The Case of the Lost iPhone
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My first jury trial

2.5.10Image by aprilzosia via Flickr

I've decided to write about my experiences as an assistant public defender in Monroe County.

Today--my first jury, in 1996, I think it was. This was, all things considered, the least interesting of all my jury trials, but it's as good a starting point as any.

I had been assigned to a town court rotation and was about to rotate out of that court into a different town court rotation, as was the ADA assigned to that court with me. Neither of us had ever done a jury trial.

Our judge was offended at the thought that we'd leave his court without having done a jury trial so he forced our hand. I had a client who was charged with Criminal Mischief in the Fourth Degree (Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail) and Attempted Petit Larceny (Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail).

My client didn't have an extensive record, but had done a a short stint in jail on a probation violation in the past. He was accused of breaking into a car in the middle of the night and attempting to steal a cell phone, breaking the charger in the process.

He's been discovered in the car by a neighbor of the complainant. They both lived in the same apartment complex and this witness (who was, if I recall, a part-time security guard who really, really wanted to be a cop) testified that he watched my client walk up the street, trying the door handles of each car until he happened upon the complainant's, which happened to be unlocked.

The witness then ran outside, confronted my client, and asked him what he was doing. My client allegedly said he was the boyfriend of the owner of the car, but wasn't able to state her name.

The cop-wanna-be yelled for someone to call the cops and restrained my client until the cops showed up.

The ADA's plea offer was fairly reasonable, but the judge indicated that he'd only accept a plea to the top charge and would sentence my client to 1 year in jail. As I'd mentioned, the judge wanted a trial, and damned if he was going to get one. Obviously, there was absolutely no incentive to plea, so we set a trial date.

The trial started on 10 pm on a week night--yep--10 pm. This was a town court that met at night, and the trials occurred after regular court.

We picked a jury, the gung-ho cop-wanna-be witness showed up--of course. His testimony didn't differ much from what I'd expected, although he clearly exaggerated what he could see, given that it was pitch black outside when he "witnessed" the break in. The key point I brought out on cross was that he really couldn't see what my client was doing inside the car given the lighting and his location inside the building when he first saw my client.

His big mistake was that he was so eager to convict my client that he made up all kinds of details about the interior of the car. He was like the Energizer bunny on crack--he kept going, and going, and going. I asked him question after question about the phone, the charger and the car and he oh-so-helpfully came up with all sorts of random details that the owner later contradicted when she testified.

In fact, she seemed downright confused when I asked her about them. I'd describe the ridiculously crazy, detailed description of the phone, the charger or the dashboard and then she'd look at me like I was on drugs and say "no, it actually looked totally different than that..." and then she'd go on to tell me what it really looked like. It was classic.

She also stated that the phone had been moved, but was never removed from her car. According to her, a very small piece of plastic had broken off of the charger. She also admitted that it wasn't necessary to damage the charger in order to steal the phone. And, she testified that my client was NOT her boyfriend. Big shocker there.

My client did NOT testify. Are you surprised?

The jury was out for maybe 20 minutes and returned with their verdict at 2 am. Yep. You read that correctly--2 am.

They'd apparently come to the conclusion that my client was trying to steal the phone but failed and inadvertently (ie. unintentionally) damaged the charger in the process. Accordingly they convicted him of Attempted Petit Larceny and acquitted him of the more serious charge. Although he'd been charged with the reckless sub-division of Criminal Mischief, I think they simply compromised in order to get the damn thing over with. It was late and everyone was tired.

The judge promptly (and unhappily--he'd been gunning to send him away for a year and my client knew it) sentenced him to 90 days, on the spot, in front of the jury. The best part then followed. My client jumped up, shouted "Yes!", grabbed a garbage bag with his clothes from underneath the table and walked over to the court deputy, his arms extended. As he was lead away, he yelled over his shoulder "Thanks Ms. Black!"

The look on the face of some of the jurors was priceless. They clearly wondered if they'd made the wrong decision. Too little, too late, I guess.

Although I hadn't technically won in that I'd not gotten a "not guilty", I had a (very) happy client and a trial under my belt. All in all, it was a good night--albeit a really late one.

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John Abrahams, Public Defender

We define victory in each case.

twitter.com/socialtechno

Blimey ... defense attorneys really oughta train their clients to show more dignity when they get sent down :-)

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