And Sometimes the Court Views the Government’s Witness the Same Way You Do

November 12, 2015

THE COURT: Okay. Now, see, we’re running into a little bit of a problem here.


THE COURT: This is a trial in an American courtroom.


THE COURT: And you have sworn to tell the truth and can go to prison if you don’t, okay? So within the last 30 seconds, you have told me two very different things. You have told me that she shoved him in the chest and that –

THE WITNESS: Okay, none of the –

THE COURT: Hold on, I’m speaking. You twice showed me with your hands pushing forward in a shoving motion that that’s what she had done. Now, you’re telling me that it may not be that she did that at all but something different, right?

THE WITNESS: Okay, I am not –

THE COURT: I instruct you to tell us in this trial the truth and what it is that you remember. Don’t tell us things that you don’t remember. Okay? You got it?

THE WITNESS: (No audible response.)

THE COURT: What’s the trouble?

THE WITNESS: The trouble’s the way that you’re addressing me.

THE COURT: Sir, I am instructing you that you’re under oath and you are to tell us what you remember, and that is my instruction to you. I now ask you to tell us did she push the officer with her hands on his body as you demonstrated?

THE WITNESS: Whether it was like this or whether I remember it being like that, I don’t know.

THE COURT: But she struck him?

THE WITNESS: Whether she struck him or moved like that, I don’t know.

“Bite Me, Asshole”: Reflections on SEO and Blogging

November 7, 2015

Graffiti Still AliveSearch engine optimization (SEO) can be a powerful tool when it comes to marketing your firm’s legal services. It can also be helpful when it comes to settling grudges.

When I was setting up my law firm in 2009, my website guy Tyler Suchman encouraged me to incorporate a free-standing blog I had set up through blogspot into my website. This way, he told me, Google will consider traffic to the blog as traffic to your website and vice versa, thereby improving SEO for both the website and the blog. Wikapedia defines SEO as the “process of affecting the visibility of a website or a webpage in a search engine’s unpaid results – often referred to as ‘natural,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘earned’ results.”

I was clueless to both SEO and the ways of the criminal defense lawyer (CDL) blogosphere, and I agreed. This was a fateful decision – for both good and bad. On the one hand, my blog became instantly suspect within the CDL blogosphere as nothing more than a marketing platform for my firm. Scott Greenfield, the undisputed king of the CDL blogosphere, was especially harsh.

On the other hand, Tyler was right about the SEO. Although some of my colleagues in the D.C. criminal defense community – my competitors — spend thousands of dollars every month on their SEO efforts, much of the traffic to my site is organic. Google is always improving its ability to differentiate legitimate, authoritative websites from people trying to game the system, and it loves this.

I now have great SEO. Google has rewarded me for the people who read my blog. It has also rewarded me for the information I post on my website about statutes and case law and the happenings around D.C. Superior Court. People often stop me in the halls of Moultrie to comment or complain about something I have posted on the blog. Or they thank me for the offense code number or penalty they found on my website while doing a quick reference check on the Internet.

Lest anyone question the power of a well-read blog, all you need to do is to ask some guy going by the moniker of Kid Chronic who threatened Scott Greenfield with a bar complaint. I won’t go into the specifics of this; it has been adequately covered here and here and here. I will say this: Representing himself as someone who could help people clean up their reputation on the Internet, Kid Chronic was doing some work on behalf of a lawyer who was seeking to remove some old blog posts that portrayed him in less than a flattering light and that kept coming up high when you googled his name. One of those blog posts was on Greenfield’s Simple Justice.

Kid Chronic did not approach Greenfield quietly, respectfully asking that Greenfield omit the name of the guy’s client from the old blog post. Instead, guns blazing, he left Greenfield an extremely unfortunate voice message in which he threatened Greenfield with a 45-page bar complaint. And he prefaced all this with a long recitation of all the important people he knew.

It is unclear whether Greenfield would ever have complied with this request, however politely made. A couple of months ago, Matt Brown of Tempe Criminal Defense encountered a similar situation – another lawyer asking him to remove the other lawyer’s name from an old blog post – and posited this question on his blog: Should he comply with this request?

Since Brown asked, I offered my opinion. Why not? We shouldn’t flatter ourselves or take ourselves too seriously. There is no real social value to anything we post on our blogs. We can make the same point without naming names.   Why gratuitously shame someone other than to show off our SEO pull or to punish him/her for crossing us?

