earned about the same amount in fees. And though I opened 50% less files, I worked the same if not more.

In 2009 I handled a lot of misdemeanors (~50). In 2010, it was only 3. In 2009 I took on cases in the suburbs. In 2010, I did not. So, I definitely did less running around this year and probably spent less on fuel for my car.

Starting in fall 2009, my cases started to become more complex and more serious. I don't know how it happened, either. It just did. I suppose I even welcomed it. But I was blinded by hubris. I wanted the tough cases.

That was until I experienced how it feels to lose one.

I liken serious felony defense litigation to playing the high stakes tables in Las Vegas. You can win big, but odds are you're going to lose big. That was my 2010 in a nutshell. I lost two very big trials. Each client ended up being sentenced to over 60 years in prison.

An objective look at my performance in both trials is frustrating. I wasn't perfect. But I did the best with what I had. I believed in both cases and I argued passionately for them. I can blame the jury for one and the judge for the other but that changes nothing. Because I know I lost. And that's all that matters.

At one point back in October when this year finally started to take a toll on me, I felt like running back to misdemeanor court with my tail between my legs. And why not? No one goes to prison in misdemeanor court. The majority of the cases are dismissed, which makes the defense lawyer appear brilliant to the client. But the lawyer knows better. At least I did.

Compared to felony court, misdemeanor court is a world away. It might be a Chicago thing, but no one seems to take it very seriously. The arresting police officers are regular no shows, thus the easy dismissals.

I guess I liked the grit of felony court. But by the time October rolled around, the grit had worn me to the core. I was one giant open sore. I became fearful of my job. And that's never good. At times I was scared to go to court because the thought of losing any litigation was unbearable. For a while the anxiety consumed me. It's no coincidence that this happened after the Chicago Marathon when I was injured and unable to run.

Apparently running is my means of coping. When it was gone, it got ugly and fast. I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I stopped smiling. I stopped caring. I stopped being me. I withdrew into myself in an attempt to make sense of what was going on around me. I knew the system is broken and largely unfair. But it didn't get to me until this fall. I kept it at bay until I was no longer able.

It would seem that November and December were saved for the worst to come: the sentencing hearings. Once the motions for new trials were argued and denied, it was time to add up the years. I couldn't put it off any longer. I had no more cards to play. The time had come.

Walking into court for the first sentencing hearing found me fresh off a night of no sleep and completely frightened. The sentence could have been life. Instead it was two 31 year consecutive sentences. The client is in his mid 30's. It was in effect a life sentence. And somehow he was more at peace than myself. How can that be?

In early December the second client was sentenced. He got 48 and 15 year consecutive sentences. He's young. He has a good appeal. I have hope. But he, too, was somehow a lot better off than his lawyer. When I saw him in the lock-up before his hearing I asked how he was doing. "I am blessed" was his answer. How?

For some unknown reason, both of these clients still have enough faith in the system to believe their situations will be corrected. I, however, do not. I am too familiar with the system that convicted them in the first place.

The second client had a co-defendant in his case. He was also convicted and sentenced almost the same. His attorney was a very experienced PD. I spoke with her at length before the sentencing hearing. I needed help dealing with all of this. She's been around for over 20 years. Like most defense attorneys, she's lost more than she's won. I asked her how she has managed to hang around so long.

She gave me some words of advice and I will leave it there. But it was a conversation I dearly needed to have.

2010 wasn't all bad. I prevented a couple of 60 year sentences. I sent a few people home that had no business being in the county jail. I also won a number of suppression motions. I probably won more than I lost. I don't keep track of statistics, however.

Looking ahead to 2011 found me remembering a scene from Band of Brothers. If you're not familiar with that title, it was an HBO mini-series that chronicled a group of men in World War II. To me, it's probably the greatest story ever told through film.

During the battle of Normandy a captain finds a young private in a fox hole. The private tells the captain that he's scared. The captain tells the private that everyone is scared. Then the captain tells the private the key to survival is to accept that he's already dead.

Pretty profound. But highly useful. Admitting you're dead allows you to let go of fear and actually function. Extrapolating this into my world isn't as obvious, but I've figured it out.

I welcome whatever 2011 has in store for me. I have been to the bottom. And I survived it. But barely.

It can only get better.