Why you should care
Not everyone gets locked up for life.
Early in my legal career I worked for a public defender’s office in the San Francisco Bay Area. The chance to represent the oppressed, downtrodden accused against the tyranny of the police state was attractive for a young, aspiring attorney. I certainly had the fire in my gut to take on the challenge even if I also realized that, given my lack of experience, I was unlikely to do much more than review documents and move paper.
As it turns out, that initial assessment was wholly inaccurate. Less than a month into my job, my supervising attorney called me in to let me know she would be heading to Europe for a month, and I was to “manage” all of her pending cases until her return. Not to worry, though; she had filed all of the necessary paperwork to ensure that I really wouldn’t have to do anything meaningful during her absence. Thus began my foray into the true essence of criminal law.
Prior to that day, and since, I’ve never seen a more intimidating, threatening individual. He was about 6′3″ and easily 240 pounds. All of it sinewy muscle.
On my first assignment I was called out to the recently renovated jail in San Bruno. My client had been charged with some minor drug possession. It was a seeming no-brainer for someone with my vast days of legal practice. As I approached the jail, I could feel slight pangs of nervousness. The facility had an ominous heaviness that was palpable. But I’d just bought an actual business suit and a very studious pair of reading glasses that conveyed both my intellect and my fortitude. I was certain I could handle whatever the day brought.
I went through registration and into a waiting area where I sat with other visitors. Every jail or prison I’ve ever been in has that same smell: a stark antiseptic stink of sad and strict confinement. Eventually, one of the guards came out and told me that the interview rooms were packed, so my interview would be conducted in the newly constructed yet unopened women’s jail next door.
We walked across the parking lot, through some new gates, and into the new facility. The only smell now was new construction.
I was led down a long, isolated hallway to a group of unoccupied meeting rooms and told to take a seat. I did and waited by myself for about 15 minutes. Other than the guard who walked me in, I hadn’t seen a soul since I left the men’s jail.
Eventually, the guard returned with the accused. Prior to that day, and since, I’ve never seen a more intimidating, threatening individual. He was about 6′3″ and easily 240 pounds. All of it sinewy muscle. Both of his wrists were shackled to his waist. He was Hispanic, with a short haircut, but a long mustache covering a pockmarked face. Virtually every inch of his exposed skin was covered in tattoos, and I immediately noticed more than a few horrible looking scars, including one across his neck.
As I stood up to greet him, I was let down that he didn’t appear to be overjoyed to see that his legal hero had arrived. And when I offered my hand, he didn’t extend his. He looked at me, though. With contempt. Regardless, when the guard suggested he should remain shackled, I brushed the suggestion away: How could I have a meaningful conversation with this gentleman while he was shackled like an animal?
The guard remained unmoved and noted two significant considerations at play: First, this shackled gent was a known member of a notorious Hispanic gang and suspected of participating in at least two killings. Moreover, he’d already had a bit of a dustup during this particular stay in County during the intake process.
The panic buttons in the interview rooms weren’t working.
Second, they hadn’t finished the wiring and electronics in the new, unopened women’s jail, so the panic buttons in the interview rooms weren’t working. So, essentially, I’d be on my own, locked in an interview cell in an unoccupied jail facility with a suspected killer, until the end of the half-hour interview session. I was undeterred and insisted that the chains be removed and we be left alone to our important private matters.
The guard proceeded to roll his eyes, give a condescending chuckle, remove the shackles and walk off with a rather ominous “See you on the other side, ace.” As soon as he left, I welcomed the chance to bond with my new buddy.
“Ha! That guy’s a real asshole! I’m glad he’s gone.”
He replied, to my surprise, “Now I just have one asshole to worry about.” No hint of a smile.
Undeterred, I moved forward with the interview and asked him questions from the idiot’s guide on how to interview the accused, falling back into my Perry Mason comfort zone. When the charges came up, though, we hit a stumbling block. See, these particular charges revolved around the possession of meth for sale. My inquiries to him related to the amount, the location and the nature of the offending substance.
These questions seemed to be driving my interviewee into a deeper rage with every passing question. Eventually, he slammed his huge, scarred hand on the table and said the interview was over. I was appalled and let him know that I couldn’t help him if he wouldn’t talk with me.
His counter was that I was likely the least competent person in the entire facility, including “the bitches that made my lunch.” He went on to enlighten me that every other person even marginally involved in criminal law or activity was aware that white biker gangs moved meth and Hispanic gangs were known for other drugs, like heroin.
I was bleeding from multiple parts of my face.
He continued that no well-respected Hispanic gang member would ever be involved with meth, and certainly not a member of his status. Given that I hadn’t even been aware of this reality, he actually accused me of working for the police.
That was it. I was already well into my law school career, and I wasn’t about to let someone speak to me this way!
I stood up and headed for the door. I’ll never forget the dumbfounded look in his eyes as I wriggled and wrestled with the latch: Could I really be so stupid as to forget that we were locked in the cell, together, for the rest of that half hour?
I casually pressed the “panic button” on the wall, trying to maintain the illusion that I was just curious to see if the guard was lying when he said they didn’t work. But no alarm sounded. Nothing happened. I was trying to regain my composure when he said, “Sit down, bitch, I’m not done with you.”
Obviously he didn’t fully appreciate my stature as an aspiring attorney. I turned and told him in my toughest voice to cut the shit and pull it together. I was the only friend his sorry ass had.
I never actually felt the punch.
I just remember feeling my glasses digging into the side of my face as his knee squished my head between the cell floor and cell wall. I could feel him punching my body, but I didn’t actually know where he was and what exactly was hurting on my body. Eventually, some old wrestling instincts kicked in, and I managed to wrap up the leg that was kneeling on my face and get him off me.
I vaguely remember us both wrapped up, semi-sprawling. He was sliding around on some half-assed prison sandals, and I was sliding around on my brand new wingtips. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get away from his punches. Then I realized he had a wrapped grip around my tie and was using it on me as some jailhouse guillotine. As he was strangling me and pummeling me, I happened to notice his funny slippers again. In a last ditch effort, I started stomping on his feet with my new wingtips, eventually escalating into a rapid-fire heel-stomping effort.
And then the door opened.
The guard just looked in on us casually. We both let go of each other. My suit jacket was ripped apart. I was bleeding from multiple parts of my face. My tie was almost completely out of my shirt and wrapped tightly around my neck, and my glasses were broken cleanly in half and lying on the floor.
The guard asked me if I needed more time for the interview. I attempted to regain some semblance of composure and let him know I thought I had all that I needed. He gave me a nod and asked me to follow him out, locking my interviewee in as we left.
Destroying the tattered remains of what dignity I had left, the guard stuck out his hand: “On behalf of all law-enforcement officers everywhere, I am grateful that there are attorneys out there, like you, protecting the rights of the accused!”