A couple of years ago, I posted about a guy who took on a murder case in D.C. two years out of law school without so much as a traffic trial under his belt. This was extraordinarily irresponsible of the young, inexperienced lawyer to do this, and I posted about it a number of times based on an article I had read in the Washington Post. I did name the guy in my blog but only so that I wouldn’t have to keep referring to him as the “lawyer.”

The guy subsequently sued me and over 70 other parties for $1 million each. Although we eventually beat the case, it was a big inconvenience. Even in that case, however, if the lawyer ever contacted me and asked me to take down the posts, I would do so. In fact, I should probably take down the posts even without a request. What purpose do they serve now other than to potentially shame him and prevent him from securing future employment? I don’t want to have any part in that.

In this case, Kid Chronic’s approach backfired completely. Greenfield doesn’t take kindly to posturing and threats. He has more than a passing interest in First Amendment issues. His response? “Bite me, asshole.” And with Simple Justice enjoying an SEO that would be the envy of any hardcore marketer (people read Simple Justice because of its content, and Google knows this), Greenfield’s post with Kid Chronic’s real name in the title now comes up #2 on a Google search using the guy’s name.

It is not at all ironic that Greenfield disdains SEO while at the same time enjoying such a great SEO. In fact, this is the whole point: Greenfield has SEO because he doesn’t care about SEO. He writes to challenge us, to make us think. He is opinionated and pig-headed as any criminal defense lawyer should be. That is why so many people read him. And that is why Google loves him.

As for myself, I do not regret the decision to incorporate my blog into my website. It would have been nice to have been more accepted within the CDL blogosphere, particularly when I was just starting up and had more time on my hands. But my reputation as a marketer was only one part of my failure there. I am a contrarian and also a bit of a nudge, and I do not have the interests or intellectual heft of many people in the small, clubby, and unforgiving group of CDL bloggers. As Lloyd Bentsen might have said, I know Scott Greenfield and I am no Scott Greenfield. In fact, it was liberating for me when I stopped worrying about what the CDL blogosphere thought of me and just started writing what I felt like.

Moreover, as a still relatively new member of the criminal defense bar in D.C., I need to earn a living. You may not pick up clients with white collar cases from the Internet, but the chances are good that you aren’t going to get those people anyway. At least in D.C., most of them are going to go with a big, established firm, not a solo practitioner. I don’t have the resources, ability, or interest to effectively represent them in complicated, multi-year prosecutions anyway. I know what I am good at. I also know my limitations. This may change after I have gotten more experience under my belt. In the meantime, I prefer the rough-and-tumble of D.C. Superior Court, with one trial coming after another.

What you do get from the Internet are lots of clients charged with DUIs, bar fights, domestic violence, and other more minor offenses. They do call. And they do hire you. I am proud of the percentage of calls I turn into clients. This is how I make my money while developing my trial skills through the often more serious and challenging cases I get through court appointments. If people don’t like this, well, they can bite me.

More like this:

On Starting a Law Blog:  10 Handy-Dandy Tips from a B-List Criminal Defense Blogger

Joining the Adult CJA Panel in D.C.

November 4, 2015

I have just been appointed to the D.C. Superior Court panel for adult court-appointed cases. I was one of three lawyers appointed on a “provisional” basis. (Three other lawyers were promoted from the provisional panel to the full panel.) Those of us on the provisional panel need to serve a two-year probationary period before we can start doing felonies.

To date, I have done only court-appointed work on juvenile cases and criminal appeals. Although this work represents only a small percentage of my firm’s revenue, it is far more gratifying than my retained work. Most of my paid clients are first-time offenders. A diversion program is usually a good outcome for them. But it is not all that exciting as a lawyer.

The court-appointed work, by contrast, is where I develop as a lawyer. Many of the juveniles are charged with more serious crimes. And, without a “trial tax” for juveniles, there is usually no downside to taking a case to trial. It is also extremely rewarding to work with children. They listen to your advice. You feel as though you can make a difference. And sometimes you might even be right.

The appellate work is also a good experience. It doesn’t matter how often you work on a particular issue: You will never know it as well as you will after you have read every relevant opinion written on the subject, rolled it around in your mind for a while, and then briefed it. And it is very gratifying to see your name on a successful appeal: I am proud, for example, that I will be forever linked to D.C. case law related to constructive possession, the Confrontation Clause, and the Jencks Act.

But, alas, with the new Attorney General’s emphasis on diversion programs for children in trouble, the juvenile work has been drying up lately. You can spend an entire day hanging out in JM-15 without picking up a new case. And I have been drawing mostly minor misdemeanor appeals recently.

