Dionne Press, Smacking A Helping Hand
Most of the time, the complaint amongst lawyers is that they can't find anyone to help them out in a difficult case, whether it's because they've overreached or because they just can handle the scope of work. So you would think that an offer to help from someone as well-regarded as the Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett, would be well received. You would think.
Instead, Bennett was reminded of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about this British guy who has (as of today) been sitting in the Harris County Jail for more than three weeks, charged by complaint with the class C misdemeanor of aiding suicide.
The 351st District Court, where his case is pending, has no jurisdiction over a class C misdemeanor case. The maximum penalty for a class C misdemeanor is a $500 fine. The guy discharged that fine with his first ten days in jail.
Mind you, the British guy isn't Bennett's client, and he's not getting paid to spend valuable thinking time pondering the fact that a man sits in jail, and sits in jail, after the maximum sentence possible after a conviction would have been completed. And yet still sits in jail.
Being a helpful sort of fellow, Bennett offers a hand.
So I go to see the guy in jail and offer him my pro bono help. I don’t want money, and I don’t want publicity. I just want to try to get him out from under these charges and back to his life, and I think I can bring more resources to bear on the problem than his court-appointed lawyer can or will.
Led to water, the horse didn’t drink. That’s okay. I emailed Dionne Press to offer her my help in filing a writ of habeas corpus to extricate the guy from jail. That horse wasn’t thirsty either. I wasn’t surprised—like I say, I have dealt with her before.
At this point, news of the situation began to spread a bit, the question being why Press had no interest in a little help in freeing her client. The first impression was that Dionne Press might be enjoying her moment in the sun a bit too much, and didn't want to share the tan.
What makes this curious is that Press is assigned to the case rather than retained. It's one thing for the defendant to have made a choice of counsel, bearing the consequence of a poor decision, but when counsel is assigned, the defendant has little choice in the manner in which the lawyer handles their case. This makes a defendant's sitting in jail awaiting someone to do something to free him a significantly different issue: he's paying a price for an omission by something thrust upon him rather than chosen by him. This isn't quite what Gideon had in mind.
Yet, Bennett's offer to help was rebuffed. Well, actually, rebuffed doesn't quite tell the story.
Today I learned that Dionne Press had complained to the DA’s Office, trying to get them to file criminal charges or a bar complaint against me.
Nice. A defendant sits in jail because his assigned lawyer, who has plenty of time to talk to the media, can't be bothered to get her client out of jail. And still sits in jail while she's busy pressing the District Attorney to charge Bennett with Offering to Help in the First Degree. Even in Texas, this isn't a crime.
My visit to her client passes muster under both the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct and the Texas Penal Code—solicitation of pro bono work doesn’t violate either (in fact, it’s in the best traditions of the bar). But Dionne Press is not the sort of lawyer whom I would expect to have more than the sketchiest familiarity with the rules or the law. So I was not shocked.
While Press may not be any more familiar with with ethical obligations relating to an offer of pro bono representation than she is with that habeas corpus thingy, what is shocking is that the irony of her tangential efforts on her own behalf don't seem to phase her while the defendant remains in a cell.
Pissed that some hotshot lawyer has offered a hand and might take the spotlight off you? Then get the defendant out, after which you can be as big a hero as you want to be, and complain about others if that's what floats your boat.
But with the British guy sitting in a jail cell, and you smacking the hand offered to help your client, it seems like a bit of shaming is in order. This isn't the way to get a sweet profile in the Chronicle and a TV show of your very own.