David Feige

       All I want to do is sleep. The office paged me just before 8:00 this morning, with three recently docketed cases. I am never my best in the morning, and so I barely managed to make it upright to take down the information on the new clients. Getting up too early tends to put a damper on my day, and by the time I made it back to the office 10 hours later, all I wanted to do was curl up and take a nap.
       Instead, I bail out of the honorary event I was supposed to go to–I was supposed to receive a certificate of appreciation for teaching a direct- and cross-examination seminar–and stop by a bar to offer my congratulations to a friend at Legal Aid who got an acquittal. It is nice to drink with other criminal-defense lawyers. It is one of the few places where the righteousness of the work goes unquestioned.
       Ever since I decided to do this kind of public-sector criminal-defense work, I have come up against a steady stream of skeptics. At first nobody believed I would actually do the work (during my first year of law school, a Maserati-driving dentist assured me I’d sell out). Later nobody understood why I’d do it. A partner at a friend’s law firm still tells me to call him when I am ready for a real job. At nearly every cocktail party I’ve been to in the past eight years someone has asked me how I can represent those guilty people. Sometimes it is honest curiosity; other times, a challenge. Encounters like this can still send me into a rhetorical frenzy or set me off on a combative diatribe–and they happen all the time. After a while it gets tiresome having to explain your core values to complete strangers. Besides, the answers are simple. I believe in what I do. I believe in the system I work in. I believe that in our system of justice, guilt is a matter of proof–and properly so.
       I am the last stop for most of the people I represent. They come to me, their liberty about to be taken away from them, after they have failed or been failed by the other support systems built into our society. My colleagues and I stand between them and prison. We are their last bulwark against the tremendous power of the state. We fight to get people out of jail and ensure that they don’t go back in; we fight unjust search warrants and all the ways the government gets into your home and your phones and your life. Everything we do is about preserving individuals’ liberty, whether they’re guilty or not. As it happens, they are not guilty much more often than you would think. But that’s not the point. The point is that the people we defend are people who would otherwise be condemned as a result of their status as poor, minority defendants. These are the people who are the most marginalized and easiest to overlook. I am proud to be their voice. I would stand in no other place.
       The client of the people I came to congratulate was charged with selling $60 worth of crack cocaine. Six times, their client refused a plea bargain in which he was promised probation. On the face of it, this was a crazy thing to do, since if he went to trial and lost, the judge would be required by law to sentence him to a minimum of 1 to 3 years and a maximum of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison. (This is how mandatory drug sentencing laws frequently coerce innocent people into pleading guilty.) But the defendant, who had never been arrested before in his life, was adamant about his innocence. Although before the trial he’d been out on bail and made every court appearance, the judge who tried the case revoked his bail and put him in jail for the duration of the trial–just to make sure he showed up. The jury found him not guilty, and he was released from jail this afternoon, free and exonerated.