Besides, I am ready for a new challenge. As my investigator Wayne puts it, it is time for us to join the big leagues. The stakes are far higher there even when the issues are pretty much the same.

D.C. Panel of Court-Appointed Lawyers for Juveniles

October 27, 2015

The 2015 list of lawyers eligible to accept court appointments in juvenile cases is now out. Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield issued the order approving the list on October 23. The list will be good for the next 4 years. At that time, the panel will again be re-constituted.

The Family Court Panels Oversight Committee received 220 applications for one or more of the seven Family Court Panels. As for the Juvenile Panel, it recommended 52 attorneys, with 17 of these attorneys included in a “provisional” capacity. This is a reduction from the 54 attorneys previously appointed to the Panel. Two prior panel members – Martin Killingham and Gwenette Sales — chose not to reapply. Fifteen were removed. And fifteen new attorneys were added.

Here is the new list (* = provisional):

Khadijah Ali*

Megan Delaney Allburn*

Larry Banks Blackwood

Bryan Bookhard

Bryan Brown

Sabine Browne

Joel R. Davidson

Martha Louise Dickey*

Lauren Dollar*

Gene R. Donney*

Claire Donahue

Charles Feezor*

Eduardo Raul Ferrer

Jack Gilmore

Kimberly Glassman*

Christopher J. Gowen

Felisha Hardy

Geoffrey Oscar Harris

Kristin Nicole Henning

Aminata Fulani Nefetari Ipyana

Gary Phillips Jacobs

Stanley Jamison Koehler

Robert Michael LaBelle

Francis T. Lacey

Elizabeth Lawrence

Thomas Edwin Lester

Whitney Trevelyn Louchheim

Thomas Patrick Lydon

Karen Malovrh*

Adriane Marblestein-Deare

Howard S. Margulies

Coury Mascagni*

William Mount

Madhavan K. Nair

Chiemeka Opaigbeogu

Lisa H. Orlow

Lucy Vera Osakwe

Derrick Page

Troy Poole*

Ravi Regunathan

Jennifer Ann Renton*

Ralph Robinson*

Seth Lee Schrager

Phillip Skillman

Penelope Spain

Shetal V. Sutaria*

Julie Marie Swaney*

Lydia Wade*

Charles Wall

Eric Williams

Wanda Denise Williams

Ronald G. Woodman*


This Is Not About You Or Me

October 22, 2015

The prosecutor is mad at me. So I send her a quick email to apologize.

It is true:  I am sorry. I am sorry that she has been sick. I am sorry that her daughter has been sick. And I am sorry if I embarrassed her in front of the judge.

But I am not sorry for complaining to the court. The court needs to be aware of things. It needs to be sensitive to the many ways in which our neglect – even in extremely small matters – can impact the lives of criminal defendants.

I know this sounds sanctimonious.   But I am guilty of it too. For those of us who have worked within the criminal justice system for a while, there is always the risk that we become inured to the petty injustices that are inflicted on a person who is accused of a criminal offense. I am not talking about gross miscarriages of justice. Instead, I am talking about judges who take the bench late. I am talking about defense lawyers who don’t return phone calls or who overbook their schedules. And I am talking about a prosecutor who neglects to perform all the necessary work so that a sentencing can take place as scheduled, thereby necessitating a return visit for the person to be sentenced. None of these things are that important in the grand scheme of things. But they are pretty important to the person who is affected.

Prosecutors have incredible power over the liberty of our clients. There is liberty with a capitol “L” – whether or not the person goes away for 20 years would be an example of this. There is also liberty with a small “l” – for example, whether or not the client is required to take a day off of work or school, as in this case, to attend another court hearing. However you write it, it is still a person’s liberty that we are talking about here. And with that power goes responsibility. That responsibility does not go away when you or a member of your family gets sick.

During training for the juvenile court-appointments panel, they warned us against becoming co-opted by the system. I couldn’t understand at the time how this could happen. I understand it now. There are many good things about the system in D.C.: judges who are knowledgeable about the law and who care about defendants, court clerks who are professional and respectful of all parties, probation officers who return phone calls. There are also prosecutors I respect and with whom I have developed good working relations.  Perspective and a sense of humor are particularly important in this regard.

Sometimes these relations are damaged. I am sorry when this happens. I also understand that sometimes this is inevitable.  As a result, I am only mildly surprised when my email to the prosecutor goes unanswered.

