Nearly 10 years ago, long after I left my career as a police officer and forensic investigator, I plead guilty to a misdemeanor I do not believe I was guilty.
For the first time — after more than one decade and four training academies, during which I witnessed firsthand how police training, policies and culture contribute to many criminal justice woes — I was tasked with navigating through the system for myself.
My experience in law enforcement prepared me for several challenges I knew I would encounter as a defendant:
- I knew there was no presumption of innocence. Though we are promised this legal standard in our country, any objective person would agree that the real power concerning guilt or innocence lies with the state district attorneys, and the police.
- I knew that because of the relationship between the police and the DA’s office, the initial reporting process — by which statements are recorded and evidence collected– was framed, from the start, to ensure a conviction, rather than create an objective record of the facts.
- I knew that the easiest way to resolve the case would be to plead guilty or plea bargain on sentencing.
I was resolved to go to trial. But my family still reeled from the 2008 economic collapse; the costs of a private attorney would be prohibitive, as it is for most defendants. I was given a court-appointed attorney and was told to contact him immediately about my intention regarding a plea and to discuss any evidence and witnesses. For nearly a year, I left messages until his mailbox was full, sent emails, and mailed two certified letters, both of which were returned unclaimed. During that time, I spoke to him only once.
I wrote to the court and requested a new attorney be appointed, but the request was denied on the basis that I had been provided counsel and therefore should discuss concerns with him directly.
Let’s think about this logic.
The court suggested that I contact my attorney — the same attorney I was unable to contact — to advise him that I was unable to contact my attorney. Him.
This continued for months, with radio silence in return. Eventually, I called the court to make a second request for a new attorney and was told that my court date had already passed. Miraculously, the clerk was able to connect me with my attorney immediately. He claimed he’d mailed me a letter, but he didn’t bother to certify it or deliver by sheriff. It never reached my desk.
I also learned that a jury trial was not scheduled, as I had insisted. My attorney claimed that he had not been aware I requested one. I was simply out of luck. My case was eventually transferred to a new court-appointed attorney.
During our consultation, I explained that I was now living out of state and expressed my concerns about the mistakes of my previous counsel. I asked this attorney to appear personally in court, as opposed to filing a written motion, to present evidence about why I had didn’t appear at the original date and what current obstacles kept me from easily returning.
Instead, he submitted a simple typed motion —with no hearing, without explanation or evidence — which, unsurprisingly, the court denied. By now, the sole witness, an elderly man, who none of my attorneys ever spoke to, had died. Some evidence I had kept in storage was lost, as I continued struggling financially. Confronting these realities with my new attorney, his advice was that I simply remain out of state, since misdemeanors were not extraditable. It was obvious to me that no serious attorney looking out for the interest of his client would ever give such advice.
My only remaining option was to hire a private attorney and seek a plea. But that’s expensive.
It took several years for me to save the money to retain a new lawyer, pay for travel, and take time off work to appear in court. I retained a former prosecutor who spent less than 15 minutes on the phone with me and then advised that the best course of action was to arrange a plea bargain. At this point, I agreed; however, I wrongly assumed that my privately paid attorney would work diligently to get the best deal possible — a plea to a lesser charge — especially given the legal standing I’d have on appeal.
My attorney warned me that attempting to negotiate with the state further could jeopardize any possibility of a plea. I begrudgingly agreed to the terms: travel back to the county, plead guilty, and the matter would stand resolved.
When I arrived, my attorney wasn’t there. An associate — who knew nothing about my case — was sent instead. Assuming I was pleading guilty based on the 3 terms I was told, to my surprise, I was given three additional pages of conditions to my plea, including an inaccurate statement I was to make to the court.
Imagine being told, minutes before you are prepared to enter a guilty plea, that there are additional conditions you weren’t aware of that was dramatically different than what you were told. Imagine being told this after months and years of being stonewalled at every turn. Imagine feeling that your hands are tied when it comes to your personal integrity and vehement belief in personal justice.
Fifteen minutes later, I sat in open court and stated that I was guilty for a crime I do not believe I had committed.
I wish this were one case, about one person, in one court of law.
But we all know that’s not true.