August 29, 2018
HEARING EXAMINER: The what? The rule on witnesses?
DEFENSE: Yes, sir. The sergeant has concluded his testimony. He will be a witness against my client at trial. I would ask that the sergeant be excused while I make my argument.
HEARING EXAMINER: Something could said that he needs to respond to.
DEFENSE: In that case, we could call him into the courtroom, the hearing room, at that time.
HEARING EXAMINER: I am not going to excuse him for that. Like I said, part of your argument, I don’t know what your argument is, but he should be here to hear and then he can respond. I am not going to excuse him because of the D.C. Superior Court trial that is coming up.
DEFENSE: Well, I would argue that —
HEARING EXAMINER: — Counsel, no one has ever asked me this before. This is a DMV hearing, not a trial.
DEFENSE: I am proud to be the first then.
HEARING EXAMINER: For this proceeding, the government will remain for the whole proceeding. I will not excuse him. Something you should say, he should be able to respond to it.
DEFENSE: Mr. Examiner, the sergeant is not a party to this case. He is a witness. Once his testimony has been given, there is no reason to have him in the room.
HEARING EXAMINER: Counsel. I have made my decision. I ask you to proceed with your argument.
May 29, 2018
Every four years, D.C. Superior Court re-establishes the panel of criminal defense lawyers who are eligible to accept court appointments. The first re-establishment occurred in 2010 and the second in 2014. Chief Judge Robert Morin just issued his most recent order re-establishing the panel for 2018-2021. Unlike the 2014 process in which the Court reduced the number of eligible attorneys from 309 to 220, this year’s re-establishment maintains the current level at 213 (177 on the full panel and 36 on the “provisional” panel for new attorneys).
Listed below are (1) lawyers on the full panel, (2) lawyers on the provisional panel, and (3) judges who participated on the selection panel.
Full Panel Members
Maddox-Levine, T. Gail
Stevens, Gemma Michelle
Provisional Panel Members
Committee on Criminal Justice Act Panel Attorneys
Judge Juliet McKenna, Deputy Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division, Co-Chair
Judge Peter Krauthamer, Deputy Presiding Judge of the Family Division, Co-Chair
Judge Jennifer Anderson
Judge Ronna Beck
Judge Steven Berk
Judge Rainey Brandt
Judge Danya Dayson
Judge Marisa Demeo
Judge Todd Edelman
Judge Wendell P. Gardner
Judge Kimberley Knowles
Judge Adrienne Noti
Judge Maurice Ross
Judge Michael Ryan
Judge Yvonne Williams
May 28, 2018
This is what my niece Meg says as she forces open a window on the first-floor and crawls into the building. She comes around to the front door to let the rest of us in. I am horrified. I am also impressed. I follow my sister and daughter into the building to join her.
We have just broken into Bartlett Hall at the University of Massachusetts. For 60 years my father had his office here, first as a member of the English Department, then in retirement. The building is now empty. They are about to tear it down.
* * * * *
According to Google Maps, it is 1.1 miles from Bartlett Hall to my parents’ house on Hills Road. My father used to walk this every day.
There must have been some days in which he would have been more comfortable staying at home, in his bathrobe and with a cup of coffee. The New England winters can be brutal, and his home study was cozy. With its dark wooden bookshelves lining the back wall, Sylvia Plath once compared the room to the inside of a walnut. But my mother liked to have my father out of the house at times, and he enjoyed the walk, even on the worst days.
A former student told my mother of driving up Clark Hill Road one snowy day to find my father lying by the side of the road.
Mr. Koehler, Mr. Koehler, the student said, getting out of his car to help my father to my feet. Can I give you a ride?
My father thanked him but declined the offer. It really is a nice day for a walk, he said.
* * * * *
I don’t know how good a teacher my father was (I assume he was better with graduate students) but I do know the students liked and respected him.
We used to joke that you could go anywhere in the world only to have a student seek him out with a “Mr. Koehler, Mr. Koehler!”
Backstage at the Lollapalooza in 1995, my father is the only person in the entire stadium who is over 60 years old. Apart from the bleached blonde bassist from the band, he is also the only person in a coat and tie. The “Mr. Koehler, Mr. Koehler” person in this case is a roadie who accosts my father as we approach the stage: Don’t you remember me from freshman English? You gave me a B when I deserved an A. My father never did believe in grade inflation.