Mayhand v. U.S.: “A Statement is Not an Excited Utterance Unless the Declarant is Manifestly Overcome by Excitement or in Shock.”

September 30, 2015

D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Catharine Easterly writes what I think. The difference is that she finds the words that elude me. And the words she writes impact D.C. law. Her impact continues in Antoine Mayhand v. United States, ___ A.3d ___ (D.C. 2015).

The “excited utterance” exception to the hearsay rule is over-used. Prosecutors can get lazy: How hard is it to elicit testimony that the person making the statement was “excited”? This is what Judge Easterly means by “rote recitations that the declarant was upset or excited or afraid.” In addition, police officers are well-trained. They think ahead to trial. I love it when I see in a police report something along the lines of “the suspect then said in an excited utterance…” I can usually have some fun with that on cross-examination: How often do you hear a phrase like that in ordinary conversation?

The complainant in Mayhand never testified. Instead, the defendant was convicted of obstruction of justice on the basis of a 911 call introduced by the government. During the 17-minute call that was played for the trial court, the complainant narrated his continuing interactions with the defendant, at times interrupting his conversation with the 911 dispatcher to shout out angrily at Mayhand. Four times during the call, the complainant claimed that Mayhand threatened at some undetermined time to stab him.

The claims of the threatened stabbing were admitted into evidence on the basis of the excited utterance exception. The government also introduced evidence that, at the time of Mayhand’s arrest, he shouted out obscenities and accused the complainant of being a “snitch.” The officer testified that, at the time he came into contact with the complainant, the complainant was “trembling, had beads of sweat on his face, was constantly looking over his shoulder, was breathing quick, and had a visible vein along his neck” that was “pulsating very quickly.”

Judge Easterly emphasized what should be the “limited scope” of the hearsay exception: A “statement is not an excited utterance unless the declarant is manifestly overcome by excitement or in shock.” A “state of nervous excitement or physical shock” requires a “much higher level of emotional upset” than “mere vocal strain or indication of some anxiety.”

The judge continued: The “contemporaneousness of the statement with the excited event and the related ‘critical requirement of spontaneity,’ must be given equal and careful consideration.” Finally: The “totality of the circumstances must be scrutinized for indicia of self-awareness and reflection that are inconsistent with the ‘immediate and uncontrolled domination of the senses’ necessary to establish an excited utterance.”

Effective <--->  Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

August 28, 2015

I am doing a court-appointed criminal appeal, and I am cranky with the defense lawyer who tried the case. He won’t return my phone calls. He won’t send me the trial file. I have no idea why he appealed. And I find, upon reviewing the trial transcript, that he messed up the one potential area for reasonable doubt by asking questions on cross-examination that he should have left alone. Sometimes the unwitting defense lawyer can be the government’s best friend.

Our client was convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia. The case law is clear that, when it comes to implements with both legal and illegal uses, the government needs to prove something more than simple possession. This might be the presence of other things suggesting drug use – drug residue, for example.   In some cases, the government even calls an expert to testify to possible uses of the device.

There was no evidence of any of that in this case. That is, of course, until my colleague began his cross-examination. Oh yeah, said the officer when prompted. I almost forgot: There was residue from a white powdery substance at one end of the straw. I field tested it and it came back positive for cocaine.

Because he won’t return any of my calls, I track the trial lawyer down in court. He tells me he filed the appeal because he wanted to cover his behind. I am still puzzling over this.

Now compare this guy with my friend and colleague Noah Clements. I had mixed feelings about being assigned a case for which Clements had served as trial counsel. What if I have to go with ineffective assistance of counsel?

Clements puts my mind to rest immediately. You need to claim ineffective assistance of counsel. This is the first thing he tells me while handing over the trial file.

As it turns out, there is no basis for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. No surprise there. And, because Clements knows how to preserve the record, the brief is one of the strongest I have filed in a while.

Daniel Snyder Is To Blame for RGIII

Robert Griffin III has been a tremendous disappointment.

I vigorously opposed the trade. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t excited when the team went ahead and drafted him. I thought, maybe, just maybe, this might be our time again.

My 20-year-old son has been a Redskins fan his entire life. He gets it from me. And I feel terrible that, year after year, I have set him up for disappointment. Although I can remember the glorious 80’s, the most the team has ever done during my son’s life is to win a couple of playoff games.

