Despite being acquitted of the felony charge levied against him, Mr. Sanchez remained in jail after the verdict because he had other pending cases against him. When Mr. Sanchez walked back into the holding cell, though, he did so with a smile; finally some good news for a sweet man worn down by life. Mr. Sanchez was still in jail, but in those moments, he was free, vindicated.A new file showed up in my mailbox, Mr. Sanchez, 54 years old, charged with a felony assault crime against a fellow homeless man, set time not waived for trial. I perused the preliminary hearing transcript, where a colleague represented Mr. Sanchez, and noticed that Mr. Sanchez had yelled out during a witness' testimony. I read my colleague's memos detailing his impressions of the case and his interactions with the client; Mr. Sanchez was not interested in any deals, had strong, perhaps unreasonable, opinions about the case and had a history of mental health issues. His “rap” sheet was long and voluminous, dating back decades.
A few days later, I set out to the jail to meet Mr. Sanchez myself. I sat in the cramped interview room and awaited his arrival from his housing unit. The door opened but it wasn't Mr. Sanchez; instead, a correctional officer informed me that Mr. Sanchez refused to see me. Flustered, I asked if I could go to the unit and talk to him or leave him a note. Both requests denied. I exited the facility, heavy footed and sad that my client, who I had been tasked with representing, didn't want to see me. Even though it was his choice, I felt like I was abandoning him.
Days later, I tried again. This time, the door opened and Mr. Sanchez limped into the room. He wore glasses, held together by a scrap of tape, that sat crooked on his face. Mr. Sanchez's long black hair slicked back, his hands large and rough. His leg mangled and deformed, the result of being hit by a car over 25 years ago. The resulting surgeries left him with a rod in his leg and that leg 1 ½ inches shorter than the other. To correct his alignment while in custody, Mr. Sanchez constructed a jailhouse orthopedic shoe by binding three orange jail slippers together. Mr. Sanchez shook my hand and eased his worn body onto the jail stool. I told him that I had come to visit him days prior; he said he wasn't feeling well, not that he refused to see me as the correctional officers described. We launched into a conversation about his life, his growing up in the foster care system, his medical and mental health issues, his medications, his struggles with alcoholism and homelessness. As he talked, his eroded and warped teeth exposed themselves. He proudly showed me his tattooless arms; “I'm not a gangbanger,” he said.
I detailed to him what he was accused of: assaulting a fellow homeless man causing alleged great bodily injury. He adamantly claimed he acted in self-defense when he used physical violence against the alleged victim; “he pushed me first!” he said. I squeezed in a few words between his repeated denials of culpability. I drew a flowchart of the potential scenarios of his case, trial or a plea bargain. If convicted as charged, Mr. Sanchez would be saddled with a strike felony and faced a likely double digit length sentence. Mr. Sanchez wasn't phased; he was ready for trial. “If a jury wants to send me to prison for this, then so be it,” he said.
We'd meet again a few times at the jail and then again at the courthouse when the case was sent to a judge for a potential resolution. The assigned prosecutor made an offer that would limit Mr. Sanchez's exposure to low single digits and remove any strike consequences if he would plead no contest to a felony assault. After some discussions with the assigned judge, I met with Mr. Sanchez in a court holding cell to relay the offer; Mr. Sanchez wanted none of it. “No deal, man,” he said repeatedly, despite my advise that the offer was a reasonable one that protected him from the severe risks of trial. Mr. Sanchez would repeat, “All this for a bum fight?” “I always take deals because I'm partially guilty.” This time, though, he was clear: absent a reduction to a misdemeanor or a dismissal, the case was going to trial. .
Several days later, the presiding judge assigned the case to a different judge for trial. The DA extended the same offer and the judge urged me to discuss it with Mr. Sanchez again; perhaps being on the doorstep of trial might change his mind. I found Mr. Sanchez napping on the wooden bench in the holding cell. I gently woke him and we conversed about the impending trial and the offer. This time, Mr. Sanchez talked less and would say, “yeah” and “uh huh” as I told him about the rewards and merits of the offer. I asked him, “I'm sensing that you're more open to this offer than the last time we talked, is that right”? Mr. Sanchez quickly responded, “Oh, no… I was just trying to be respectful to you. I'm not taking no deal.”
