Posts Tagged ‘criminal defense’

Straight Talk

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

 

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

This is not something you want your lawyer to be asking you in the middle of trial.  Or worse yet, in the cells after you’ve lost your trial.  And yet it is a perpetual ostenato heard in every criminal courthouse.  The head-shaking lament of lawyers whose own clients deprived them of the very information that could have changed the outcome of the case.

It is only human nature, of course, to minimize one’s own culpability.  Each one of us is the hero in our own story, not the villain.  If bad things are happening to you, it’s not because you did something wrong, but because you are the victim of a misunderstanding, of a vindictive lying accuser, of an overzealous prosecutor.  People start rationalizing their conduct before it even happens.  It’s just the way our brains work.  When speaking to another human being about something that might get you in trouble, it takes an almost inhuman amount of trust to be completely frank.  Even when speaking to an ally.  Even when you know that this ally needs to understand what really happened before he can help.  The urge to shade the truth, to make things sound more innocent than they really are, is always there.

It’s a simple truth.  So only a foolish lawyer ignores it.

A wise lawyer with sound judgment — the kind you want defending you — is going to be skeptical of what you tell him.  No offense.  Whether it’s your first meeting or your fiftieth, his bullshit meter is going to be turned on.

That’s because what wins cases is preparation.  Knowing the facts (and applicable law) better than the other guy.  Knowing better what happened.  Not having a more innocent-sounding story.  Facts.

When your lawyer defends you, he assesses the data in front of him to see if there are any legal arguments that might help.  He analyzes the data to see what the actual risks and opportunities are.  He bases his strategies and arguments on that data.  At trial, he weaves his stories and persuades juries with that same data.  The more — and more accurate — the data, the more he has to work with, and the more he can do for you.

This is the case even if the truth is ugly.  In fact, especially when the truth is ugly.  The more (more…)

Memo to White-Collar Witnesses: Get Your Own Lawyer!

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

stanford-cio.png

A “Martha Stewart moment” is that unhappy moment during a white-collar investigation when one’s client misleads the investigators. A client who may have escaped prosecution entirely has now practically ensured that she will be prosecuted. If his client must speak with investigators, a good attorney tries to prepare her well, to prevent any Martha Stewart moments from happening.

During the recent SEC investigation of a possible $8 billion fraud at Stanford International Bank, they interviewed Stanford Financial Group’s chief investment executive, Laura Pendergest-Holt (pictured). She was accompanied to the interview by Proskauer Rose partner Thomas Sjoblom, a very good and experienced attorney.

Last Thursday, the investigation went criminal, as Pendergest-Holt was charged with a federal crime. She’s alleged to have had a Martha Stewart moment, lying to the SEC about her knowledge of Stanford’s investments, and about not meeting with other Stanford people to prepare for her meeting with the SEC.

How could that happen, when she had such a good lawyer?

The answer appears to be (first pointed out by Zach Lowe) that Sjoblom wasn’t actually her lawyer. He represented Stanford, not its executive.

This is something that comes up all the time in the white collar world. When a corporation is under investigation, it hires lawyers to protect its interests. The interests of its executives and employees are not always the same — in fact they are rarely the same — and so to avoid potential conflicts of interest they usually get separate counsel.

If the same law firm represented a corporation and its CIO, somewhere down the line the CIO might decide that it’s in her interest to testify against the company. That would cause a conflict of interest, so the company will usually insist that she get her own lawyer.

If the corporation’s attorneys speak with the CIO, they must make it very clear that they only represent the company, and do not represent the individual. In this case, Sjoblom made it very clear at least twice during the SEC meetings that he was Stanford’s lawyer and not Pendergest-Holt’s. It is not yet known whether he made this clear to Pendergest-Holt (he did not return Lowe’s calls seeking comment, but commenting is probably improper anyway), though it is hard to imagine that he did not do so.

