Amidst the other boxes in my cluttered office sit two boxes, stacked one on top of the other, overflowing with miscellaneous briefs, research, and court filings - some dating back seven years. To me, those boxes represent all that is wrong with the criminal justice system. Although the case had a name, for me the defendant, like most of the people I represent on appeal, was a faceless inmate, whom I had never met while working on his direct appeal. He was sentenced to consecutive life sentences for a shooting that even the victim said he did not commit.
I was appointed to the case in January of 2004. Through happenstance, while working on the opening brief, I stumbled across a newspaper article about a cop who had been fired from a nearby police department for making up information in police reports and who had later pled guilty to five felony counts of fabricating evidence. As I read the story, I realized this was the same cop who was the prosecution's main witness in my case. The same cop whose testimony the prosecution argued to the jury was the "lynchpin" of the case. In order to acquit the defendant, the prosecutor argued, jurors would have to believe that this officer fabricated evidence. And believe it I did.
I learned that after the officer's firing and felony pleas, the district attorney wisely dismissed several cases in which he was the arresting officer.
Too late, though, for my client, who'd had his many days in court and was sentenced to a lifetime in hell. I filed a writ of habeas corpus along with the direct appeal to let the court know that just a few months after my client's sentencing, the investigating police officer was publicly proclaimed a liar and a felon himself.
My client's conviction was affirmed on appeal, and his habeas petition was summarily denied. My appointment ended, but my outrage did not. I filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the federal court. Through an unusual, circuitous route, beginning with a denial of the petition more than a year after its filing, the district court judge, to her credit, reconsidered the merits of the case and, a year and a half after that, granted the petition. My elation at this news was tempered by the realization that the decision could be appealed and the matter might drag on for several more years. I never seriously considered, however, that the district attorney would retry my client.
Two months later, my client found himself back where he had started, in the Martinez county jail. It was finally time to meet the man whose case I had been handling for so many years. I felt nervous as I waited for him to be brought to the decrepit interview room. But there was no awkwardness in our meeting. He was smaller than I had imagined and, despite the tattoos covering his arms, looked very mild mannered. He was soft spoken, and the first thing that he said was that he wanted to thank me but didn't know the right words to adequately express his gratitude.
I knew that down the line the charges against him would most likely be dismissed, or he'd be acquitted upon retrial. But my client did not want to wait. He had been dead for years, he said, and now had a chance to live again. He was anxious to see the family he'd left behind and unwilling to spend even one more day in custody. He readily agreed to plead guilty to an assault charge for credit for time served, so that he could be released immediately. I wanted to be respectful of his decision, but in my heart I felt that he should have been released with an apology and not coerced into a guilty plea.
I spoke to him one more time after his release from custody. He sounded happy and full of hope. Amazingly, after ten years in prison there was no hint of bitterness in his voice. I wonder how long I will keep his voluminous case file on the floor of my office. Though I need no reminder of the flaws in the criminal justice system, these boxes also serve as a reminder to me that it is possible to obtain justice, even if not perfect, at least for some
Bobbie Stein is a criminal defense and civil rights litigator in San Francisco who has served on the law school faculties of UC Berkeley, John F. Kennedy University, and New College.