* * * * *
Once inside of Bartlett, the four of us walk up to the fourth floor where my father had his office. The small offices, cinderblock walls and metal office doors are familiar to us, but when we arrive on the hallway we struggle to remember which office was his.
My sister Maggie goes with her gut: This one feels right, she says, and we step into one of the cramped offices. The office is mostly empty now, with a metal table and filing cabinet pushed off to the side.
* * * * *
Apparently, in going through his things a couple of years ago, we missed a box of his personal papers. Someone bought the box at an auction and contacted me. I thought the guy was going to hit me up for some money. As it was, I could barely talk him into accepting reimbursement for the postage. The papers seemed important to me, he told me. I thought you might appreciate them.
It was fun to find, along with letters and old photos, early drafts of some of our favorite poems by my father, poems that my siblings and I can recite from memory. We have the draft, for example, in which he scratches out “gold” and writes in “bronze” in “Aging Bronze.” “Snow” was originally entitled “Fourteen Inches.”
My father hated adverbs. Adjectives too, for that matter. Contrary to what many creative writing teachers might tell you, he also preferred the general to the specific. He would say “stomach,” not “belly,” even if the latter was far more descriptive. And he always took out any suggestion of sentimentality.
His only indulgence, as far as I can tell, is a poem he wrote after his father’s death, inspired by his experience cleaning out his own father’s study. In “Your Desk, By the Window,” he writes of his inability to “think, or take, or touch things”: “In the middle drawer/these envelopes, unused; letters/you did not write./Their whiteness is/the distance now between us;/differences;/ so many ways to fail.”
* * * * *
Meg does not share her mother’s certainty as to which of the offices belonged to her grandfather. So she pulls out her smart phone and produces a photograph. It is of my father actually sitting in his office. He is at his desk, by the window.
We search the photograph for clues. We check the wall for markings consistent with the wall hangings captured in the photograph. There are also plants on the windowsill behind him, spindly-looking things because, to be honest, my father never had much of a green thumb. We check the wood for signs of water damage.
One of the things I learned from my father is an appreciation for the seemingly insignificant things in life. It was not just the joy he took in finding the perfect word or turn of phrase for a poem. He could spend days doing that. It was tending to his yard, where the grass never seemed to come in just right, or the vegetable garden, where he planted an extra row every year, this one for the bunnies, he would say. It was stooping over to pick up a penny on the street. It was a stupid joke, with a corny punch-line, that would amuse him for days and that he would tell again and again. It was the pleasure he derived from the snowdrops that pushed up through the earth on our front lawn every spring.
Even with Meg’s photographic evidence, we are still unsure. Maggie who, along with my brother, cleaned out the office after my father died, sticks with her gut. Meg and my daughter Laura look for the positioning of the tree limbs visible outside the window in the photograph. We realize his office could have been a couple of doors down.
* * * * *
Although my father never complained, you have to wonder if he was ever disappointed with the way his career turned out. Without an interest in departmental politics, he was never selected chairman of the English Department. Nor was his poetry ever recognized in quite the way he might have hoped.
Emma – another of my nieces — went through William Carlos Williams’ papers while writing her senior thesis at Dartmouth. There was a file with my father’s name on it. Emma also discovered a letter Williams had written encouraging the poetry editor at a major publication to look at my father’s poetry. My father was, Williams wrote, “a man of 40 who has just had some poems accepted by Poetry. I was amazed by the excellence of his work. Bear the name in mind and if you can place him among your acceptances I’m sure you won’t regret it.” The letter was dated March 7, 1957.
Years later, going through my father’s things, we came across one of my father’s rejection slips, this one from the Atlantic Monthly. The year was 1938. “Not quite right for us,” the note said, “but please try us again.” We joke that 70 years is not too soon to give it another shot.
So many ways to fail.
* * * * *
We decide it was the first office, the one that felt right to Maggie, and the certainty makes us all feel better. It was this one, we say. It was definitely this one.
We photograph ourselves at the spot where the desk would have been, first Meg and Laura, then Maggie and me. We can feel his presence in the room even if we are wrong, even if we are standing in someone else’s office. Because this is a dilemma he would have appreciated. This is a dilemma that would have inspired one of his poems.
