The tower of babel...

There are all kinds of good reasons not to be a criminal defense attorney. We’re underpaid, unappreciated, and constantly forced to defend ourselves at cocktail parties. But until the arrest of Lynne Stewart, It had never occurred to me that we might also run the risk of being suddenly arrested and accused of engaging in a treasonous conspiracy.

Indicted along with several others , including an Arabic interpreter, Ms. Stewart, a prominent criminal defense attorney has been accused, of helping imprisoned Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman send illegal messages to his worldwide terrorist followers. She allegedly did this by speaking in English about irrelevant things while her interpreter spoke about other matters in Arabic.

It’s not a surprise that some cops and prosecutors don’t like defense lawyers. And it makes sense that their dislike of the people they prosecute regularly spills over onto the lawyers that represent them. This is especially true when someone passionately defends a particularly reviled client.

Good defense lawyers, of course, assure the legitimacy of the entire system. Not just inside some federal district courtroom, but in the larger court of public, and even world opinion. And prosecuting one the few lawyers still willing to endure the public scorn that comes with defending really unpopular people is a real mistake. It has a chilling effect on all of us. And when that prosecution is undertaken with this kind of really questionable evidence, it is a clear message to radical lawyers: Back off. Does it surprise me the John Ashcroft would go after a criminal defense lawyer? Not at all, does it disturb me? Hell yes.

There are a number of issues that the Stewart case raises—among them matters of legal interpretation, and attorney client privilege. But let’s leave aside the question of whether the justice department’s theory that pretty much any contact with anyone who turns out to be a terrorist, can be considered to have provided support for terrorism is appropriate. And let’s leave for another day the question of whether the government should ever be taping conversations between attorney’s and clients (as they did here) or whether it is appropriate to insist (as they did) that in order to see a client in prison, a lawyer has to sign a statement pledging to refrain from disseminating the client’s point of view in the press. All of these are terrifying positions. But rather than look at the abstract legal and moral problems that inhere in the case, let’s look at the vaguely absurd substance of the charges against Ms. Stewart—saying things that didn’t get translated.

Now in my years as a public defender, I’ve worked with clients who speak languages ranging from Albanian to Wolof, and I’m no stranger to using interpreters.

In fact, earlier this year, I was in a crowded jailhouse interview room trying desperately to talk to someone who only spoke Cantonese. I had an interpreter with me, so I started slowly. I explained who I was, and tried to put her at ease. Small talk is an important way to build trust. People in jail are usually cut off from their families and friends, and helping them feel connected is a significant part of what a caring lawyer does.

But, minutes later, as I tried to explain the basic nature of the charges, I found myself utterly lost. I’d say something, and then there would be a lengthy exchange between the interpreter and the client. They would nod and bicker back and forth, one seeming to correct the other, each involved in some strange debate to which I wasn’t privy. When I’d break in, the interpreter would explain “I was telling her what a felony is”. “Please just try to translate only what I say”…
“Yeah…Ok” he’d said, but then, just a few minutes later, I’d loose control again. “What doesn’t she understand?” I’d ask. And again a lengthy conversation would ensue. “Look” I said, “she just needs to understand that we are going to see a judge….” I trailed off, ignored completely by the client and the interpreter who could have been discussing politics for all I knew.

Now I don’t know if Lynne Stewart knows any more Arabic than I know Cantonese, but I can’t help wondering if this whole thing isn’t just a big tower of Babel problem. Thinking back on my case, I realize, I don’t have a clue exactly what got explained or how.

It is hard enough trying to bridge the tremendous barriers imposed by language and circumstance. The reality is, much of what I saw to clients is lost in translation. And so, it’s frightening to think that while I’m back in those cells, trying hard just to explain a simple legal concept, the government might be listening in, quietly building a case against me for unwittingly unleashing a Cantonese fatwa.


More Prosecutorial Lies...

Judge Again Cites Lies by U.S. Witnesses

The supreme irony of this case is that I can almost guarantee that proseuctors were doing their little joy dance when the feds took this guy after a stop by an NYPD detective. What makes it both so funny and so sad, is that the obviously absurd testimony--what cops have called testilying for years, would have been accepted by almost any state court judge. I'm hard pressed to think of more than a scant few who would ever, ever question a detective's credibility in a simple traffic stop case even when it's obviously crap.

