When Cops Do Wrong, Blame The Lawyer

It’s hard to come up with a truly novel defense for having coerced a confession and put an innocent 16-year-old in jail for three years, but Worcester managed to pull it off.  Way to go, Worcester!

The lawyer for a woman suing the city alleging a host of civil rights violations has, in an unusual legal turn of events, himself become a defendant in the civil case he filed.

In answering the lawsuit brought late last year by Nga Truong, who was charged by Worcester Police with killing her infant son four years ago based on what was later ruled to be a coerced confession, city lawyers have hit back with a third-party complaint against her lawyer, Edward P. Ryan Jr.
Her lawyer?  Yes, her lawyer.

The city’s complaint in federal court claims that if Ms. Truong is entitled to damages for the nearly three years she spent in jail awaiting trial, then Mr. Ryan is as much to blame as the city because he took too long to get the coerced confession tossed out of court by the judge.

“Ryan’s breach of his duty was a direct and proximate cause of plaintiff’s alleged injuries and damages,” according to the city’s claim.

It was all the lawyer’s fault for not beating the coerced confession quicker. Because everybody knows that coerced confessions are what cops do, so that certainly couldn’t have been the cause of the three years Ms. Truong lost. If her lawyer had just beat the confession sooner, should could have been out in minutes. Hours at the longest. Darn lawyer.

It appears that the defense motion to suppress the coerced confession wasn’t filed until almost two years after the arrest. While taking two years to file papers is, in a vacuum, a very long time, it fails to address why it took that long. Certainly the argument isn’t that the lawyer should have done shoddy work to get it in quickly. Given the merit of the argument (based upon the fact that the motion was granted), no doubt Ryan put in the time and work to do it properly. Still, two years?

Nonetheless, the time it took to undo the damage of a coerced confession in no way alters the cause of the defendant’s detention, and to suggest otherwise is utterly absurd.

“Her lawyer allowed almost two years to pass before he made a motion to get her released by suppressing her confession. While there are numerous defenses in this case, our position on this point is that, if the city is somehow found liable for the excessive incarceration, then the lawyer who represented her also bears liability for her time in jail,” [City Solicitor David M.] Moore said.

Legal observer David E. Frank, a lawyer and managing editor of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, called the city’s effort to include the lawyer who got her released from prison in any damages resulting from her confinement an unusual one.
Unusual? You think?

Mr. Frank noted that Mr. Ryan likely had to watch the video tapes of his client’s questioning many times, carefully review recent Supreme Judicial Court cases involving confessions and collect testimony from expert witnesses before filing a motion to suppress.

“Is the city saying that the lawyer should have just whipped something together and filed it quickly in a case where a 16-year-old girl was looking at life in prison? That argument seems like a stretch to me,” Mr. Frank said. “The stakes couldn’t have been higher.”
A stretch? Perhaps Mr. Frank can resist the urge to pile on the hyperbole. Regardless of how long Ryan took to submit motions, he was the cause of notion. At most, he might have been an earlier cure to the disease of the coerced confession, but the responsibility for having obtained the confession is exclusively on Worcester, and only on Worcester.  Indeed, had the defense lawyer somehow failed to make the motion at all, would that have altered the wrong of coercing a confession?  It’s crazy.

That said, the delay in submitting motions, assuming that they could have been submitted earlier, presents a second issue that merits concern. Too many lawyers fit their work on behalf of their clients into their schedule. They’ll get to motions when they find the time, or when the mood strikes. In the meantime, the client sits in jail, thinking that she has a lawyer working diligently on the case.

It’s not that clients expect, or would be reasonable to expect, that the lawyer has no other clients, no other work, that might possibly interfere with the lawyer’s spending 24/7 on the defendant’s case. It’s expected and understandable.  But if you can’t make time to prepare and file motions for almost two years, good motions, then something is wrong.  No defendant should have to sit in a cell that long before her attorney has her case on the front burner.

In this case, Ryan is a hero, having won the motion to suppress and freed his client.  And yet, the time spent in jail awaiting the decision that freed her will never be recaptured, and the money made in the false arrest suit will not compensate for the loss of years to a 16 year old.  No one can fault defense counsel for being thorough, detailed and doing his very best.  And indeed, no one can fault him given the outcome. But was a two year delay really necessary while his client sat in jail? 

No, this question still doesn’t make Ryan liable in any way for his client’s being in jail.  It should, however, give him pause to think what he could have done to get her out sooner and get the motion in faster. And the same goes for any other lawyer who may put off work on a case for a client sitting in jail because the timing didn’t fit well with other things he had to do, whether work for another client or work/life balance.  Remember that it might not be convenient for you, but it’s someone else’s life dwindling away in the process. Even if you’re not the problem, it wouldn’t kill you to be part of the solution.

H/T FritzMuffknuckle

3 thoughts on “When Cops Do Wrong, Blame The Lawyer

  1. Turk

    Well, I guess that is one way to knock the lawyer out of the case. Create a phony conflict of interest and turn him into a witness.

  2. Daniel

    Good article. However, I think the defense attorney’s law license should be suspended for two days, and make sure he is treated like prosecutors where nobody knows about it. Prosecutors are immune from all civil liability for their misconduct while “acting as a prosecutor.” Why aren’t defense attorneys completely free of civil liability for “acting as a defense attorney”? Because they are held to a higher standard.

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