While on active duty, I was faced with a challenge that shaped the way that I now view what is a proper attorney-client relationship. A client of mine attempted suicide on the eve of receiving the verdict in his case. The method he chose was nothing short of horrific. He immolated himself by pouring three cans of Zippo lighter fluid over his head.
My client was charged with rape and committing indecent acts with his step-daughter. From my perspective, I thought the case had gone well. While I believed he would be convicted of the indecent acts, I thought he had a chance of being acquitted of the rape. The case continued in his absence. It turns out I was right and he was acquitted of the rape.
That evening before the verdict my client left my office faced with an uncertain future. I felt that I had done everything to prepare him for the events that would transpire the next day. I went to my hotel room feeling comfortable about my representation. Meanwhile, my client was apparently feeling that his life had no value. He was not living; he was numb and hopeless enough to attempt to take his own life. I failed to see this when he left my office.
Before I go any further, I want to speak to the skeptics out there. You may believe that a defense attorney’s only job is to raise the legal defense and leave the handholding to someone else. I disagree.
Developing a good rapport with a client is important because without the client’s trust and confidence: the client might restrict the flow of information needed to prepare and present a quality defense; a poor relationship between attorney and client can result in either or both avoiding visits or telephone calls (affecting the defense); and a poor relationship can result in the client feeling that they don’t have anyone in their corner.
Defense counsel, in general, focus primarily on the legal issues in the case. However, this does not mean that they should abdicate their responsibility for identifying when a client is in trouble or when they need something more than just an attorney. A defense counsel is likely the most educated, responsible and attentive person in the client’s life at the time.
Unless a client has friends or family providing personal support, the defense counsel is probably it. Most clients have a wide range of pressures weighing down upon them. Besides the obvious concern of a conviction and confinement, many clients are forced to endure being treated like a pariah in their unit. Their family and friend support usually breaks down; they have financial concerns; and many fail to tell their parents or friends the full extent of their legal troubles. They see the government working against them with their only protection being their defense counsel.
The clients that I have represented are often first time offenders with limited experience with the military judicial system. The task that I take seriously is developing an open line of communication. The best way that I have found to do this is by showing my client that I am willing to fight for them.
I believe that it is critical to keep a client informed about the status of their case and what I am going to try to do for them in their case. The best way to achieve this goal is to schedule regular visits with a client. Even if these visits are short ten minute updates, I have found that my clients value and look forward to these regular visits. Additionally, I always ask my clients if there is anything they want to talk about at the end of each meeting. This way, my clients never leave a meeting with questions on their mind.
When you are charged with a crime or facing the possibility of separation, you have a lot of important decisions to make. Your attorney should give you time to make these important decisions (such as forum, plea, whether to testify or not). When discussing the decisions you have to make, your attorney should explain all of your options. After fully explaining all of your options, you attorney should then let you decide what is best.
I always take the time to fully explain the options available to my client. I never discuss these important issues at the last minute and expect my client to make a decision under pressure. If you find yourself in a position where you need a defense attorney, I hope you consider contacting me. I will gladly help you navigate through the UCMJ system to get back to you life with the least amount of disruption. I will do this by not just being your attorney, but someone that you can turn to for sound advice.