The judge brought us into the courtroom to discuss the upcoming schedule, the first time I had appeared in open court with Mr. Sanchez. He quickly lost his filter and spouted out his thoughts, frustrations and musings openly to the judge as I tried to calm and quiet him. The judge indulged him and his rumblings but made it clear that such behavior wouldn't be acceptable in front of a jury. Mr. Sanchez apologized for his outburst, saying he hadn't taken his medication that morning. The case was continued until the next day for motions in limine where the judge would make evidentiary rulings outside the jury's presence. The judge ordered that Mr. Sanchez be “dressed out” for that court session in his trial clothes as a test run before the jury would arrive for trial.
The next morning, I rushed to court only to find that Mr. Sanchez refused to wear the clothes I provided him. I went back to the holding cell and asked Mr. Sanchez if he didn't like the clothes I chose or if they were the wrong size. He told me he hadn't even seen them but refused to wear them on principle; the clothes weren't reflective of his current condition and he wanted the jury to know he was in jail “for this shit.” I tried to convince him to wear the clothes to avoid the jury assuming from his jail garb that he was dangerous, a habitual offender or simply disrespectful to the court. Mr. Sanchez was unmoved; he would wear his jail clothes in front of the jury. We proceeded with motions in limine and as I argued for Mr. Sanchez' prior acts of assault to be excluded from evidence, he yelled out again, frustrated that the prior acts were being discussed at all. His outburst exasperated me, derailed my train of thought. I reminded him that I was his voice, that he could whisper things to me or write things down and that I'd do my best to share his views. We got through the rest of the motions without further interruption and were ordered back the following week for jury selection and trial.
In the interim, I went back to the jail to visit Mr. Sanchez to see if I could persuade him to wear “regular” clothes at trial. Before that conversation, though, we discussed the offer (that Mr. Sanchez continued to reject), the judge's motions in limine rulings, the trial process and the potential outcomes. I then got around to asking Mr. Sanchez if he'd reconsider his decision on the clothes; he quickly said, “Yeah, I'll wear them, I just didn't feel like it that day.” Problem, for the time being, solved. Before I left, Mr. Sanchez told me that he had been reviewing my aforementioned flowchart in his cell and asked that I write out an outline of our discussions that afternoon including bullet points on the judge's evidentiary rulings, the steps of trial and why “dressing out” was so important. He promised to review the outline before trial.
We came back a few days later for jury selection. Mr. Sanchez wore the collared dress shirt, black slacks and wingtip loafers I left for him. He looked and felt good, telling me the clothes fit and that he had taken his medication. I armed him with a notepad and a pen so he could take notes during the selection process and give me input. He and I stood together as the jurors would file in and out of the courtroom. As the jurors told us about their backgrounds and stories, Mr. Sanchez wrote notes and would whisper to me about jurors he liked. One young man, who had been the victim of an assault, particularly intrigued Mr. Sanchez. My turn came to “voir dire” the jury. I stood up and asked them questions about their experiences, directed their attention to Mr. Sanchez and asked if they could presume him innocent despite his arrest, being charged and brought to trial. Eventually, my questioning reached the young man who Mr. Sanchez badly wanted on his jury. The young man remarked that he he couldn't be a fair and impartial juror given his experience; hearing this, my client, stewing in frustration behind me, yelled out at the juror, startling me and everyone in the courtroom. The judge ordered the jury to disregard my client's comments and I rushed to his side in an attempt to calm him. But the damage was done. Many of the jurors expressed fear and discomfort given Mr. Sanchez's behavior and one juror noted that “if that's how he acts here, he's probably done it before…” We had lost the jury and my client's agitation only grew. The court, shortly thereafter, recessed for the day.
