Crossing the Line in East Haven
Friends and colleagues profess confusion: Why would I do it, why cross a line that seems to separate good from evil? Some are angered: How could I do it? One woman wrote publicly to tell me how disappointed she was in me: I did not take her case against members of the East Haven Police Department, but now I am representing one of the officers, a man accused by the federal government of abusing his power and now charged with a crime. Am I traitor?, these folks wonder.
This business of line drawing among criminal defense lawyers and civil rights activists is tricky business. Outsiders tend to view the conflict as pitting "us," the good guys, against "them," the bad guys. Police officers are bad in this Manichean universe.
It should not be that simple.
Years ago, I represented one of the state’s top prosecutors when his law license was on the line. A potential witness in a case accused him before bar disciplinarians of threatening a witness, conduct that undermines the administration of justice. When he reached out to ask me to represent him, I was surprised. We had fought for months in a bitter murder trial years before. But when I reviewed the paperwork initiating the charges against him, I smelled a rat. Another criminal defense lawyer was using this rogue witness complaint against him for tactical advantage in a case in which the criminal defense lawyer was himself the target of investigators. It was a complicated mess, which we took to trial and won.
"How can you represent these people?," a veteran of the New Haven criminal defense bar asked with scorn one day about the prosecutor’s case.
"Stop right there," I replied. "When you get back to the office tonight and there is a frantic call from a woman who killed her child but claims it was a mistake, how long do you hesitate before taking that case?"
"I just can’t represent prosecutors," he said, drawing a line. This same man also chided me when I won an acquittal for a former homicide detective accused of stealing funds intended for confidential informants.
The lawyer sought me out the other day.
"I hear you have one of those East Haven cops," he said, looking at me as one might regard a leper.
"I do, indeed," I replied. He walked away shaking his head.
Once again, he drew the line. He did so without apparently reading the Indictment against the cops. It is a matter of principle for him. He will not represent law enforcement officers when they are in the cross hairs.
It’s an odd moral universe that leaves a lawyer at ease defending those accused of child abuse and murder, but leads to shunning the defense of a police officer or prosecutor accused of breaking the law.
I’ve never been one to join clubs, and I don’t regard criminal defense as a team sport. Much though I am suspicious of the state, and even hate much of what it does, I recognize that I am also a citizen, a person who benefits from the protection of the rule of law. I also realize that the law is sometimes the tool of self-righteous fools, and that there is no mob more dangerous than an unctuous and self-righteous gang of folks determined to do the "right" thing. Groups scare me; the herd rarely plots a course when it stampedes.
So in the case of the East Haven cops the decision to represent a man accused of federal crimes was an easy one. A law man has been targeted for extinction by fellow law men. He is alone. The criminal defense bar smirks, some even enjoying the sight, taking a scoffer’s pleasure at the thought of federal lawmen rousting a cop from his bed at gunpoint. Federal prosecutors are aglow with pride: Policing the police in the name of justice is a high calling, they say. The feds intend to assure that the promise of equal justice for all applies to all.
My client, in the meanwhile, faces the scorn of both the government and of those who earn a living challenging the government. He was alone, David now facing two Goliaths. Crossing imaginary lines to represent this man was a no brainer for me. I am proud to be his lawyer, and I am looking forward to telling his story before a jury of his peers.
The federal indictment in his case looks flimsy, like a trumped up set of allegations that could not withstand the light of day in civil court. The case reeks of identity politics: Four white male cops being prosecuted by a couple of female prosecutors for allegedly violating the civil rights of Hispanic folks; the prosecution pushed by a Justice Department some suspect of having abandoned race neutrality in the enforcement of the law; a bevy of Yale Law students cheering them on with the glee of zealots unschooled in the reality of the streets.
I fully expect a year from now to walk this man out of a courthouse a free man. Like the prosecutor prosecuted long ago, my client is being used to serve an agenda unrelated to the merits of the case pressed against him. My job is simple: I will protect him.
An angry woman told me the other day my representation of this cop will cost me her friendship. So be it. I have one friend in this case. It is the man standing beside me accused of a crime. That is the way it is supposed to be in the practice of criminal law. If you want to win a popularity contest, try another profession.