Are Criminal Defense Lawyers Targets of Violence?

Blakely at Judgment Day suggests that criminal defense lawyers are in a particularly dangerous profession:

Most people don’t think of the legal profession as a dangerous one. While many attorneys—especially those practicing criminal defense—have received threats from clients, more often than not it’s just empty talk. I think many attorneys become numb to threatening phone messages and letters, primarily because everything has worked out fine in the past.

Blakely then tells two stories of lawyers who are subject to threats and violence.  In one of the stories from the Mercury News,

Xia Zhao, an attorney who was murdered by a man named Jason Cai. Zhao’s law firm was pursuing a wrongful death suit against Cai in the death of his wife. Cai had threatened Zhao and she had obtained a restraining order against him.

“I really don’t have a big part in the whole thing (the wrongful death suit against Cai)” and added, “If I walked away every time somebody threatened me, what kind of business would I have?”

Of course, business is rarely very good when you’re dead.  But Zhao wasn’t a criminal defense lawyer, and Cai wasn’t her client.

Still, the assumption is that since criminal defense lawyers deal with criminals, and criminals are evil, violent people, we should be far more at risk than lawyers in other practice areas.  Are we?

Not according to the Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett.

[W]e deal with (often) bad people on their best behavior; family lawyers, by contrast, deal with good people on their worst behavior. I’d bet that family lawyers and personal injury lawyers get more threats from their clients (and from opposing parties) than criminal defense lawyers.

I’m betting with Bennett.  While many criminal defendants are angry, they recognize that we are the only people in the world who stand at the same table as them.  They may hate the cops, the prosecutor and the judge, they don’t hate us.  Sure, they express their frustration with the system to us, and they may get loud and yell on occasion when they have no other way to vent this frustration, but that’s because they know we are safe and won’t lock them up for being frustrated.  After the catharsis, they remember why we’re here and for whom we stand.

That’s not to say that I’ve never been the target of a serious threat.  It happened in 1990, when a guy named Jamie Hunt confronted me in a hallway.  He was armed and dangerous, and informed me in no uncertain terms that he was going to blow my head off.  But for the interference of one of his “partners,” he may have done so.

Of course, Hunt was a DEA Agent, a member of DEA Group 33, and the incident happened in the hallway of New York DEA Headquarters.  This happened just before DEA Group 33 (and Hunt in particular) was exposed as rogue agents, lying their way to convictions with fabricated evidence, before Judge Ken Conboy, SDNY.

Back to the point, I think Bennett has nailed the issue quite well.  While lawyers have long been the whipping boys of the public’s anger toward the legal system, and judges have lately been brought into the mix as well, I’ve never had the experience of clients threatening me or acting violently toward me.  Indeed, one of my expectations of my clients is that they behave respectfully, and I’ve fired clients who find it difficult to do so.

This is not to say that other criminal defense lawyers have the same experience as me, but that it’s not a pervasive problem that is inherent in being a criminal defense lawyer.  Perhaps any lawyer who seems to have serious issues with threatening clients needs to take a step back and ask himself what he’s doing that may be causing this problem.  The occasional problem can happen, but if it reaches the point where you have to ask the question that Ms. Zhao did,

“If I walked away every time somebody threatened me, what kind of business would I have?”

Maybe the problem isn’t the client.

11 thoughts on “Are Criminal Defense Lawyers Targets of Violence?

  1. Joel Rosenberg

    That’s not to say that I’ve never been the target of a serious threat. It happened in 1990, when a person named Jamie Hunt confronted me in a hallway…Jamie Hunt was a DEA Agent…

    I’ve definitely been hanging out with too many lawyers; I saw that one coming a mile away, right down to the agency.

  2. David

    I’ve only been threatened twice, once after a prostitution trial when the vice cop (I got along with most of these people) didn’t like the way I cross examined him. He said, laughing just enough to be able to claim humor later, “you mess with a vice cop and you’re liable to wake up with a naked transvestite standing on your porch.”

    That one was more humorous than a threat but I think he meant it that way.

    Recently, however, I was threatened by a longterm client and had to get out of the case. He called from jail and kept “ratcheting up” the threats until he finally said, “I don’t care when my out date is, I’ll come get you.”

    It was a little scary as he’s charged with terroristic threats and use.

    I should have known, as I was the fourth lawyer appointed. Somehow I thought I could get along with the guy when three others couldn’t.

    I just got appointed on another case today after a guy threatened the previous lawyer. I’ll just tell them upfront that we’re not going to go there at all.

