A successful former defense attorney exposes the raw truth about the courtroom “game” and a career spent defending the guilty
As an advocate for the accused in Newark, New Jersey, criminal lawyer Seymour Wishman defended a vast array of clients, from burglars and thieves to rapists and murderers. Many of them were poor and undereducated, and nearly all of them were guilty. But it was not Wishman’s duty to pass moral judgment on those he represented. His job was to convince a jury to set his clients free or, at the very least, to impose the most lenient punishment permissible by law. And he was very good at his job. Reveling in the adrenaline rush of “winning,” Wishman gave no thought to the ethical considerations of his daily dealings . . . until he was confronted on the street by a rape victim he had humiliated in the courtroom. A fascinating, no-holds-barred memoir of his years spent as “attorney for the damned,” Wishman’s Confessions of a Criminal Lawyer is a startling and important work—an eye-opening, thought-provoking examination of how the justice system works and how it should work—by an attorney who both defended and prosecuted those accused of the most horrific crimes.
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Confessions of a Criminal Lawyer
By Seymour Wishman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Seymour Wishman
All rights reserved.
Accused: "That's the Lawyer!"
It was past ten on a sweaty summer night when I accompanied the sister of a client to the emergency ward of Newark City Hospital. I had successfully defended her brother against a mugging charge about a year before, and was scheduled to begin a new armed robbery trial for him. The date of the trial was now in doubt because of the wounds he had received in a "disturbance" at the jail. I was rushing to see how he was, and to prevent him from saying anything incriminating to a nurse, doctor, or worse, the police, about the fight he had just lost with a guard—the guard would probably claim my client had attacked him, regardless of what had actually happened.
My client's sister and I joined the parade of wounded and mutilated bodies staggering through the swinging doors. Across the lobby, a heavy but not unattractive woman in a nurse's uniform suddenly shrieked, "Get that motherfucker out of here!" Two women rushed forward to restrain her. "That's the lawyer, that's the motherfuckin' lawyer!" she shouted.
I looked around me. No one else resembled a lawyer. Still screaming, she dragged her two restrainers toward me. I was baffled. As the only white face in a crowd of forty, I felt a growing sense of anxiety.
"That's the son of a bitch that did it to me!" she screamed.
I didn't know what she was talking about.
"Kill him and that nigger Horton!"
Larry Horton ... of course. Larry Horton was a client of mine. Six months before, I had represented him at his trial for sodomy and rape. At last I recognized the woman's face. She had testified as the "complaining" witness against Horton.
WISHMAN: Isn't it a fact that after you met the defendant at a bar, you asked him if he wanted to have a good time?
LEWIS: No! That's a lie!
WISHMAN: Isn't it true that you took him and his three friends back to your apartment and had that good time?
WISHMAN: And, after you had that good time, didn't you ask for money?
LEWIS: No such way!
WISHMAN: Isn't it a fact that the only reason you made a complaint was because you were furious for not getting paid?
LEWIS: No! No! That's a lie!
WISHMAN: You claim to have been raped and sodomized. As a nurse, you surely have an idea of the effect of such an assault on a woman's body. Are you aware, Mrs. Lewis, that the police doctor found no evidence of force or trauma?
LEWIS: I don't know what the doctors found....
I tried not to acknowledge the screaming woman in white as I passed within several feet of her and the two women clutching her arms. Instead of looking at that angry face, I glanced around the room. Along the walls, on wooden benches and orange plastic chairs, twenty or more people sat staring at me; several people were laid out on stretchers with hanging bottles containing clear liquid dripping into their arms through long pink tubes. Nurses, doctors, and clerks were scattered around the room. Even the people on the stretchers were staring at me. Even the sister of my client, who was walking beside me, stared at me. I was frightened, but I tried not to show it.
I walked purposefully to the end of a long corridor where my client was being held. The guard told the sister to wait outside, but after I explained I was the inmate's lawyer, he allowed me to go in.
My client was resting on a narrow table. His face had not been bruised, but his chest was wrapped with rows of tape. He told me that a guard had cracked three of his ribs with a stick, and that he hadn't made any statement. I told him his trial on the burglary would probably begin later that week, and I would try to dissuade the prosecutor from bringing new charges for the jail "disturbance" with the understanding that my client wouldn't press charges against the guard who had beaten him up.
There was no sight of Mrs. Lewis when I left the hospital. While driving home that night, I tried to recall the details of the trial with "that woman." It was possible that the doctor who had found no evidence of force or trauma had been mistaken. The professionals who testified for the government were often incompetent. Some police doctors who had examined hundreds of alleged rape and sodomy victims over the years no longer performed their work with the same diligence or enthusiasm they might once have had. And, as was often true, many months had passed between the examination and the trial with Mrs. Lewis, leaving the doctor with only his notes to rely on, certainly not an independent memory of the examination, and in this case the notes were very sketchy. When I had asked him if there had been any evidence of force or trauma, we both knew he had neglected to mention in his report either the presence or absence of force. On the witness stand he had to either admit his negligent reporting or deny the existence of such evidence. I had made a point of holding his report in my hand, so when he said there had been no evidence of force, he knew he was avoiding my embarrassing next questions. But both of us knew that the truth of Mrs. Lewis's condition those many months earlier might have been very different.
