Articles Posted in Criminal cases

To the person who stumbled across this: I am a semi-regular blogger whose office is in Atlanta, and I discuss federal criminal cases, and the profession of being a lawyer who represents people and/or companies who are charged with crimes.  Yesterday I was meeting with a client who will be pleading guilty in the near future.  Here are some common aspects of that process.  This all happens AFTER me and my client have gone at length through our options (trial versus plea) and after we have done all of our negotiating with the prosecutor.

First, there is the plea agreement.  It is absolutely necessary that the attorney and client review this, together, and in detail.  Even the most sophisticated clients are often surprised about the verbiage that prosecutors insist on being placed into a plea agreement document.  And, even the most experienced lawyer sometimes fails to remember all of the boilerplate that is in a “standard” plea agreement, so it is always worthwhile to go over the document with the client line by line. Continue reading

Attorneys who, like me, spend most of their time representing people accused of federal crimes know far too well what the academic researchers and writers call the “Trial Penalty.”  This is the well-documented aspect of the federal criminal justice system in which any person with the nerve to stand up to the federal government in a criminal case receives an inordinately huge punishment, or penalty, simply because that person decided to use the Sixth Amendment’s promise of a jury trial.  Here is a recent group of articles in a highly respected journal discussing various aspects of the “Trial Penalty”.

The research is clear.  Trials are down, way down.  Punishments are going up.  But, punishments for the rare few who dare to challenge “the feds” in court are really going up, higher and higher. Continue reading

I left my Atlanta criminal defense law office this morning and drove to the federal building where I met my client for what is called a “proffer” session.  Basically, this is the first step in the process by which my client will agree to cooperate with investigators and prosecutors, with the hope that his assistance will lead to no charges or charges with a potentially reduced sentence.  A proffer is when the client goes to the prosecutor’s office and answers questions from the prosecutor and investigating agents.  My client and I already made this decision for him to cooperate after a lot of discussion.  However, while today was just the first step in going down the cooperation road, it made me think more about the decisions the attorney and the client need to make when deciding whether to fight the charges or give in and make the best of a bad situation.

Many people consult a criminal defense attorney after they learn they are under investigation for some possible crime.  A few people come to see me because they know they did something that could lead to an investigation, even if the investigators have not yet contacted the person. In these early stages, the key for the criminal defense lawyer is to fully understand what happened.  When, early on, the lawyer has a very good grip on the facts, potential crimes,  and possible defenses, the attorney is often in a position to do a lot of good for the client.  At this early phase,  investigators and prosecutors are sometimes just looking into whether they should, or should not, bring charges against a person or company.  If the defense lawyer feels he or she can talk the prosecutor out of charges against the client, it is often easier to do so early rather than later.  But, this strategy is not always the best course of action, especially if the attorney feels that there is a chance that the client could be convicted if the prosecutor does decide to bring a charge.  Going in to see the prosecutor too early can be a signal of weakness.  Some situations call for a “wait and see” tactic.  No two cases are alike, and the experienced criminal defense lawyer needs to consider what happened and whether this particular prosecutor seems to have the appetite for this particular type of case. Continue reading

I am a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta, and readers know I also handle state cases throughout Georgia and in federal criminal cases all over the country.  One of today’s tasks is to work on Jury Instructions for an upcoming case in another part of Georgia.  My client, a businesswoman, is accused of some serious crimes that arose out of an event that ended very badly.  She says she did not engage in the crimes she is accused of, and because the District Attorney is not being reasonable, we pretty much have no other choice than to go to trial and put her case in front of a jury.

Many clients are not always aware of the various tasks and prep work that are required when a criminal defense lawyer is preparing for a trial.  Obviously, the lawyer needs to do his or her homework on the facts, find out what the witnesses will say, and develop methods for attacking the witnesses for the prosecution.  The lawyer sometimes also needs to prepare his or her own witnesses.  One of the biggest tasks is counseling the accused person on whether he or she should, or should not, testify in their own defense.  The final decision on whether the Defendant should testify is completely up to the client, the lawyer can merely provide advice.  However, this often is the biggest single decision in a case, and good defense counsel always put a lot of work and thought into providing this advice to their clients.