Sjoblom had a bit of a dilemma in that situation, regardless. As Stanford’s lawyer, he probably needed to get information from Pendergest-Holt. And he probably needed to cooperate fully with the investigators. He would have had to make it perfectly clear to her that, as he did not represent her, anything she said to him would not be privileged. (Well, Stanford could assert a privilege perhaps, but Pendergest-Holt could not.)

If Pendergest-Holt reasonably believed that Sjoblom represented her, and then Sjoblom shared her information with Stanford or the SEC, then Sjoblom could well be liable in a civil suit. Again, there is no reason to believe that such is actually the case, and this is only mentioned to stress the challenges presented to the corporation’s attorney in a situation like this.

How does the company’s lawyer get information out of its CIO, then? If the lawyer tells the CIO he doesn’t represent her, and nothing she says is going to be confidential, and in fact he’s obligated to share her information, then she’s not going to want to talk. The solution is simple and cold: the lawyer must inform the CIO that if she doesn’t talk she will be fired.

Given all the warnings that must have been given, alerting her that Sjoblom did not represent her, it is strange to see that she didn’t get her own counsel. Nevertheless, Pendergest-Holt somehow appeared before the SEC without being represented by her own lawyer. She didn’t have someone watching out for her own interests, and now she’s been arrested and charged with a federal crime as a result.

She has lawyers now, of course. She is represented by the firm of Parsons Behle & Latimer in the civil SEC matter, and by Houston’s Dan Cogdell in the criminal matter. Still, we have to wonder why she waited until it was too late before she got her own counsel.

Memo to executives and employees: Get your own lawyers!

Public Defenders Refusing to Take New Cases

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Overworked public defenders

The New York Times reports on a trend of public defenders refusing to take on new cases, on the grounds that their workload is so high that they cannot effectively defend their clients. With budget cuts coming at the same time as caseloads are rising, government-appointed lawyers claim to be reaching “the breaking point.”

Right now, a lot of public defenders are starting to stand up and say, “No more: We can’t ethically handle this many cases,’ ” said David J. Carroll, director of research for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

Similarly, many capable attorneys decline to volunteer for indigent-defense panels (representing those for whom the public defender’s office might have a conflict of interest), because the government-funded compensation is too low — in New York only a quarter or less of typical private rates. Fewer volunteers means more work for each.

There may be something to the argument that much of this work is routine, and not particularly time-consuming. But there are only so many hours in the day, and once you get past a certain volume of cases, things are going to have to slide.

For these public defenders, time is a valuable commodity. Most of it goes to priorities like trials, hearings and court appearances, which are huge time sinks. What is left mostly goes to cranking out canned suppression motions and picking up new cases. There isn’t much time for original research, much less a thorough investigation of any given case. Potential witnesses go unidentified, or uninterviewed. Evidence goes undiscovered or unexamined.

Plea bargains, the usual result for most cases, also suffer. Prosecutors make their offers based on what they think a case is worth, which in turn is based on what the prosecutor knows about the case. Unless a defense attorney can present new evidence, or a new way of looking at the evidence, the defense attorney is going to have a hard time changing the prosecutor’s mind. But without time to develop such evidence or new ways of looking at it, the public defender can be left with few tools beyond whining and begging, which are rarely effective. The upshot is that a defendant must settle for a worse deal, because there wasn’t time to negotiate a better one.

It’s not as though prosecutors don’t share the same high caseload, and suffer the same budgetary constraints. Prosecutors also have much more work to do for a given case, as they must investigate and assess the evidence, prepare and present witnesses to grand juries, and prepare and present witnesses at hearings and trial, in addition to making the necessary court appearances, responding to the motions, etc. If both sides are under similar burdens, perhaps the injustices balance out. Or perhaps the injustices are magnified, as time-starved prosecutors similarly miss out on the chance to develop evidence or insights that would better serve the defendant.

The underlying concern is whether defendants’ interests can be adequately protected by public defenders with barely sufficient resources to go through the motions for most cases. Perhaps, and perhaps not.

It is difficult to see, however, how refusing to represent defendants at all can possibly help them. This ploy seems intended to serve nobody’s interests but those of the public defenders themselves.