Wednesday, August 22, 2007

An Odd Sort of Victory (II)

Over the past month fellow criminal defense lawyers have shared their feelings regarding "winning" and "losing" in the maelstrom of criminal defense work. Malum wrote of a heart wrenching guilty verdict in his post Loss of Words. Gideon wrote of losing more than he wins in his post The Reality of Being a Criminal Defense Lawyer. But my inspiration post this morning was from Mark Bennett's An Odd Sort of Victory. Since I recently experienced an odd sort of victory myself, I wanted to share it with my compadres in the hopes of lifting their spirits. When we continue to work hard, good things often happen unexpectedly.

Recently, I was appointed on appeal to a man just sentenced to stacked life sentences for the offenses of aggravated sexual assault of a child. For those non-lawyers among us, stacked sentences mean the second sentence will not begin to run until the first sentence is completed. In Texas, aggravated sexual assault of a child is an offense for which a person must serve 1/2 their sentence, or thirty years, which ever is less before becoming eligible for parole. Consequently, my client's best case scenario was to parole on the first case in 2037 before beginning his second life sentence. Needless to say, he was planning to die in prison.

In Texas, the defendant has 30 days from the date of sentencing to file a motion for new trial (MNT). So for the lawyer just appointed on appeal there is some hustling to do. In short, our MNT contained allegations the client received erroneous legal advice from trial counsel leading to an involuntary plea. Trial counsel failed to investigate and present potentially mitigating punishment evidence. Finally, the sentences were cruel and unusual punishment by being disproportionate to other similarly situated defendants.

Trial counsel was courageous in his cooperation with our efforts. However, I told the client I believed our chances of obtaining a new trial were slim. The client did a good job testifying about his decision to plead guilty based on the mistaken advice of trial counsel. The sex offender treatment expert testified how the years of sexual abuse suffered by my client at the hands of his uncle had created the man sitting before us. Not surprisingly, I had no tangible evidence the stacked life sentences were constitutionally disproportionate to other similar defendants.

After 5 hours of testimony the client was prepared for the ubiquitous "motion denied." In fact, the judge unceremoniously rejected each and every claim alleged. However, one sentence following the denial we were unprepared to hear. "In the interests of justice, I will correct my trial court error and delete the stacking order and order these life sentences run concurrently." For those non-lawyers among us, concurrent sentences mean both run at the same time, rather than consecutively.

My client looked at me and asked, "What does that mean?" I said, "I think it means we just won." To the untrained eye, two concurrent life sentences doesn't look like much of a win. But the hope I now saw in my client's eyes told me we had won a victory for him beyond what he'd hoped.

Take heart compadres . Keep doing your best. Good things can happen, even unexpectedly.

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