Weighing on me more heavily than the possibility that I had helped a guilty man escape punishment was the undeniable fact that I had humiliated the victim—alleged victim—in my cross-examination of her. But, as all criminal lawyers know, to be effective in court I had to act forcefully, even brutally, at times. I had been trained in law school to regard the "cross" as an art form. In the course of my career I had frequently discredited witnesses. My defense of myself had always been that there was nothing personal in what I was doing. This woman was obviously unwilling to dismiss my behavior as merely an aspect of my professional responsibility; instead of an effective counsel, she saw me simply as a "motherfucker."
I had applied to law school with a deeply held belief that I could satisfy some high, even noble, expectations as a lawyer. Although I had never articulated what those expectations were, I knew I cared about the poor and the underdog; although I may have had only a hazy idea of what justice was, I did have an acute, albeit intuitive, sense of injustice. I didn't talk out loud about such things, because I didn't want to sound self-righteous or naive, but the truth was that beyond vague, grandiose feelings, I had never really thought it through, even for myself. And those feelings of justice had never anticipated the anger of a humiliated witness.
During my first year out of law school, I clerked for a criminal trial judge, Charles S. Barrett, Jr., of the Superior Court of New Jersey, a gentleman of humor and intelligence and decency. Every day in the course of his trials Judge Barrett made specific decisions based on his sense of justice. Of course, he was guided by statutes and opinions of higher courts, but the details of a case often required interpretations that could be made only by relying on his personal convictions. I greatly admired the judge for those personal convictions; I sensed he had struggled with the more profound human questions and answered them with a consistency that seemed well-considered intellectually and satisfying emotionally. There was nothing I wanted more than one day to be a man of such integrity and conviction.
I tried to study my judge as if he were a finely balanced scale. I knew he believed our penal system was inhumanely harsh, yet he sentenced defendants to long periods of incarceration. He held no higher value than the sanctity of human life; yet I watched him impose a death sentence without any apparent emotional conflict. And because a police officer had failed to knock on a door, I saw the judge, without hesitation, dismiss the case against a brutal rapist. I learned that Judge Barrett believed in our system of justice, in its principles and its process, to such a degree that his commitment to that system required and allowed him to put aside any other personal feelings about a particular case.
In my eagerness to understand the source of the judge's commitment, I gladly accepted his invitation to attend a Jesuit retreat with him and his two sons. During prayer services I watched him speak to his God with deep devotion, and I learned that he attended church every morning. Up to that point, which was near the end of my year of clerking, I had no idea that he was religious. When I asked him if he felt his religious commitment to love and forgiveness and humility created any personal conflict with his work as a judge, he said he had no difficulty reconciling his religious and professional lives. He believed he was doing important work in trying to balance society's interest in deterring criminal behavior while at the same time protecting the rights of people accused of crime.
Now as I thought back about my judge, almost twenty years later, fresh from my disquieting encounter with Mrs. Lewis, I admired more than ever, and envied, his ability to prevent difficult and, at times, harsh decisions from disturbing other parts of his life. Although I firmly believed that society required criminal laws to protect itself, I could not put aside my belief that the acts of a criminal, horrendous as they often were, were usually caused by factors or events beyond the control of the "criminal." And the thought of an inhumane penal system raised in my mind, and more so in my heart, the gravest doubts about the whole system of justice. Lastly, if it had been religious belief that gave my judge the strength to do the harsh things his job required, I, unfortunately, didn't have such belief.
I tried to imagine what Judge Barrett would have said about Mrs. Lewis if she had been screaming at him. He might have discussed her "in the context of the larger issues involved and the obligations of vigorous advocacy in our adversary system." Even if he had said something like that, I think he would have been personally distressed, but because of his inner convictions, he would probably have been a good deal less distressed than I was.
It was because of this dispassionate perception of the adversary system as an inherently worthwhile, if at times flawed, institution that my judge, toward the end of my clerkship, encouraged me to become a prosecutor. I had observed many criminal trials in his courtroom, but actually preparing and presenting the government's case—working through its strengths and weaknesses firsthand—was the best way to master the criminal process. Familiarity with court procedure and the rules of evidence was a far cry from performing in court: a good trial lawyer has to act almost by reflex at times. When an adversary is asking something improper or when a witness is starting to say something he should not be allowed to say, a lawyer may have only a fraction of a second to make his objection before the jury hears the damaging testimony. The rules and the procedure have to become so much a part of the lawyer that he has to be on his feet objecting, cutting the speaker off, sometimes even before formulating the precise basis for the objection.
