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How My Client Got Probation for Murder

I learned a stunning life lesson as a new attorney

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

Law school doesn’t teach you doodly-squat about how to be an attorney. I opened my solo practice right after passing the bar and learned on the job. One of the first things I did was get on the roster to take appointed criminal cases, and one of my first clients there was Raymond, who was accused of murder.

My contract for representing criminal defendants paid $20 an hour for out-of-court work and $40 an hour for in-court work.

Raymond was accused of shooting into a crowd from his car. One person died. When I met with him, he wept as he told me how horrified he was to be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He told me how active he was in his church and he worked at a grocery store. He assured me he mostly kept to himself and didn’t date. He was thirty years old.

When I got the “discovery” (all the evidence the DA had on the case), there wasn’t much implicating Raymond. He, at some point, had a big fight with the person who died, and several witnesses said it was probably him again. Raymond had a vehicle similar to the one the shooter used, a black four-door, like thousands of similar cars on the road. No weapon had been found when they searched Raymond’s home and vehicle. There was no forensic evidence, like gunpowder on the car, that might have given weight to his prosecution.

There was way more reasonable doubt than evidence.

When we went to the arraignment, Raymond had me advise the court that we were 100% going to trial. I was six months out of law and about to do a murder trial.

The judge, Randy Thomas, was a truly good man, someone I learned was caring, fair, and creative in pursuing justice.

As we got closer to the trial date, the judge set a status conference. Judge Thomas asked the assistant district attorney and me to enter his chambers. Apparently, the DA had already had a lengthy discussion with the judge (which is totally not allowed but happened all the time back then).

Even though I was fresh into my career, I was known as someone who was compassionate and sought to do the right thing. The judge and the DA said they needed to run something by me. First, the DA told me straight up that although they were certain my guy was guilty, they absolutely could not prove it in a trial. He told me the family of the victim knew this and just wanted closure of any kind.

Then, Judge Thomas told me he was going to offer probation to my client if he confessed. I told them that Raymond had been really compelling about his innocence but that I’d let him tell the judge that himself.

I went to the courtroom, told Raymond the judge wanted to talk to him, and brought him back into the judge’s chambers. The only thing I told Raymond was that he had the right not to answer any specific questions about the facts of the case.

Judge Thomas had an amazing, kind, fatherly demeanor. His tone conveyed honesty and compassion. He told Raymond that the case against him was weak but that no one knew what would happen at trial (that was mostly true, especially since it would have been my first jury trial).

He then told Raymond about how the death had hurt the community and how upset the victim’s family and girlfriend were. Raymond’s eyes began to water. Judge Thomas said, “Raymond, I don’t want any lies. I only want the truth so we can help heal that family. If and only if you did this, and you tell me what happened, I promise I will give you probation.”

For a fleeting moment, I thought Raymond would say he didn’t do it. I still believed what he had told me in our first meeting. Instead, Raymond started ugly crying…then wailing and saying, “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!”

By this point, both the judge and I had tears running down our cheeks. Raymond’s sorrow tore us up. He then told the truth, that he was angry at the victim for mocking him and that he did, in fact, shoot into the crowd. Raymond said he didn’t mean to kill anybody, just scare him, but the victim ran in the direction that he was shooting, and a bullet hit him.

We signed the paperwork, which entered the guilty plea, then went back into the courtroom to put the plea on the record. The DA requested that officers accompany Raymond to the place where the murder weapon was hidden so Raymond could surrender it.

Two weeks later, Raymond and I returned to the courtroom for sentencing. The victim’s whole family and friends were there. The judge also had extra security present.

We went on the record, and Judge Thomas, deviating from protocol, immediately asked Raymond if he wanted to speak to the victim’s family. This wasn’t planned. Judge Thomas just had an innate knowing that healing was about to happen. Raymond turned and addressed the family. As he wept, he told them what happened. He made no excuses and did what seemed like a little sermon on the depth of his sorrow. The whole place was in tears. Clearly, Raymond had done the most horrible thing one can do, but to the extent possible, he was compelling.

Judge Thomas gave Raymond a five-year term of probation as promised, although if there were a violation, there would be a ten-year prison sentence. Raymond had to pay for all the funeral expenses. He was also asked to attend the Judge’s weekly Bible study, which I knew was usually just for lawyers.

As we were leaving, the victim’s mother hugged Raymond.

Raymond did attend the Bible study and later went into the ministry. He successfully completed his probation.

This case was a seminal event in my legal career. Of course, the main thing I learned was that I couldn’t ever assume a client was telling me the truth. That lesson came in handy often. I also learned that in my role as a criminal defense attorney, I could protect my client’s rights as well as help to bring healing to all involved.

A couple of years later, I had another judge chew me out in court because I had gotten an appointed client into rehab, helped him find a job, and found him a mentor who came to court and promised that he would “father” my client and demand accountability. The judge screamed at me, “Your job is to protect their rights, not be their pastor!”

I didn’t change. I saw my work as having the opportunity to speak into the lives of people who were in need of the most important wake-up call of their lives. I tried to make a difference.

I am a trans woman, author, activist, and a former attorney and pastor. I’ve had an amazing life and look forward to telling you many more poignant and amazing stories. Please follow me and consider buying me a beverage by clicking here. Thank you.

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