My father had a problem with goodbyes. Whenever we said goodbye, he wrote, it was like this, and he never needed to explain what this was. He thinks of tail-lights, the car braking at a curve, and the phone more quiet now. Maybe this explains what my nephews and nieces call the “Koehler goodbye,” an extravagant spectacle in which everyone comes out onto the street to wave goodbye. My brother could have some fun with this when he was the honoree. He would veer off course or stop the car at the curb to prolong things.
Our break-in today, I guess, must be our four-person “Koehler goodbye” to Bartlett Hall.
Meg takes the small rectangular clasp from the front of the door. She, the middle cousin, understands the significance of these things. There is, of course, always the chance that this piece of metal once held an index card with my father’s name on it, identifying the office as belonging to him. We will assume it did. I add theft to my list of criminal offenses we committed today, but it doesn’t really matter. The building is about to be torn down. No one will miss what we have reclaimed.
“Bye Dad,” my sister says, with as much finality as she can muster. Meg has her souvenir. We shut off the lights and close the door. We head back toward the exit.
January 26, 2018
Davon was 13 years old when I first represented him. He and his mother, a woman who referred to herself as “Danger” on her voice mail, moved across town to take advantage of a better housing deal. Davon was bored at the new location, and he kept returning to the old neighborhood to hang with friends. First he was warned: You can’t loiter at a public housing complex. Then he was barred. Then he was arrested for unlawful entry.
At 15 years old, Davon picked up a “purse-snatch robbery.” Except it was a cell phone. Using GPS, police tracked the phone to Davon’s new home, to his school, and, yes, back to his old neighborhood where he was again arrested for unlawful entry.
At 16, Davon was arrested for armed robbery. Reading the allegations, I had a pretty good idea then what might lie in his future.
If this were a Disney movie, Davon and I would have overcome age, racial, and socio-economic differences to forge a bond between us. That proud and dignified little boy would have let down his guard. We would have become, if not friends, well, at least closer. He would have trusted me.
This is not a Disney movie. That impassive face with the dull eyes never once brightened to see me. He never confided in me, even when his defense depended on it. When I visited him at the Youth Services Center or at a group home, he would sit as I talked. Or we would look across the table at each other in silence. His mind was already on other things – what was going on at his unit, perhaps what was on the menu for lunch.
Once, if only for just a moment, I saw a different side of Davon. He had been placed at the Kool House, a juvenile facility in Virginia with a good reputation, and his progress reports were glowing. He got along with his probation officer. More importantly, his father was back in his life.
We were at a commitment hearing to review his progress. I was waiting outside the courtroom with his mother when I saw his father and him walking down the hallway toward us. His gait was relaxed. The two of them leaned into each other as they talked about something. And, for the only time ever, I saw him smile. It was the easy, unguarded smile of a little boy. For that moment anyway, I thought he might be okay.
I don’t represent juveniles anymore, but I occasionally run into former clients in adult court. They call out to me in the courtroom or hallway – “Mr. Koehler, Mr. Koehler!” — and I am always pleased that, after a moment’s hesitation, I can remember their names. Mr. Smith! How are you? How is your mother?
Sometimes they are there supporting a friend. Sometimes they tell me they are there supporting a friend when in fact the docket shows they face their own charges. In either case, I pretend to believe them. It is a fiction that works for all of us.
We catch up. We reminisce. And the moment passes. We shake each other’s hand or fist bump one last time. Then, smiles fading, we turn back to the day. I follow their cases through the system. Until I don’t anymore.
More like this:
January 24, 2018
Some lawyers have the witness repeat the testimony from direct. This is inconceivable to me. It was bad enough to hear the bad facts the first time. Why would you ever want to put them back in front of the judge or jury?
Some people repeat the testimony from direct while lacing their questions with skepticism or sarcasm. I think in particular of Cristina Gutierrez. Gutierrez was Adnan Syed’s lawyer in the murder case made famous by the Serial podcast. My colleague Howard Margulies assures me that, back when he shared an office with Gutierrez many years ago as a public defender, she was a first-rate lawyer. But that was before she was stricken with disease and debt. Every question she asked of the government’s witnesses in Syed’s case was dripping with sarcasm.