Today, I am also working on a less well-known aspect of trial preparation: proposed jury instructions.   Some of you may know that when the evidence is finished in a criminal case, the Judge has to tell the jury his or her “instructions” or what is sometimes called the “jury charge.”  These are basically the rules that the jury has to follow when deciding if the prosecutor has met the burden of proving that the Defendant is guilty of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Internet is agog over the allegations in an indictment issued in Boston that parents and others were part of a far-flung ring to game the college admissions system so that wealthy families could get their kids into elite universities. From my office down here in gorgeous Atlanta (where Spring is just beginning) I urge everybody to calm down, take a deep breath, and let the system work before we start stringing the parents up by their thumbs.

For starters, in this and every other criminal defense case I have handled for the past 36 years, THE DEFENDANT IS PRESUMED TO BE INNOCENT!!!!!!!!!!!!! Please people, remember how it would feel if someone made accusations against you or your family.  There are merely allegations by prosecutors who have not had to have their theories tested by experienced criminal defense lawyers.  I cannot tell you how many times in my career a prosecutor or investigator told me or a Judge early on that the government had a “strong case” and had to eat those words later when the Judge and/or jury agreed with our defense and found the Defendant “Not Guilty.”

Second, the press, once again, is miserably failing in its obligation to realize that this is merely one side of the story.  One can look far and wide to try and find a story where some journalist casts a critical eye on all of the prosecution’s claims, which it bears repeating, have not been tested in court.

Oh weary reader, whether here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia or anywhere else in these United States.  You know how I go on about various aspects of federal crimes, criminal defense, criminal appeals and post-conviction matters, and the job of being a criminal defense lawyer.  Today I want to talk about what happens when a person is thinking about changing the criminal defense lawyer who is currently representing them.

I fortunately get many calls from people about their criminal cases.  Some want a little free advice, some are looking to hire an attorney for the first time, and some are dissatisfied with the way their current attorney is handling the matter.  Here and here are posts I have published on questions that clients might want to ask when first deciding on whether they should hire a particular criminal defense lawyer.   Continue reading

I am taking a break from going through discovery materials in one of my current federal criminal cases that happens to be here in Atlanta.  I posted the other day about how the actual practice of federal criminal law is far different than the constitutional “rules” created in some cases from the United States Supreme Court.   Here’s a little more on the differences between theory and practice.

First, let’s talk about the timing of when we get the materials that the prosecution is supposed to turn over to defense counsel.  For example, here in the Northern District of Georgia, we have a Local Rule that says discovery “shall” be turned over at the arraignment.  Don’t take my word for it, read Local Criminal Rule 16.1, it flatly says the prosecutors are supposed to make all this stuff available to the defense on Day One of the case.  This is a Rule that makes a lot of sense.  Prosecutors get to decide when they bring a case, and since they are presumed to be ready on Day One, it makes a lot of sense to require that they produce everything to the defense on that date.  Ah, but the reality is far different.  In my current case, they took five weeks to produce materials.  In another case it took 3.5 months to get me the evidence that I knew they had all along.  They rarely give any excuses, they just give it to me late, and ignore my repeated complaints.

Second, we should also talk a bit about the type of materials that are turned over.  I sound like a very old lawyer when I remind people about how discovery in most federal criminal cases consisted of a small folder with 100-200 pages of material when I began practicing law.  Everything is far different in the digital age.  Most of the time, we now need to provide at least a hard drive to hold all the materials that a prosecutor turns over as the discovery in a federal criminal case.  You would think that larger volume of material would help the defense, more is better, right?  Ah, but as I have mentioned before, the government likes to hide the meaningful stuff among the forest of irrelevant data.  More information actually results in more work for the already harried criminal defense lawyer handling a federal case.

I am currently plowing through the “discovery” in a federal criminal case brought against my client here in Georgia.  Discovery is the word we use to describe the evidence or exhibits that prosecutors are obligated to hand over to the defense lawyer at the beginning of a criminal case.  Going through all these materials in my current federal case reminds me of what I’ve learned over the years, and how the discovery “rules” are often far different than what really happens in criminal cases.

One of the biggest “rules” is based on a Supreme Court decision from 1963, the famous case of Brady v. Maryland,  373 U.S. 83(1963).  This rule applies to both federal criminal cases and those in the state court systems. The prosecutors conveniently “forgot” to hand over to defense counsel a statement made by Brady’s  co-defendant that Brady did not kill the victim, the other guy did it.  The Supreme Court said that suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused who has asked for it violates due process if the evidence is “material” to guilt or to punishment, and it does not matter whether the prosecutor acted in good faith or bad faith.  Seems kind of simple, right, if the AUSA or DA has something which shows the the Defendant did not do the crime or should not be punished so severely, the “due process clause” from our wonderful Fifth Amendment  demands that the prosecutor give it up.