I knew I wanted to be a defense lawyer, but I also knew that the best way to become a good one was to spend a few years prosecuting first. Some of my friends who shared my feelings about the prison system and the ultimate responsibility for the causes of crime said I was on the verge of joining the enemy and violating some larger commitment to helping the poor and downtrodden. But part of me shared, or wanted to share, my judge's conviction that justice was served by a lawyer's skills, ethically employed, regardless of which side he represented. The argument that a prosecutor could prevent unjust indictments and ensure that plea bargains or trials were fairly conducted was a compelling one. I finally decided to take the job, largely because I knew it would be for only a short time, a few years at most before I could move on to the defense work I had always intended to do. My judge proudly administered my oath of office as I held a Bible in his familiar chambers.
So I began trying one case after another, and I learned my trade and loved what I learned. As far as the defendants I prosecuted were concerned, they were all guilty, I was sure, except perhaps one.
The victim, a middle-aged woman, had been viciously and gratuitously sprayed in the face with Mace. She testified that on a particular day a man she had never seen before had come into her employment agency. "I'll never forget that face," she said, pointing at the defendant, her voice breaking into sobs. "After I gave him the money, after I had done what he said, after it was over, he sprayed me with Mace. He didn't have to do that. He could have blinded me. It burnt terribly."
The public defender maintained that the defendant had filled out employment forms earlier that day in the victim's office, and she must have confused the defendant with some other man who had robbed her. The lawyer produced specimens of the defendant's handwriting made before the crime. During the summation he asked the jury to see the similarity between the defendant's handwriting on the specimens and the handwriting on the employment agency forms. Although the handwriting appeared to be very similar, the public defender did not produce an expert to assert with authority that it was by the same author. The state would have paid the expenses for the public defender to use such an expert. There were only two ways I could interpret the absence of a handwriting expert: either the defense counsel had been negligent or he knew an expert's testimony would have confirmed the guilt of his client.
During my summation the best explanation I was able to give was that the defendant had a very simple signature, and that some other man obviously working with the defendant had filled out the forms. "That other man must have made his handwriting look like the defendant's so that if the defendant ever got caught, he could come into court and try to confuse a jury like you with some hocus-pocus." I was troubled by this approach but could think of no other ... except that the victim was mistaken.
In my summation I didn't dwell on the handwriting, but focused on the viciousness of a crime that had nearly blinded the victim. I stood before each juror, one at a time, as I walked down the jury box, placing my fist inches away from each one's face, shrieking, "Imagine the burning spray of Mace!"
To my surprise, the jury convicted. I was elated—at first.
But after the initial excitement of winning, I looked at what I had done. I had been so caught up in the contest, the adversarial battle of the trial, that it hadn't occurred to me that I might have been responsible for the conviction of an innocent man. I believed, even if the jury hadn't, that there were other explanations for the similarity in handwriting than the one I had argued to them. On reflection, after the verdict, it seemed to me that the defendant might have been telling the truth.
I took the specimens the defendant had written before the crime, along with the forms he claimed to have written in front of the victim, and sent them all to the crime lab of the state police for expert analysis. Several weeks later I received a report stating that the specimens and the forms had been written by the same person.
With my hands sweating as they clutched the papers, I ran down the courthouse corridor to the judge who had presided over the trial. I had expected him to be as upset as I was. The judge said I had had no business meddling with the conviction; our adversary system had separate roles: a prosecutor should prosecute and a defense lawyer should defend, and if I had had doubts about the handwriting, they should have been resolved before the conviction. I frantically argued that the defense counsel had sprung the handwriting issue at the trial, and since he hadn't gotten an expert, it hadn't occurred to me to get one. Finally the judge agreed to reopen the case, but on the condition that the defendant first pass a lie detector test.
I informed the public defender of what I had done and what the judge had decided. The public defender agreed to arrange the test. I was relieved by the thought that I had done all I could to undo a possible miscarriage of justice for which I had, in part, been responsible. It was now up to the defendant and his lawyer to act.
Six months passed during which I assumed the case had been attended to by the public defender. Then, inadvertently, I learned that the case was going to be heard by an appellate court. I knew that an appeal couldn't have gotten that far unless the effort for a new trial had failed, or unless no effort had been made. I contacted the defendant's lawyer. He told me he had left his office for private practice without doing anything further on the case. "I'm sorry, but things were so hectic when I was leaving, I simply forgot about this case."
I immediately contacted the new lawyer who had been assigned to the defendant. I urged him to move for a new trial, setting aside the conviction of the last one, and said that I would not oppose such an effort. I supplied an affidavit setting out what I had done.
Excerpted from Confessions of a Criminal Lawyer by Seymour Wishman. Copyright © 1981 Seymour Wishman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I Accused: "That's the Lawyer!",
II Clients: Birdchina and a Battered Baby,
III Negotiating a Plea: Bargaining With the Devil,
IV Jury Selection: Being Known by Your Works,
V A Lawyer's Office: Home Base,
VI Sentencing: Reaping What Is Sown,
VII Effective Counsel: Fighting for Jesus,
VIII Before the Trial: Examining the Facts,
IX The Pressure of a Trial: Taking Up the Burden,
X War Stories: A Cast of Characters,
XI The Heat of the Trial: Struggling for Control,
XII Seeking Truth: A Lawyer's Conflicts,
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