Hasty Suspension of Zealous Lawyer

I wasn't on the New Haven jury that convicted Angelo Reyes of arson and conspiracy charges. But I know a thing or two about Mr. Reyes, having represented him in federal court on other arson charges before federal prosecutors engineered a conflict to get me thrown off the case: They threatened to call another client of mine as a witness.

Lawyers can't serve two masters; we owe to each client a duty of undivided loyalty. Although the feds never called my other client against Mr. Reyes, their claim that they might was enough to get me bounced off the case.

My former partner and mentor John R. Williams was retained by Mr. Reyes to replace me. John tried the case to a verdict, winning a rare acquittal. Unfortunately for Mr. Reyes, a state jury convicted him. Mr. Reyes will be sentenced in January, and undoubtedly faces a stiff prison sentence.

But I  am not going to write about Mr. Reyes today.

Today my heart aches for John. You see, after the verdict in Mr. Reyes's case was accepted by the court, the judge then turned his sights on John, ordering him suspended from the law for 20 days effective Jan. 15, 2015.

I can't recall the last time a judge ever did such a thing. Quite frankly, such summary justice is deeply troubling.

What justifies this extraordinary step?

Prior to the beginning of evidence, lawyers may file what are known as motions in limine (pronounced limb-in-knee), a Latin term that means at the threshold. The motions are typically used to prevent counsel from mentioning certain things in the jury's presence. Much though we like to describe trials as searches for truth, they are not quite that. Judges have enormous discretion to decide what matters, what is relevant, in a trial.

In Mr. Reyes's case, the state moved for an order forbidding John from referring to Mr. Reyes's acquittal on related charges in federal court. The state no doubt feared that such evidence would be unduly prejudicial. A jury might well conclude that having once been acquitted, the defendant should again be set free.

The court granted the order.

That the order was granted at all demonstrates once again the law's stunning asymmetry when in comes to the accused. Had Mr. Reyes been convicted in federal court, the state could have moved for permission to refer to these other bad acts as proof of intent, or a common scheme and plan. In other words, prior convictions could have been used to help prove guilt; prior acquittals, however, cannot be used to rebut the state's case.

Why? There can be no principled reason that squares with reason. It is but another example of how the law stabs the presumption of innocence in the back and calls it justice.

During his cross-examination of one of the state's cooperating witnesses, a man who had previously pleaded guilty and was looking for leniency by testifying against Mr. Reyes, John read comments by the federal judge who sentenced the cooperator. The witness had testified against Mr. Reyes in the federal case resulting in an acquittal. The judge told the witness he'd give him a break on his sentence even though Mr. Reyes was not convicted.

The state objected, and the objection was sustained, meaning the judge sided with the state: reference of any sort to the acquittal was barred by the motion in limine. It was a truth the state did not want the jury to know, a truth the court ordered the jury could not know.

Then again, during closing argument, John made indirect reference to the fact that although two of the witnesses testifying against Mr. Reyes had been found guilty of federal arson charges, Mr. Reyes had not. This later was too much for the judge, who found it a violation not of the letter of the motion of the court's earlier ruling, but of its spirit.

I worry when I hear folks talking about breaking the spirit of the law. The law is not effervescence, but substance. If the letter of the law was not broken, then let's not resort to tawdry spiritualism. What next, séances during recess?

The fact is that good lawyers take things to the edge in trial. It is what a warrior does when he is putting himself between the state and his client.

The court suspended John because it found that he had made no innocent mistake, which John claimed at the hastily conducted hearing. The court concluded that John intentionally violated the court's order, effectively calling John a liar.

You may not realize it, but every lawyer is required to balance loyalty to his client and obedience to court orders. We are always advocates and officers of the court. Indeed, upon being sworn in as lawyers, we automatically become commissioners of the Superior Court, capable of doing such things as taking oaths and signing subpoenas requiring people to attend hearings and produce items of evidentiary value.

Lawyers are policed by grievance counsel, lawyers whose job it is to prosecute lawyers alleged to have breached their duty to obey court rules. Judges of the Superior Court also have the power to discipline lawyers. Yet in all my years slugging it out in one court or another, I have never seen anything like this take down of John.

I am hoping John takes an appeal of the court's order. A suspension is too steep a sanction. John has been in the trenches for almost 50 years. He did not deserve this, even if he erred. The state will get its pound of flesh from Angelo Reyes; why the need to take some of John's as well?

Of course, there is a view that this slap at John will simply bolster John's reputation, rather than tarnish it. "Greater love hath no man than this," Jesus is reported to have said,"that he lay down his life for a friend."

John lay his law license down for his client. I wish there were more advocates like John Williams in the courts. Yes, he erred. It happens at trial. But it was an error born of zeal for his client. Isn't that worth something?


Also listed under: Journal Register Columns


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