Bravo for Gleeson. At least a few Federal judges have some courage. And as for the Federal prosecutors--shame on them. They knew what kind of crap they had--they knew what the testimony was going to be. They should have reemed out the detective and dismissed the case. The only wonder is that knowing they had a crap case, they didn't "clean it up" whether that's arrogance or decency I know not. I think in State DA's offices cleaning up the testimony is known as "witness preparation"--an Orwellian or Republican term for suborning perjury.


The Times Nails It...

You gotta love this headline:

Undecided Voter Is Becoming the Focus of Both Political Parties

Really? There's a shocker--call Carl Rove quick!

Here's the article just in case you feel the need to read more about this shockingly self-evident proposition...

The New York Times > Washington > Campaign 2004 > Undecided Voter Is Becoming the Focus of Both Political Parties

Judge's request for an arrest warrant infuriates cops...

The New York Times > New York Region > Judge Helps Defendant Elude a Detective Waiting in the Hall to Arrest Him

In this litle slice of criminal court life, a Judge is pilloried for basically insisting on an arrest warrant after a detective misrepresented to the court what he wanted with the defendant. It's a perfect example of how cops take umbrage at the anyone--even judges--who try to insist on doing things the right way. Cops seems to believe they should be able to do whatever they want to do and no one should be able to question them. Ever asked an officer at the scene of an arrest what was going on? Try it sometime, but go easy--you're likely to wind up arrested.

Nice to see that a judge has the backbone to do what she thinks is right, despite the preferences of the cops and prosecutors.


30 for 14 year old...

Murder sentence renews debate

Yes it's true. Geniuses that we are, we've now sentenced a 14 year old orphan girl to 30 years in prison. Damn it makes me feel good about our society.

I'm not kidding. Read for yourself--the link above sends you straight to the article in the indianapolis star. Makes you wonder just what kind of a polis indy is.


The Wilmington Journal - Article - national news

The obvious parallels between Abu-Ghraib and prison conditions in the U.S. are shaply drawn in this Wilmington Journal piece.

The sad truth is, Abu-Ghraib is vivid not only because of the hoods and electrodes, but because there was a camera...

Send a camera into Greenhaven or Pelican Bay sometime and guess what you'll find...

Moving Walls 8: A Group Photography Exhibition

As someone who just yesterday pled someone to Man. 1 and 10 years, it behoves me (and I'd suggest the rest of us) to remember just what we are sentencing people to...


The terrifying intersection of capitalism and incarceration...

The New York Times > National > Trouble in Private U.S. Jails Preceded Job Fixing Iraq's

Fox Butterfield's outstanding article on the terrifing realities of the private prison system, focusing on the suicide of Tyson Johnson. It's as awful as you'd expect. Makes you wonder yet again, why we do this to our own citizens.


About time too... - News - Youth Prison Shuttered After Decade Of Abuse Allegations

They've finally shut Tallulah--one of the worst juvenile facilities in the nation. And about time too.


A 'Blow" to a Chief Judge who Freaks and Speeds

N. Mexico governor 'disturbed' by drug arrests of state officials

How much do you love this item?

Chief Judge John Brennan arrested on drug and DWI charges after allegedly trying to elude police at a DWI checkpoint. The cops claim to have found cocaine in the car too. I wonder whether he’s a criminal term judge who has sentenced poor people to prison for cocaine possession? It’s almost Limbaughian.

Portrait of a Family Court Judge as a Confused Father

The New York Times > National > American Dreamers: A Las Vegas Juvenile Judge Finds His Test Case at Home

We are indeed a society in decline. Witness this rather poignant portrait of a seemingly aloof Las Vegas Family Court Judge confused by his own vapid, spoiled, drug addled daughter. It’s terrifying. As much for the soullessness of the suburbs as the fact that this guy deals with kids every day as a jurist. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine that the really poor kids of vegas don’t pay for the guy’s ennui.