* Board Certified Criminal Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy
The Key to Criminal Defense.
One of the first cases I worked, the Keith J. case, crystallized in my mind that the key to criminal defense is the willingness to go to trial. Prosecutors are more willing to dismiss charges or offer a better plea agreement if they fear that the criminal defense lawyer will actually go to trial. When I or members of our firm say we will go to trial, we mean it and prosecutors know it. This reputation often leads to amazing results.
The Keith J. Case
“I am not leaving your office until you type out a dismissal and get my client out of jail. Not two days from now. Not tomorrow. Now.” These were the words that I shouted to the very experienced chief deputy prosecutor who had finally agreed to dismiss all of my client’s charges, but wouldn’t get around to preparing the paperwork for a few days. I didn’t think about whether it was a good idea to shout at a prosecutor or not. I was more interested in watching my innocent client walk out of the jail where he had been sitting for the prior nine months.
Keith J. was accused of molesting his six and seven-year-old stepchildren. He was innocent, but nobody believed in him. He didn’t have a whole lot of money, but the good news for him was that back in those days, I didn’t have a whole lot of clients.
I drove to the jail to meet Keith. He was 24 years old. His eyes swelled with tears as he told me the story of how he ended up in jail. He was facing 100 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
I immediately began my own investigation by interviewing neighbors and family members. Watched the interview tapes of the children over and over and over again. Conducted depositions. I began to piece the case together. It was my belief that these children had been molested…but not by my client. They were protecting the actual molester who was a family member. My client took a polygraph with the state police, but they said that he failed it. I didn’t believe the results. We would have to win at trial. The problem was that I had never tried a case to a jury on my own. At times I thought about trying to talk my client into a plea agreement, but I just couldn’t do it. He was innocent and he needed to see that the system could work.
Two weeks before the trial, I got married and went on my honeymoon. I took the file with me to continue my preparation. My wife, Michelle, learned early in the marriage that my passion for defending all of my clients comes with a heavy price. After I returned from my honeymoon, the prosecutor called me to meet at her office. She told me that although she felt my client was guilty, the evidence might be too weak to take to trial and she would be dismissing charges. Thirty minutes later my client walked out of jail a free man. We hugged. He cried. Then he moved to Kansas City to begin his new life.
In many ways, it was the Keith J. case that laid the groundwork for my career as a criminal defense attorney. It was through his case that I began to understand the need for courage when representing the accused. The easy road is to take a quick plea agreement. The courageous road is to work the case and to take it to trial. Without courage, a criminal defense attorney becomes ineffective, lazy and satisfied with the status quo.