When warranted, skepticism or sarcasm can be effective but even then, only in small doses. Tone does not convey on the record. This is important for appeals. More importantly, it is rarely effective. Like me, many people are contrarian. We don’t like to be told how we should be reacting. If you tell me I should be skeptical, even outraged, I will look for a reason to prove you wrong: What are you talking about? I don’t think the witness’ testimony is that far-fetched.
My colleague here in D.C., Bryan Brown, does the whole Peter Falk/Colombo thing: “Officer,” he says. “Let me see if I understand you correctly.” He gives you the impression that, of all the people in the courtroom, he is the person who most wants to believe the witness. We are right beside him, rooting for the witness. Like him, we are repeatedly surprised by – and disappointed with — the witness’ vague or contradictory answers.
The final risk of trying to do too much with cross-examination is that sometimes you can end up making the government’s case for it. I have learned this from bitter experience. The burden is on the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Don’t fill in holes for the government. Sometimes the best thing – also often one of the most satisfying things – is to say “no questions, your Honor.”
July 24, 2017
A: Yes. As I began speaking with him, he was repeating himself quite a bit, wasn’t really answering my questions, just kept repeating himself. He kept talking and talking and just wasn’t really cooperative at the time that I walked up to the vehicle.
Q: He was expressing concern about his girlfriend, right?
A: While he was in the car, he was just, he was very talkative as I believe I said, he kept repeating himself. His speech was slurred. He wasn’t directly answering questions. He was uncooperative.
Q: He told you he was looking for his girlfriend —
A: — he kept saying the same thing over and over, he kept repeating himself.
Q: You have just repeated yourself a number of times, Officer. Are you impaired today as you sit on the witness stand?
THE PROSECUTOR: Objection. Argumentative.
THE COURT: Sustained. Next question? . . .
May 10, 2017
Q: Ms. Smith, do you have an email account?
A: Do I have an e-mail account?
A: I do.
Q: Is it a Yahoo account?
Q: What is your e-mail?
A: It’s –
Q: Actually, let me ask you this way. Are you familiar with an e-mail account Tamara1540@yahoo.com?
A: I am not familiar with that account.
THE COURT: I’m sorry. Counsel, could you say it again or spell it out so that we are clear about the spelling of it.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Absolutely. It’s the email account T-A-M-A-R-A 1540 at Yahoo.com.
Q: That doesn’t ring a bell with you?
Q: You have never used that email account?
A: No . . .
PROSECUTOR ON RE-DIRECT
Q: Okay. Ms. Smith, you do have a Yahoo e-mail account, right?
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Objection. Leading.
PROSECUTOR: May I approach with counsel, Your Honor?
THE COURT: Sure. (To witness). If you would step down to one of those jury chairs again, if you would. Thank you.
THE COURT: Okay.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Two things. First, it’s leading. This is the government’s witness, not mine. Second, she never acknowledged that she had a Yahoo account.
PROSECUTOR: And, Your Honor, I am attempting to impeach the witness. I do have – I would just like to ask her if that is her e-mail account because I have communicated with her through that e-mail account, so if I could just be allowed to ask her again to give the email account with the numbers and ask her if she uses that account. It’s leading, and it would be my intent to impeach my own witness, and it’s just my responsibility as candor to the Court.
THE COURT: Okay.
THE COURT: Okay. You can come back up to the chair, please. Thank you.
BY THE PROSECUTOR:
Q: Ms. Smith, do you use a Yahoo account?
Q: Have you ever used a Yahoo account T-A-M-A-R-A 1504 at Yahoo.com?
Q: Have you ever communicated with me through the Yahoo account?
A: I used my school account.
Q: Okay. If I showed you something –
PROSECUTOR: Showing defense counsel what’s been marked for identification purposes as Government’s Exhibit 3. May I approach, Your Honor?
THE COURT: Yes.
BY THE PROSECUTOR:
Q: I’m showing you what’s been marked as Government’s Exhibit 3. Do you recognize this at all?
A: Yes, I recognize it from my I-Phone, yes.
Q: Okay. What is it?
A: It’s a subpoena.
Q: What is this piece of paper right here?
A: It’s a piece of paper from you.
Q: Is it an e-mail?
Q: Did you respond to that e-mail?
A: I did.