Now, here’s the reality, and I’ve always thought it is similar to the old expression about letting the fox guard the henhouse.  Lawyers, by our very natures, are competitive people.  We want to win.  Human nature tells us that if a prosecutor has evidence that undercuts his or her case, that DA or AUSA is less likely to want to turn it over than a more independent person.  But, here’s the crazy part of the “rule” as it has been modified over the years.  The DA or AUSA is the person who decides to turn it over (see what I mean about the fox guarding, etc).  Defense counsel might never even know about the exculpatory stuff if the prosecutor (and his or her agents) successfully bury the materials in files that are never turned over.  Even “good” prosecutors can fail to appreciate how some evidence or information is exculpatory, because they are looking at everything through a different lens than the criminal defense attorney.

I’ve made my living the past three decades plus representing people charged in federal criminal cases, mostly here in Atlanta.  The news the past couple of days has been dominated by three other federal criminal matters, the case in Virginia against Paul Manafort (as I’ve mentioned previously, this man is in an unfortunate situation but has a great first name), the guilty plea yesterday by attorney Michael Cohen, and the sentencing hearing a few hours ago where the Judge imposed 63 months on the unfortunately named Reality Winner for releasing secret information to a news organization.

The internet has gone wild over the jury trial and partial verdict involving Mr. Manafort, and anyone who has wasted time reading this blog knows about federal sentencing hearings and trials, and likely understands that Manafort’s sentence can be calculated as if he was found guilty of all the charges.  That’s right troops, the hung jury on 10 of the crimes makes no difference because under the foolish experiment called the Sentencing Guidelines the Judge can sentence Paul based on conduct that he was even found not guilty of committing!  I remember a case I handled around 20 years ago where I won most of the charges but the prosecutor, referring to the rule authorizing use of acquitted conduct, asked for a much longer sentence.  The judge agreed with me, pointing out that Mr. Kish “cheated them fair and square at trial.” That Judge always made me laugh, at least until he ruled against me or gave my client a lengthy sentence.  Continue reading

Like me here in Atlanta, criminal defense lawyers around the country are probably reading about the federal criminal trial involving Paul Manafort (guy with a great first name), the former Campaign Chairman in the last Presidential election.  And like me, lawyers and laypersons alike are wondering about the impact of the evidence and witnesses on the jury.  This made me reflect on what I have learned after trying around 100 criminal jury trials in both federal and state courts during my career.

To begin with, there is a huge difference depending on whether the criminal case is in state court or in the federal arena.  State cases are generally creatures of the county in which the crime happened.  For the most part (unless a statewide agency such as the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, or “MFCU”, is involved) the case is brought by the county’s District Attorney.  As a general rule, trials have to be in the county where the crime happened.  The jurors only come from that single county, whether it is a huge place like Fulton or Dekalb, or a small rural county far from a large city.  This means that in the smaller counties the jurors often know of or have heard something about either the crime, the Defendant, or some of the attorneys. Federal criminal cases, on the other hand, are handled by “Districts.”  Georgia has three separate federal judicial Districts, Northern, Middle and Southern.  Atlanta is in the Northern District, and there are then four “Divisions”: Gainesville, Rome, Atlanta and Newnan.  Jurors come from the counties in each Division, but that can mean jurors in DeKalb will sit with jurors from Rockdale all on an Atlanta Division case in the Northern District.  The bottom line is that federal jurors came from a wider array of locations and backgrounds.

Another distinction is the method used for selecting jurors.  We lawyers call this “voir dire“, which are supposedly old English words but others claim the expression comes from Latin. Essentially, voir dire is a process by which both sides get to question prospective jurors to see if one side wants to exclude that person from sitting on the jury.  Depending on the jurisdiction, each side gets a certain number of “strikes”, meaning that they can knock that number of people out of consideration for being on the jury.  The questioning involved in voir dire in a state criminal trial is much different than what happens in federal court.  State judges tend to let the lawyers have free reign, asking a wide variety of questions of each individual juror who is up for consideration.  Federal court is much more restricted, and sometimes the Judges won’t let the lawyer ask any questions at all, the Judge will handle all the juror questioning.  As a result, federal jury selection often happens in a matter of hours, while the state counterpart often takes days.