When I was a boy, my favorite team was the Green Bay Packers. It was not that I had ever been to Wisconsin. It is that it is much more satisfying to cheer for a team that wins every once in a while. You have to admire my son’s loyalty.

Griffin’s problem is that, in trying to be great, he has tried to bypass being competent. He is like Heath Shuler saving his game jerseys for when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame. He wants the touchdown when he should be going for a couple of yards.

But for the micro-management of fan-in-chief Daniel Snyder, RGIII would be sitting on the bench this season – for another team. You play the players who produce for you, no matter where they were drafted, no matter how much you are paying them. And you don’t prevent your head coach from doing his job. This undermines team morale. It can ruin a locker room.

But we needn’t worry.  I don’t guarantee much in my profession.  But I will guarantee this:  It is only a matter of time before RGIII is injured yet again.  And at the time, hopefully, we will be moving onto a different quarterback, this time for good.  Because, after all, have you ever seen a more fragile football player than RGIII?

How Quiet In This Room That Holds Us Both

July 30, 2015

“It is what it is.”

The detective says this many times throughout the two-hour interrogation of your client.   It is a phrase with no meaning, a verbal tic; a space-filler you throw in there in the guise of saying something profound.

The interrogation ends, and the detective leaves the room. The camera continues to record. Your client is still. With the silence comes realization.

Keeping the Torch Lit

July 29, 2015

Guest Post by Mary Anne Brush

(Re-printed from the Grosse Pointe News)

Two milestones mark either end of my summer. My 90-year-old mother died at the end of May and my youngest child will leave for college at the end of August. Within the space of three months, I will have become both an orphan and an empty nester.

The death of a second parent comes with an entirely different set of issues than the loss of the first. When my father died nearly five years ago, we focused on how best to support our mother. She remained in the house in Amherst, MA the two of them had shared for nearly 60 years of marriage and appeared to carry on with her usual blend of positive energy and stoicism.

Over the years, however, her activities lessened, her interests waned and her mind deteriorated. Years of purpose — raising five children, sharing the duties of a home and family with a husband, traveling extensively abroad, and pursuing career as a teacher — had narrowed to a chair in her living room.

In some respects, her death brought closure. We took comfort in seeing the urn containing her ashes placed in the ground next to our father’s gravestone — “a beautiful spot on the slope of a hill, just a couple of feet from where the grass meets the woods,” as my brother described it in his eulogy. My sister posted a picture on Facebook of our parents walking on the beach in Cape Cod, the site of our annual family vacation.

“I like thinking of grandmother and grandfather walking off into the distance, hand in hand,” my younger daughter texted me. So do I, I responded.

Now that the two of them are together again, their five progeny are left to settle matters with their house, belongings and affairs. Decisions that were once theirs now rest with us. The house: do we keep, rent or sell it? Should we put down a deposit for one more summer at the Cape, extending our family reunion one more year? What do we do with the accumulation of 60 years of marriage; how do we decide what should be saved, what discarded and what sold?

Fortunately, there are companies that help families with these decisions. I am familiar with such companies in Grosse Pointe, but was not aware what an incredible resource they are, saving not just time and money but emotional distress. They salvage what should be salvaged and dispose of what, were the decision up to us, would cause considerable anguish.

My siblings and I have met twice to go over financial matters and to lay claim to what means the most to each of us. We trust each other with these decisions. One of my brothers asked for the clay lion our father made in a ceramics class decades ago. The lion, a mainstay in the window of our father’s study, now has a new place of repose on the windowsill of my brother’s home office in Baltimore. My other brother asked for our mother’s journals and her unpublished mythology manuscript. (We joke he knows something we don’t; our mother’s journals will earn him millions on the New York Times bestseller list!)

I requested the blue china my father, an officer in the Navy during World War II, bought in Japan and carried across his back for his mother during a Christmas furlough. I have always held a romantic image of my father on the dock in his white dress uniform with that box of china on his back, the destroyer the USS Southerland in the distance.

My siblings and I will get together one more time at our childhood home before the estate company descends upon us. We will make decisions we can never undo. The increased communication has brought us to a new level of trust and closeness. We have set up a group message on our phones and sometimes we get more accomplished via text than in person. Technology helps us transcend distance and proceed along this journey to becoming the people our parents once were: that “older” generation our children look to for advice, comfort and support. We must keep the torch of purpose lit for them.

I believe I will survive this transition in my life and enjoy even stronger family bonds as a result. As for that other milestone? My husband and I drive our son to Emerson College in Boston on August 22. Stay tuned.