“I don’t want to read this” Judge Webber says curtly, rolling her eyes just a little and pushing away a social worker’s pre-pleading report. Webber is one of my favorite judges—wickedly quick, deeply comfortable with her judicial power, and thoroughly happy to throw it around. But Troy Webber does not like excuses or explanations; she likes pleas, and trials—the quick disposition of cases. To her, cases are best understood not as human drama, but as fact patterns to be weighed, measured and properly priced. Webber is a successful hedge fund manager in the marketplace of criminality.
Back before Troy Webber ever dealt with felony cases, when she was in criminal court, even then she was unusual. “That’s your offer people?” she’d snap, throwing a disapproving look toward the crowded prosecution table littered with files. “ahhh” young assistant DA’s learned quickly to take cues from Webber, “does the court have a suggested disposition?” many of them would ask, essentially deferring to Webber the ultimate question of what a case was worth. She always had a suggestion. “Violation, three days community service” she’d say crisply nodding toward the defense as if to warn them not to quibble. “Right?” she’d ask the defense attorney—also well advised to listen to Webber’s proposed solution. “Yes judge” was the usual reply. “People?” Her head tilted dangerously to one side, the subtle sign that her patience with the case before her was waning—usually about 40 seconds into a proceeding. “New offer judge—violation and three days community service.” Assistant DA’s who defied Webber often found cases adjourned for months, the speedy trial clock slowly eating up their leverage. And defense attorneys who balked at what she considered reasonable were tortured too—short motions schedules, fast trial dates, no more chances. She had no compunction about dismissing cases, or forcing their dismissal, even when it meant that someone with a long record might be back on the street—to her, the work was about the aggregate not the individual—and power and consistency, were her stock in trade.
It is a little strange that I like Troy Webber as much as I do—she’s not a compassionate judge, or even a particularly temperate one. But below her quick disposition exterior, she’s thoughtful and smart, and, unlike many other jurists I have the misfortune to appear before, fundamentally decent. Given a choice, Webber is usually willing to take a chance on a kid, or get rid of a case, even one that seems scary and violent, with a reasonable plea. Just as she isn’t particularly sensitive to a defendant’s background, she isn’t held hostage by the prosecutorial hysteria about the gravity of cases either.
This fact has helped me get rid of otherwise difficult cases more than once. Tough clients and bad facts can make for intractable cases. Almost every criminal case when analyzed carefully, has holes in it. It’s one of the things that keeps defense lawyers busy, and prosecutors at the negotiating table. But every once and again there is a case where the evidence is really overwhelming, and the crime itself is bad. Those cases are recipes for disaster. There is little or no incentive for the prosecutor to negotiate, and so to really torture a defendant, they shift their focus shifts toward shaming judges into toeing the line they draw. Sadly, many judges, particularly in bad cases, are unwilling to undercut the prosecutors even when they are being absurdly unreasonable. Mercifully, Webber isn’t one of them.
“What’s this one about?” Webber asked me once, sporting her characteristic bemused smile and calm delivery. I was up at the bench in her cramped courtroom with a colleague looking desperately to plead a case out. The crime was bad—two separate robberies both using a stun gun. The second turning into a car-jacking when the police rolled up. My client, still in the car, pushed the stunned driver out the door and took off hoping to elude the police. A chase ensued, yielding a car accident, a foot pursuit and a long leap off a 30 foot embankment which in turn produced a incapacitated client lying on the railroad tracks with a compound fracture amid a litter of recently discarded evidence and a cop with a twisted ankle.
The district attorney’s office was up in arms over the case—it wasn’t just the robberies—those were fairly routine, but he had the termertity to flee, and in the process had injured a police officer…judge Webber was perfectly calm. “Just a stun gun?” She asked. “Yup” I said. “give him 8 flat concurrent and he’ll plead on both today” I said in courthouse shorthand for a plea to two violent felonies with 8 year sentences to be served at the same time. “Your honor!” the assistant district attorney exclaimed as if the mere mention of a plea was an affront to the dignity of the people of the state of New York. Webber just shot her a dismissive glance, “any other real injuries here?” she asked “Well…”the assistant DA huffed, forefinger flipping her bangs head shaking like she couldn’t believe that anyone, even a judge whose docket that day including half a dozen shootings, stabbings, and any number of gunpoint robberies and push in burglaries, might belittle the officer’s sprained ankle. By the time she was ready to complete the sentence, Webber had looked back toward me. Ignoring the young assistant’s huffing, Webber raised an inquisitive eyebrow. I shook my head silently—no there is no real injury here I telegraphed. “step back” was all she said, giving me the tiny nod that meant you got a deal.