We came back the following court session and the judge granted a motion to dismiss the jury panel, permitting us to start over with a new jury group who had not been tainted by Mr. Sanchez's outburst. The judge made clear to Mr. Sanchez, though, that if he had another explosion, he would be removed from the courtroom and forced to observe the trial via a video or audio feed. After court adjourned for the morning, I ducked into the holding cell area to talk to Mr. Sanchez. He had gotten the message, he said. He had seen how his behavior put himself in danger of not sitting through his own trial and put himself at a higher risk of being convicted. He wouldn't have another outburst, he insisted. More significantly, he gave me insight into what prompted the eruption in front of the jury. Mr. Sanchez told me that standing up as the jury came in and out of the courtroom made him uncomfortable; all the eyes on him spurred anxiety. He didn't like the attention I shone upon him during jury selection when I repeatedly referred to him by name and directed the jury's eyes in his direction. He said he could use some coffee to help curb the agitation and assist him in staying level and calm. The shoes, without lifts to keep his body aligned, were uncomfortable and added to his irritation.
I went out and bought some insoles and lifts for Mr. Sanchez's shoe to compensate for his uneven legs. He tried various combinations and settled on a medley of one sole and two lifts to level him out; he felt better. The district attorney kindly agreed to remain seated when the jury shuffled in and out of the courtroom so as to not bring attention to Mr. Sanchez and I remaining seated. During my voir dire, opening statements and closing arguments, I focused my attention on the jury and didn't point at or direct the jury's attention to my client as I usually would. I asked for and received permission from the courtroom deputies to bring a cup of coffee to Mr. Sanchez during breaks. The subtle but significant remedies made all the difference. During our second round of jury selection and into trial, Mr. Sanchez was relaxed, calm and under control. In fact, instead of flaring up at a juror, Mr. Sanchez, after hearing about the various accomplishments and backgrounds of the jury panel members, remarked, “These are good people, they've done so much.”
Once we picked a jury, trial commenced. As opening statements were about to start, Mr. Sanchez whispered to me, “this is embarrassing.” He felt ashamed for being on trial, for having resources and the jury's time expended because of him, because of this “bum fight.” I assured him that there was nothing to be embarrassed about, that this was his right to stand up against what believed was a false accusation. He felt even more embarrassed when the prosecutor introduced photographs of Mr. Sanchez from the incident date into evidence, pictures that showed him in his homeless, disheveled, unshaven, unkempt state. Mr. Sanchez asked if I could prevent them from being shown and even politely asked the prosecutor to refrain from using the photos. She forged forward and showed the jury the pictures on an overhead projector. Mr. Sanchez grew agitated. I whispered to him, “keep your eyes and head down, it'll be done before you know it.” The pictures were off the screen seconds later and Mr. Sanchez looked up, relieved.
Mr. Sanchez fought his impulses and anxieties throughout the trial. He grappled with himself and remained on his best behavior, not self-sabotaging his efforts toward exoneration. He whispered to me and wrote notes when his frustrations surfaced. He sipped his cup of coffee. He kept his eyes down.
The jury, after just a few hours of deliberations, found Mr. Sanchez not guilty of the felony assault charge but guilty of a lesser misdemeanor charge that carried a 6 month maximum sentence. No felony, no strike, no lengthy prison sentence. As the jury exited the room, Mr. Sanchez frantically asked me, “Can I thank them?” I told him sure, so he stood up with me, the first time during the trial, and he, in his booming voice, was finally heard: “Thank you everyone! That was a fair result.” I told Mr. Sanchez that I'd go out to the hallway to talk to the jury; before I left, he said, “tell them I love them.” I returned to Mr. Sanchez's side; he firmly shook my hand, thanking me profusely. He expressed gratitude and wished he could pay me. I told him that the experience with him was priceless, that I was grateful for his trust and to represent him, that he was someone I'd never forget.
Despite being acquitted of the felony charge levied against him, Mr. Sanchez remained in jail after the verdict because he had other pending cases against him. When Mr. Sanchez walked back into the holding cell, though, he did so with a smile; finally some good news for a sweet man worn down by life. Mr. Sanchez was still in jail, but in those moments, he was free, vindicated.
You can reach Sajid via email at email@example.com or Twitter @thesajidakhan. The views expressed here are his own.