Still liberal after all these years

I am a public defender in a large southern metropolitan area. Fewer than ten percent of the people in the area I serve are black but over 90 per cent of my clients are black. The remaining ten percent are mainly Hispanics but there are a few whites.

I have explanation for why this is, but crime has racial patterns. Hispanics usually commit two kinds of crime: sexual assault on children and driving under the influence. Blacks commit many violent crimes but very few sex crimes. The handful of whites I see commit all kinds of crimes. In my many years as a public defender I have represented only three Asians, and one was half black.

As a young lawyer, I believed the official story that blacks are law abiding, intelligent, family-oriented people, but are so poor they must turn to crime to survive. Actual black behavior was a shock to me.

The media invariably sugarcoat black behavior. Even the news reports of the very crimes I dealt with in court were slanted. Television news intentionally leaves out unflattering facts about the accused, and sometimes omits names that are obviously black. All this rocked my liberal, tolerant beliefs, but it took me years to set aside my illusions and accept the reality of what I see every day. I have now served thousands of blacks and their families, protecting their rights and defending them in court. What follow are my observations.

Although blacks are only a small percentage of our community, the courthouse is filled with them: the halls and gallery benches are overflowing with black defendants, families, and crime victims. Most whites with business in court arrive quietly, dress appropriately, and keep their heads down. They get in and get out–if they can–as fast as they can. For blacks, the courthouse is like a carnival. They all seem to know each other: hundreds and hundreds each day, gossiping, laughing loudly, waving, and crowding the halls.

When I am appointed to represent a client I introduce myself and explain that I am his lawyer. I explain the court process and my role in it, and I ask the client some basic questions about himself. At this stage, I can tell with great accuracy how people will react. Hispanics are extremely polite and deferential. An Hispanic will never call me by my first name and will answer my questions directly and with appropriate respect for my position. Whites are similarly respectful.

A black man will never call me Mr. Smith; I am always “Mike.” It is not unusual for a 19-year-old black to refer to me as “dog.” A black may mumble complaints about everything I say, and roll his eyes when I politely interrupt so I can continue with my explanation. Also, everything I say to blacks must be at about the third-grade level. If I slip and use adult language, they get angry because they think I am flaunting my superiority.

At the early stages of a case, I explain the process to my clients. I often do not yet have the information in the police reports. Blacks are unable to understand that I do not yet have answers to all of their questions, but that I will by a certain date. They live in the here and the now and are unable to wait for anything. Usually, by the second meeting with the client I have most of the police reports and understand their case.

Unlike people of other races, blacks never see their lawyer as someone who is there to help them. I am a part of the system against which they are waging war. They often explode with anger at me and are quick to blame me for anything that goes wrong in their case.

Black men often try to trip me up and challenge my knowledge of the law or the facts of the case. I appreciate sincere questions about the elements of the offense or the sentencing guidelines, but blacks ask questions to test me. Unfortunately, they are almost always wrong in their reading, or understanding, of the law, and this can cause friction. I may repeatedly explain the law, and provide copies of the statute showing, for example, why my client must serve six years if convicted, but he continues to believe that a hand-written note from his “cellie” is controlling law.

The risks of trial
The Constitution allows a defendant to make three crucial decisions in his case. He decides whether to plea guilty or not guilty. He decides whether to have a bench trial or a jury trial. He decides whether he will testify or whether he will remain silent. A client who insists on testifying is almost always making a terrible mistake, but I cannot stop him.

Most blacks are unable to speak English well. They cannot conjugate verbs…

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