Q: And from what e-mail account did you respond?
A: Well, it says the – it says Yahoo.
Q: Does it say T-A-M-A-R-A 1450 at Yahoo.com?
Q: Okay. Do you use that e-mail?
A: Yes. . .
April 4, 2017
“Despite this substantial income figure and tax paid, it is totally illegal to steal and publish tax returns.” This is an 18-word sentence from a statement issued recently by the White House.
First, what is the difference between illegality and total illegality? Understatement makes you sound less like a teenager.
Second, you have to love the juxtaposition of the President’s wealth with the illegality of leaking tax returns. What does one have to do with the other?
Finally, what about the pairing of “stealing” tax returns with “publishing” them? Yes, stealing is illegal. But is it illegal to publish something that is already in the public domain? That is debatable. Maybe that is the distinction. One is illegal. And the other is totally illegal.
We need an adult in the White House.
March 22, 2017
I am watching a guilty plea from the gallery. The prosecutor reads out the alleged facts from the police report, and the defendant says, yes, that is what happened. The colloquy continues. The defendant then tells the judge that she is not actually guilty. The only reason she is taking the government’s deal is because her lawyer made her. And, she adds, she just wants to put this behind her.
Nobody should ever plead guilty to something he or she didn’t do. This is the first thing we tell clients before even discussing an offer extended by the government. And I know the defense lawyer standing next this woman. He laid out her options. But he never pressured her into anything.
The woman might think the judge will be more lenient on her if he thinks that she is actually innocent. But that is not the way these things work. You either take the agreement. Or you take it to trial. You cannot have the benefits of a plea agreement without accepting responsibility. And once you have sworn under oath that you committed the offense, to tell the judge that you didn’t is to admit that, one way or the other, you have just committed perjury. This is not great if the case goes to trial. It is worse if you need to take the stand. And it doesn’t do much for the guilty plea.
The defendant wants to continue but now the judge tells her to be quiet: You need to speak with your lawyer.
Nobody likes to be shushed. And people don’t want to speak with their lawyer. They want to make their case directly to the judge. They are convinced that the judge will dismiss the case just as soon as the judge becomes aware of the injustice of it all. But again, that is not the way these things work.
The judge puts on the husher, and the lawyer leans in to speak with his client. But we in the gallery can still hear her. After all, she is not really speaking to her lawyer. Her words are still intended for the judge.
The lawyer asks for a pass.
November 11, 2016
Perhaps I should not admit it, but I like the Assistant U.S. Attorneys in D.C. They are generally smart, reasonable and decent people. They know the law. And, like defense attorneys, they are just trying to do the right thing.
My introduction to prosecutors – the assistant district attorneys in Philadelphia – was not a positive one. My experience in Virginia was even worse. The junior prosecutors tended to be law-and-order people right out of law school who believed that the path to success lay in prosecuting every misdemeanor to the max. Everything was a competition, a battle of good against evil. They did not seem to understand the way their roles differed from those of the defense attorney. The older prosecutors – the ones who had been there forever — had the same mindset. They were also grumpy, bored, and unfulfilled.
It was therefore a welcome surprise to come to D.C. Superior Court where, with the exception of traffic and juvenile cases, most crimes are handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys, who are federal prosecutors. These jobs are extremely competitive, and you tend to get good lawyers out of top-tier law firms. Many of these prosecutors are older. They have worked elsewhere. They have perspective.
There are little things. It is returning phone calls and emails promptly. It is coming to court on time so that defense attorneys can settle their business before the judge takes the bench. It is treating defense attorneys as colleagues, not supplicants. It is dealing with defendants as individuals, affording them kindness and respect in the courtroom.
There are also big things. I had a case recently in which we had sought a plea deal, including jail-time, that would have allowed my client to avoid registering as a sex offender. I had gone back and forth with the AUSA and her supervisor a number of times without success. And then suddenly the case was gone, dismissed without explanation by the government.
There may have been something fundamentally wrong with the government’s case, possibly new evidence in the government’s possession that would have exculpated my client. Faced with such new information, many of the county prosecutors I dealt with in other jurisdictions would have simply accepted our offer of jail-time. Not this prosecutor. She dismissed the case instead. It was not a win or a loss. It was just the right thing to do.