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Jailhouse Lawyer - Criminal Attorney Stories
Stories of a Jailhouse Criminal Attorney
From about 1994 to 2003, I went through a period in my life where I suffered from mental illness and was homeless. I prefer to spare you the details of my insanity, but during that episode of my life I spent some time incarcerated.
Most people would just consider the portion of their life they spent locked up as wasted years, but I learned a lot of interesting things and witnessed some very interesting stories. You can learn a lot about people by watching them endure high levels of adversity. Regardless, of whether or not a person deserves his fate, he will still suffer. Suffering brings out the worst and best of people. Many will become more hateful and selfish while locked up, while others will try and help those around them.
Thou Shalt Not Insult The Judge
My first encounter with a jailhouse lawyer was quite humorous. I was in a holding cell with about a dozen other inmates. One inmate had plead guilty earlier to a couple of burglary charges after losing an important pretrial hearing. He very unhappy with the judge assigned to his case. He was telling the other inmates about his plan to insult the judge. He told us that once a judge pronounced sentence and it was written down, then that judge could not go back and make it longer. Our jailhouse lawyer planned to wait till that point and then speak his displeasure about the judge and judicial system. I heard him, thought it was a dumb idea (how about contempt of court?), but figured he would chicken out (or wise up) when the moment of decision came.
The time came and we were
ushered into the courtroom. Most of us were just entering pleas of
guilty or not guilty. Our tough guy's case was last. The prosecutor gave
an argument for a long sentence and the guy's lawyers argued for a
lenient sentence. The judge seemed to be in a good mood and he pronounced a very lenient sentence of 2 years for each of the 3 burglaries to be ran concurrently. "Concurrently" meant that all sentences would run at the same time, so effectively our tough guy was doing 2 years (no parole in this state) for several burglaries. With such a lenient sentence, I was sure that was the end of that. I saw the court clerk fill out the sentence order.
At this point I heard the judge say to the court clerk "next!", to which she replied "we are done". I saw the judge smile and it was then that I heard our tough guy break out in a tirade against our happy judge. The judge just sat there and said nothing. Our tough guy finished rather quickly, probably proud of himself for defying such a powerful figure in front of all the other inmates. Everyone in the court room watched to see what the judge would do. The judge blinked a few times then turned to the court clerk, who had written out the sentence a minute earlier. His statement was short and quick - "Did I say concurrent? I just realized I said concurrent. I meant to say consecutive. Those last prison terms were meant to be served consecutively." He then immediately dismissed the court room.
We were all ushered back to the holding cell with nobody saying a word. Finally, someone asked our tough guy if it was worth 4 years to insult the judge. His defiance towards the judge only resulted in snickering and laughing. It was a couple of days before our tough guy was shipped off to prison. He was full of all sorts of legal advice prior to his sentencing, now not a word. Moral of the story: Never try to get one up on the judge, even if you think there is nothing he can do to you anymore. Of course, you already knew that.
Dereliction of Duty
Jailhouse lawyers get many clients with many interesting stories. One inmate began telling his story. He was a professional burglar and had entered a home looking for valuables. While doing his burglary, the owner suddenly arrived, trapping our burglar. For several hours, he waited for an opportunity to escape. Finally, the owner went to bed and fell asleep with a light snore. Our burglar began to leave, but noticed the owner's wallet on the dresser in his room. Greed took over his actions and he crept into the room and quietly grabbed the wallet. The owner stirred, so he quickly moved under a table and waited for the owner to fall asleep again before leaving.
Our burglar's next moment of awareness was a total surprise. He was awakened to a roomful of police. Apparently, he not only fell asleep, but he had a loud snore. The owner had investigated the strange noise, discovered our burglar, and quietly called the police. Overhearing this story, all we could do was laugh.
Criminal or not, everyone knows, you should never sleep on the job.
Winning the Lottery
If you are ever arrested, your case is probably hopeless. If there is a ton of evidence, you may not even get a decent plea offer. But every inmate looks for a loophole to get out of jail and occasionally one gets lucky.
This guy had been arrested for shooting someone. He claimed his weapon went off by accident, but he kept changing his story. Worse yet, his paperwork showed that there were several reliable witnesses. Luckily for him, our pod had an excellent jailhouse lawyer. Most jailhouse lawyers give a lot of false hope combined with bad legal advice. This jailhouse lawyer would study an inmate's discovery, ask a few questions, and would tell it like it was.
Our soon to be felon was adamant about going to trial, but our jailhouse attorney told him that he would not only lose, but probably get a 10 year sentence (no parole in this state) in the process. The plea offer was 5 years with no possible parole. Finally, to convince him or at least prepare him, he set up a mock trial. He selected a couple of guys (including me) as jurors, had one guy play the part of the victim and the witnesses (just reading their stuff off the police report, no cross examination). He then acted as the prosecutor, doing a fair and very light cross examination of our felon. It was a disaster and it was obvious that he was guilty. As the days went on our jailhouse lawyer tried to help our soon to be felon to get his story straight, but it just got worse and worse. Finally, he accepted the fact that his case was hopeless. A plea bargain was in his future.
It was at this point that our jailhouse attorney made an interesting discovery. Our future felon had been arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge. Because both cases were active, at first he thought it was a different case. Asking some questions revealed the simple truth. There were two prosecutors, two public defenders, and two different case files. And both were for the same charge. The district attorney's office had forgot to drop the first charge, after a grand jury indictment came in on the more serious (and correct) felony. The left hand was not talking to the right hand.
The next court appearance was for the minor charge. Our jailhouse lawyer explained his strategy to our future felon. He went to his next court appearance and demanded to his attorney to be able to immediately enter a plea of guilty to the charge. He came back with a misdemeanor conviction and a 180 day sentence.
Then came the questionable part. His next appearance was for the major felony with a plea offer of 5 years in prison by the prosecutor. He complained to his attorney about double jeopardy and mentioned his previous guilty plea on the misdemeanor charge. His attorney's motion to dismiss the case on grounds of double jeopardy resulted in a flurry of activity, a bunch of legal arguments by his public defender, and a very upset prosecutor. He said he was in the court room for over an hour while people were checking on the facts. Finally, after all the facts were double and triple checked, the judge dismissed the felony.
It is said that there is no honor amongst thieves, and it was also true of our would have been felon. You would think such a close call with a long loss of freedom would have changed his behavior for the better, at least in the short run. I very much doubt it did. He had promised to put a $100 on our jailhouse lawyer's canteen account. It never showed up. Not even a penny.
Useful Jailhouse Lawyers
If you are ever arrested, you will probably end up with a public defender unless you are fairly rich. A defense attorney in this state cost a minimum of $25,000 cash, paid up front. And that is a bottom of the barrel attorney. A good attorney cost you around a million dollars. The best true life defense attorney case I have ever read is in "And the Sea Will Tell" by Vincent Bugliosi. This writer was the defending attorney in the case. He was also the writer and prosecutor in "Helter Skelter". I have an Amazon link to some of his books here.
The most useful petition that a jailhouse attorney files for other inmates is the "petition to dismiss attorney" or "petition to change attorney". Most public defenders just look for a plea bargain and don't really care about the case. They do not want to go trial. Trial is hard work and takes a lot of preparation to do properly. If you feel you are innocent, don't accept lousy representation. Get another attorney.
If you ever do file a "petition to change attorney" be sure to give as many of the following reasons as possible:
- "Failure to communicate" and "no meeting of the minds"
- Failure to interview witnesses
- Failure to investigate disputable facts
- Failure to perform disposition of witnesses
- Failure to file important petitions
I hope you will never need to know or use this information. But it is good to be aware of it, just in case.