Saturday, January 31, 2015


David Corbett and the bad bad client...

I was leafing through the New York Times earlier this week and was surprised to find a story about one of my favorite Baylor students, David Corbett. (David practices law in Utah with one of my other favorite Baylor grads, Craig Pankratz).   It's a very well-done piece about one of David's former clients, which begins with this:

For David M. Corbett, a lawyer in Salt Lake City, the breaking point came when his client, a white supremacist convicted of murdering a prison officer, began threatening him, then managed to learn Mr. Corbett’s home address and mailed him an envelope of legal papers. Mr. Corbett, rattled, asked to be taken off the case.

The Utah Supreme Court agreed, but it went a big step further in an unusual ruling that added an asterisk to one of the bedrock rights of America’s legal system. The court said that the defendant, Curtis Allgier, had behaved so badly with so many court-appointed lawyers that he had forfeited his right to counsel as he appealed his murder conviction.

The client, a neo-Nazi, was one terrible person:

He had been serving a state prison sentence for burglary and forgery in June 2007 when he complained of back pain and was taken for an examination at the University of Utah. After being unshackled for a magnetic resonance imaging scan, he grabbed a gun from Stephen Anderson, the corrections officer who had been escorting him, fatally shot Officer Anderson and escaped from the hospital. He stole a car and led the police on a chase before being caught later that day at an Arby’s restaurant.

David was one of several attorneys who had represented this guy... and there was a reason for that turnover:
“NEVER will they have the honor of being in my Aryan GOD presence or having any kind of contact with me period!” he wrote, in what the court described as a series of “scathing and hostile” rebukes of his own lawyers.

So... what should we do with a person like this?  Can he be denied his right to appointed counsel because of his behavior? 

Since the 'Friendship Nine' convictions have finally been overturned, we might want to consider retaining the 'memory' of their chain gang experiences.

Would it be cruel and unusual punishment to mandate Curtis to a 'solitary' chain gain work detail until his rescheduled trial date, say (July 4, 2095) comes up?

Maricopa County may have a sheriff willing to accommodate - and pink panties might be the perfect fashion attire for someone waiting to meet his aryan god. . .
Public defenders like the heroic David Corbett know what it's like to represent people who seem to hate us, to actively wish us harm. They file complaints against us with disciplinary bodies; they leave threatening phone messages. One client sent a letter telling me that God would pay me back someday for my abject failures as his lawyer.

It's tempting to say, as one of my colleagues in the public defender's office did recently, that if you complain about your public defender, you should have to represent yourself. One of my favorite bosses in my office was the one who always insisted that his PDs were not there to be abused.

That makes us feel vindicated and protected--but it also makes me feel uneasy.

Many of my clients come from places so grim and damaging that we cannot imagine them. One particular difficult client had been eaten by rats as an infant in Chicago's notorious public housing projects. Another was raped every day in the foster home where he was placed as a child.

Sometimes, I think the threats are an agonized cry for power by those who feel powerless. I remember that my appointment to their case is yet another choice made for them: they didn't pick me. And I hold fast to the principle that even the most despised--and despicable--are entitled to an advocate in a system that can take their freedom and, in some cases, their lives.
Jeanne, thank you for your adult response to my crass humor and unveiling some of life's reality that few seldom hear of or ever experience. . .

My dearest friend immigrated here, for political asylum with her parents, from the Ukraine when the Soviet Union began coming apart. As a young women having survived Chernobyl, physical assaults and other atrocities, knowing no English and unable to use her masters degree in engineering, she felt alone, helpless and struggled with her proposed new found 'freedom'. . .

Today with a PHD in Psyche-pharmacology her crisis work is with some of the most violent and vile addicts and sexual abusers - where she conducts 'home visits' under bridges and in places that are often unfit to live. . .

Bless her heart that she has a way of finding enough of 'Jesus' in each of her patients to share with them a few moments of peace and comfort - no matter how fleeting the moments. . .

Sincere thanks to you, and others like her, for the work you 'choose' to perform under some of the most difficult conditions. God Bless. . .
The Compassionate Lawyer. And certainly one of my heroines.Engagement with her mind and spirit moves you forward in this business of being human,and opens up,widen the soul. It was like finding a gift in The Razor.
"understanding" and "faith" are all well and good - but how can you deal with a client like the one in the original article?

Do you risk your law license, life and that of your family to represent someone who refuses all counsel? What can you do in that situation but fire the client? Yes, everyone is entitled to counsel, but at what cost to the attorney? I don't think a real danger to life is covered in the Canons!

Attorneys have been killed while representing such clients. Should you feel an obligation to continue in those circumstances?

Very real, hard questions were raised in the article - and so far, no one has dealt with them other than to offer platitudes about understanding, cries for help, etc. I personally know attorneys who have had to hire armed guards to protect them and their families against disgruntled clients and their thug associates.

Some people are so damaged or deranged that there is no recourse but to lock them up for life or execute them. The mad dog rule applies to some people, too.

After I filed my request to withdraw as appointed counsel, the State asked the court to find that Curtis had waived his right to an attorney. I objected.

My objection had less to do with whether Curtis should have the right to an attorney. It had more to do with my wanting the court to have the assistance of an attorney to fully brief and advocate an issue important to criminal law practitioners--the constitutionality of a statute that strips appellate courts of jurisdiction to hear appeals where defendants do not move to withdraw guilty pleas before sentencing. The statute denies defendants of the right to appeal even where they received ineffective assistance of counsel. I think the statute is unconstitutional and fundamentally unfair to defendants who rely solely on advice from attorneys which can be flawed.

The worst part of the decision is that there won't be full, educated and adversarial testing of the statute's constitutionality.
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