    Hopefully I’ve learned something from these “hard cases.” Like my dad says, the one that’ll kill you won’t tell you first.

  3. Mr. Groundling

    It doesn’t seem that Ms. Zhao had a problem with her client, but rather with the party she was bringing an action against. That person, Mr. Cai, had been accused of murdering his wife but was not convicted at his criminal trial. His wife’s family then brought a civil action against him. His reaction seems to have been to threaten the attorney for the plaintiffs. This story then does not involve a criminal defense attorney having to fear violence from a client but rather a civil law attorney fearing violence from an adverse party. In fact, it seems your story and those of other criminal defense attorneys bear out that it is the people who you cross examine that become angry with you. Emotions in civil ( now there may be some irony in that word in this context) matters can run very high especially in matrimonial cases. I recall an attorney in a divorce case being shot down on the steps of Supreme Queens and that is why those huge iron fences now surround the courthouse. I also recall an attorney named Napolitano with an office in Queens who was representing a wife in a divorce case. There was a conference at his office and the husband decided the best way to make his point was to shoot the wife to death and put a gun to her attorney’s head.
    In civil litigation the parties and their attorneys often meet in settings other than the courthouse where there are officers and guards and, when parties get angry, they often threaten the opposing attorney who has upset them in one way or another. It seems to me that Ms. Zhao’s comment has been taken out of context in your posting but that is merely my opinion and doesn’t mean that your “blame the victim” approach lacks merit.

  4. SHG

    Of course, business is rarely very good when you’re dead.  But Zhao wasn’t a criminal defense lawyer, and Cai wasn’t her client.

    You were probably too busy thinking brilliant thoughts to read that part.  It happens.

  5. Mr. Groundling

    You are so much fun.

    “If I walked away every time somebody threatened me, what kind of business would I have?”
    Maybe the problem isn’t the client

    I wonder what you were thinking when you wrote that.

    Qui scribit vis legit

  6. SHG

    If you’re going to quote latin, you really ought to get it right:  Qui scribit bis legit.

    And I’m always glad when a reader enjoys SJ.

  7. Mr. Groundling

    I’m sorry if the “v” instead of the “b” made it harder for you to look up the phrase. I was careless when I was typing: Stercus accidit.
    Still I wonder what you were thinking when you wrote that maybe the problem isn’t the client. Anyway, at this office we are done for the day, we’ll come back for more amusement when we have the time.

  8. SHG

    No need to be sorry.  But given how pretentious it is, you should make greater efforts to be accurate.  Otherwise, it fails to impress.

    As for the sentence that troubles you, its point is that if a lawyer receives that many threats from that many different people, it may have more to do with the lawyer’s manner or discretion than with those making the threats. 

    Have a pleasant evening and please return to enjoy Simple Justice whenever you have time.

  9. david giacalone

    Often, while reading SJ, I think: “Quis talia fando temperet a lacrimis?”

    Occasionally, Prof. Yabut replies: “Qui tacet consentire videtur.”

    Of course, there’s the favorite lament of elderly wives: “Bis pueri senes.”

    Meanwhile, I better put down Guinagh’s “Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Abbreviations,” before I fritter away the entire morning.

    As to the actual subject at hand, I agree with Scott that the aggressive and angry often attract and invoke the same. There must be a good Latin phrase for making that point, but I’ll let SG find it for me.

  10. SHG

    I resort to the one phrase that covers all evils:  Stercus accidit.  Hat tip to Mr. Groundling.

  11. John Grever

    It’s a problem we don’t like to talk about, but when we are defending truly mean and dangerous people, we need to be aware of the fact that they can be mean and dangerous to attorneys, the same as to anyone else.

    The only time I was really worried was once when defending a drug courier who had been caught with several kilos of cocaine back in the eighties. A Colombian had come in and hired me with cash (not something I would ever do today, but that was common back then). Things were going all right until the Colombian called me and told me he had heard my client was going to cooperate to get a deal (he was). I told him, that I of course, could not discuss that with him and hung up. Two days later, he and two other thugs were waiting at my house when I came home form the office where he made his desire for my client to not cooperate more clear. I asked how he had even found my home address and he told me they had hired a private investigator to check me out. Scary stuff.

    I kept taking those type cases for several more years, but I made a rule that I would not represent cooperators if it meant their cooperation could get me or my family killed.

    But, it’s hard not to make money off those cases when you get the chance. The important thing is to know when to say no and to just walk away from the money. No fee is worth getting shot over.

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