There are a few people who tell stories of the travesty of the criminal law system for the benefit of the cause, their self-aggrandizement and the validation of “likes” from their useful idiots. The problem is their stories aren’t truthful, not so much in the sense that they’re telling lies, although that happens, but in what they’re leaving out. Deception happens by omission as well as commission.
To make matters worse, the group of liars is growing. Seeing the effectiveness of telling only so much of the tale as serves their cause to pander to the intellectually stunted, or drawing bizarrely macrocosmic lessons from small anecdotes, has been broadening out to people beyond the ranks of the activists who seek to achieve their goals by any means necessary. Once smart, thoughtful and, at least as far as I know, honest people have chosen pandering for likes over maintaining their integrity. Live and learn.
An op-ed in the Daily News, proffered in response to the similarly dishonest fear-mongering by police and prosecutors against the new New York bail reform law, gave a unintentionally clear view into the workings of half a story. Not through it’s writer’s eyes. Not through the eyes of activists, but through the jaded eyes of an old criminal defense lawyer.
Chris Barnett (not his real name) said he was riding down a quiet street when a teen darted out from behind a parked bus. The collision happened in an instant. Chris was badly injured, but tragically, the teen was killed. Blood tests revealed no drugs or alcohol in Chris’s system; tire track tests confirmed his assertion that he was not speeding.
“It was an accident,” he insisted. Yet he was charged with vehicular manslaughter.
From this telling, it clearly appears to be no more than a tragic accident. We must take the details as we find them, as the name is a pseudonym (as it should be) so the facts can’t be challenged.
Like so many others in his predicament, Chris was remanded to Rikers not because of guilt, but because he could not pay the bail that would have allowed him to fight the manslaughter charge from home. Because he was poor, he could not recover from his injuries surrounded by family, nor could he retain his job.
This is where the value of the story is lost, glossed over in the unhelpful verbiage of “like so many others in his predicament,” because we don’t know what predicament she means. What was his bail? What was it based on? What were his priors? What was his warrant history? Why was he charged at all for an accident where there was no criminality suggested, at least by the story we’re told?
There are two rather huge gaping holes in this story told to bolster support for the elimination of cash bail. What did his lawyer do, or more likely, fail to do to get him out? If he was injured in the crash and required hospitalization, he would have had a bedside arraignment. Unlike most defendants whose arraignment, at which bail is set, is handled by a young public defender who knows little to nothing about the client, are over in less than two minutes, this defendant would enjoy more judge time, would have had an additional delay during which the PD could gather information from the family to support an argument for release without bail, plus enjoy the unusual benefit of having a hospitalized client, who isn’t going anywhere because of his injuries.
Did any of this happen?
What was the prosecution’s argument for bail? What was the argument for bail above what the defendant and his family could make? What did this defendant do for a living, or did he do nothing? Was the family able to make bail but chose not to? That happens far more than people care to admit, where a family has had enough of bailing out a wayward child and decides instead that he would do better to spend some time on the Rock than being cut loose to cause the family more problems.
And where is the mention of the judge in all this? Was the arraignment judge wrong to set bail? What about the next judge, before whom the case was sent on the 180.80 day for release? What, you ask? What’s this 180.80 thing? If a defendant in custody on a felony charge, such as second degree vehicular manslaughter, isn’t indicted within 144 hours from arrest, then he must be released.
So this defendant was indicted in the interim. Was 180.80 waived? Was cross-grand jury notice given? Did his lawyer have a talk with the prosecutor about indicting a guy over an accident? If the facts are as benign as told, what was the basis for the indictment? Why did the prosecutor have such strong feelings that he needed to indict?
Trial was what Chris was set on, confident of exoneration. But I had a sinking feeling. I had seen so many before him, equally determined, capitulate. Chris made it longer than most. It was six months before he recognized an ugly truth: waiting for trial could take longer than serving the plea offer sentence and going home.
Here lies an ugly truth, that the time in jail awaiting trial can exceed the time to be served if one takes the plea. It’s coercive, although that doesn’t mean that the outcome is necessarily bad or wrong. But even this tells only a small piece of the story, as many defendants believe that they’ll win at trial, whether because they’re innocent in fact or Jesus will save them. Most don’t.
Most defendants have neither a defense nor even the capacity to mount a defense. Proponents of trials, some of whom have never tried a criminal case in their life, fail to tell this part of the story, that defendants almost always get convicted at trial. Whether they go down for a year or a lifetime, what they aren’t doing is walking out smiling.
Most of their lawyers have never tried a felony case to a jury. Many have no time to prepare, but are so inexperienced that they don’t even grasp their unpreparedness. Too many are so filled with passion that they fail to grasp how their client is going to crash and burn, after which they can twit their agony in exchange for supportive “likes.”
This is the story of real life in the trenches. And lest anyone forget, someone died, even in the best retelling of this story, and there are many wearing the same activist cap who would cry that any person driving a vehicle and killing a pedestrian is a murderer and deserves what he gets.