If there’s one thing the San Joaquin Valley of California hates more than anything, it’s a good defense attorney. In Kings County, it’s long been rumored that if you do your job — your actual job of defending clients — you will lose your right to defend indigent clients. If you represent people for money in that county, you will find your ability to practice severely limited by the court. So far, I’ve not heard of one case where this caused a problem for the Fifth Appellate District Court, so if the rumors are true, I guess it’s constitutional.
The courts — and no doubt the attorneys I’ve seen counseling their clients (plural) en masse about plea agreements in the foyers of the County courthouses — would say I’m mistaken. I heard it wrong. They fight like hell. Like hell they fight! Like hell.
Now federal prosecutors in Fresno say what’s good for Kings County is good for the King.
There’s just one problem: the defendants are police officers.
And if there’s one thing the San Joaquin Valley of California loves more than anything, it’s a police officer.
The story goes like this: in 2005, four police officers allegedly committed crimes so egregious that even Fresno’s Finest blushed. According to the Fresno Bee,
[The alleged victim] was punched and kicked, bitten by a police dog and shot with a less-than-lethal shotgun.
The four officers were fired after a police investigation concluded that excessive force was used in the arrest and that evidence and a police report were altered.
The city later paid [the alleged victim] $67,500 to settle his excessive-force claim.
Now that’s big. I am personally aware of cases wherein the police were alleged to have used excessive force in several cases much worse than this.
In one, on which I consulted, the police shot an alleged purse snatcher in the back. If he ever beats the charges against him — unlikely, it seems, at the moment — any future purse-snatchings will be done from his wheelchair. The shooting left him paralyzed.
As I understand it, an untraceable gun was found under his body after he was shot and after significant coaching, the elderly woman whose purse was snatched eventually changed her story from “no gun” to “gun which happens to look like the one the police found.” I’m told it only took three tries to correctly state the description of the gun.
In another case, Brandon Lebar (2015 update: original link disappeared) was just recently convicted for assaulting an officer. The “assault” occurred after Lebar and some of his friends were victims in a drive-by shooting. One of his friends died at the scene. Lebar was shot in the leg. As I understand it, his femoral artery was hit and he was bleeding profusely when deputies arrived and shot him in the chest for not following orders. According to the Fresno Bee,
Deputies were sent to Cedar and Weldon avenues and found Lebar, who had been shot in his left leg and was lying on the ground.
As deputy Todd Burk asked Lebar how he was feeling, he sat up and pointed a handgun at Burk, who then shot Lebar in the chest.
Under questioning by prosecutor Noelle Pebet during the trial, Burk testified that as he approached Lebar, he saw his right hand under his right leg. When Burk asked to see his hand, Lebar displayed a gun, the deputy said.
Well, which is it? Did he sit up after being asked how he was feeling and point the gun? Or did he “display” the gun after being told to show his hands?
Or was he maybe just busy bleeding to death after part of his leg was blown off (that can’t hurt too bad, can it?) and didn’t understand the officers wanted to cuff him and ask a few questions?
Burk retreated and ordered Lebar to put the gun down or he would shoot him. Feeling threatened, Burk shot Lebar, the deputy testified.
Now, I’m not sure how many of you have ever been shot in the femoral artery, but the defense argument that Lebar was neither threatening anyone, nor displaying a weapon, because he was screaming, writhing about, and going into shock from the blood loss has a great deal of merit.
Only we loves our officerses, precious, doesn’ts we?
As is usual when an officer assaults someone in Fresno, charges were filed on the victim…and the jury dutifully convicted.
Which brings us back to the case in today’s paper.
Apparently, the defense attorneys are doing a bang-up job. Two officers — both represented by Marshall Hodgkins — already were offered their jobs back. Now Marshall and another attorney are defending the officers in federal court.
Marshall Hodgkins is widely considered the “go-to” man for officers in need of defense. From what I’ve heard over the years, he doesn’t often lose, either. He wins admin hearings; he wins criminal cases; he wins civil suits.
It’s not just because he defends cops, either. I know Marshall and he’s a fighter.
And, as I said, he’s already convinced a board that the two officers he was defending should be reinstated; one has been and the other apparently declined reinstatement.
So what we have is a major conflict of Valley “principles” here. I’m not talking about the whole “innocent unless proven guilty” thing, either. Valley residents could give a crap about that. I’m talking about the “principle” that says defense attorneys who do too well need to be handled (i.e., fired) versus the “principle” that “we loves our officerses, precious, doesn’ts we?”
The prosecution isn’t thinking about that conflict, though. The prosecution wants the court to remove the defense attorneys due to an alleged potential conflict of interest with the attorneys defending the officers.
Did you ever doubt that the prosecution’s motive is completely altruistic? The prosecutors are worried that the police officers won’t get the best defense. After all, as noted, Marshall is defending two involved officers: the two who already won in the administrative hearings.
The feds want to offer a deal to one of the two if he’ll testify against the other. Marshall communicates the response, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
For their part, the officers have signed waivers of any potential conflict. These guys are no idiots: they want Marshall Hodgkins. (Did I mention he wins, and that in their cases he already has won them back their jobs?)
And let’s not forget one other thing: the officers are innocent unless proven guilty. If — as the officers contend — they did nothing wrong, is there any surprise they don’t see a conflict? Unless the prosecution proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers committed the crimes with which they are charged, they are not guilty.
As far as the Law should see it, unless proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt, they didn’t do it. As far as a deal goes, then, no conflict.
Unsurprisingly, the officers and their attorney are at least as convinced they did nothing wrong as the prosecution is that they did.
It will be interesting to see what position the courts take. Does the Sixth Amendment right to choice of counsel matter? Will the prosecution convince the courts that even though men who are not guilty probably have no conflict and even though the men say that they’re willing to waive any potential conflict should one arise, they should, nevertheless be denied the counsel of their choice? Do we fire criminal defense attorneys who do their jobs too well?
Or, does we, precious, really loves our precious, precious?
Because, in the end, this one is about anything but the Law.