Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Take this job and...

work it.
Late this afternoon I received a call regarding the interview that I mentioned here. It turns out that the firm had been swamped with trials and it had just taken them longer than they anticipated to review all of the candidates and make their final decision. They made me an offer and want me to start immediately at the beginning of next week. The job will involve a lot of trial work and I'll be spending most of my time in the courtroom, which is where I tend to find the most challenge and personal fulfillment.

I have to hurry up and finish getting everything ready before I fly out to Chicago tomorrow to attend the 9th Annual Improv Festival. I'm scheduled to return to Philadelphia late on Sunday night, and then bright and early Monday morning I'll be throwing on a suit and tie and heading downtown to get right to work.

Oh, and to commemorate this special occasion I would like to take a moment to convey a heartfelt message to one individual in particular as a follow-up to this post:

Kiss off, Donald...

I'm hired.

Monday, April 17, 2006

breaking through...

On Saturday I watched the display on my clock roll over to "8:00" and waited for the shrill alarm that would pierce the morning silence. I took a breath and slowly rolled out of bed, shuffling across the room to hit the snooze button for the third time. I had set my alarm with the intention going to a spinning class at my gym that was scheduled at 8:30, in an effort to kick-start my exercise routine. My workouts had become sporadic lately, and had dropped off completely in the past week. I climbed back into bed and wrapped myself in the warmth of my comforter again. I began to come up with excuses and rationalizations for skipping class that morning and doing something on Sunday instead. But just before inertia completely set in, I kicked off the covers and swung my legs onto the floor. I quickly changed into my workout clothes and got to the gym just as class was about to begin.

Last week had started off with promise. I had an interview on Monday for a job that I really wanted. The firm had everything I required and I seemed to have the exact experience they were looking for to fill the position. I met with several people in the firm and felt that things went really well with all of them. I knew that I was the first of three people that they were interviewing, and I had been told that I would hear something by the end of the week. My former supervisor had called me on Tuesday to say that she had been contacted as a reference and that she had given me a glowing recommendation. I had always tried to keep my expectations low following my previous interviews, but everything had seemed to be looking good so far with this one. When no word came by Friday afternoon, I began to prepare for the likelihood that an offer had already been made to someone else.

Up to that point, an odd feeling of limbo had hung over me all week. I had put several job leads on temporary hold--partly out of superstition but mainly because I didn't want to start the process rolling for something that would hopefully be moot in just a few days. I put my writing for this blog on hold as well, finding it hard to fully concentrate and put the interview out of my mind. I kind of pulled back on some chores around the house, getting a little distracted sometimes in the middle of a task. I don't recall making a concious decision to launch myself out of bed and turn off the snooze alarm before it went off for the fourth time that morning, but as I strapped my feet into the pedals while the spinning instructor lowered the lights in the room, I was glad that I did.

Either because of the early start time on a Saturday or because of the amazing spring weather outside, there were only 2 other people in class with me. The room was 20 by 30 feet, with floor to ceiling mirrors along the walls and flourescent purple lighting to set the mood. Our instructor was a fitness dynamo--imagine Louis Gossett Jr. from "An Officer and a Gentleman" as a 5'2" blonde with a ponytail wearing spandex and you get the general idea. I needed a little push to help kick my butt back into gear, and before we finished our 5-minute warmup I was already reaching for the water bottle.

The class consisted of 45-minutes of non-stop pedaling that simulated sprinting, jumping, and climbing on road bikes with music blasting throughout the room to help set the tempo. The main component of a spinning workout comes from the resistance set by a dial located beneath the handlebars. The instructor would shout out a number from 1 to 10 as the target resistance during a song, but it was up to each rider to increase the tension up to their own personal limit to represent a particular number. So a Level 5 might be a quarter-turn to the right for a beginner, or a complete revolution around the dial for an experienced rider.

As we went from the warm-up into the first series of sprints, my mind was still focused on the job I had applied for and the things that I had been putting off all week. I was just going through the motions but not really pushing myself during the first part of the class. As the instructor took us through a section of jumps that involved sitting, crouching, and standing up out of the seat, I felt my heart rate begin to go up and noticed that I was breaking into a small sweat. I tried to push aside all of the distractions in my mind by just focusing on my breathing and my form.

Thirty minutes into the class we began to make a long climb up a steep hill. The instructor started us at a Level 6, and over the course of several songs had us turn our dial further and further to the right to simulate the ever increasing grade. She had us stand up out of our saddles and hover over the handle bars as we pedaled. When each song ended, she let us sit back down for a few seconds to grab a quick drink of water, and then it was back up out of the seat as soon as the music started again.

As our climb continued and we passed by Level 8, I felt the need to push myself further. "Burning Down the House" by The Talking Heads came over the speakers, and I began to fall into a rhythm with the heavy drum beat. The instructor called out for Level 9, and I reached down between my legs and cranked the dial hard over to the right. The muscles in my thighs began to burn almost immediately from the increased resistance, while my breathing became much quicker. My feet continued to crank the pedals around and around as the song played on, and I had to fight the urge to ease back on the dial. I focused on pumping my knees up and down towards the front of the bike and rocking my hips forward and back with each revolution. I wrapped my fingers tightly around the far end of the handlebars and pulled my body up with my arms to try to take some of the strain off of my aching legs. My forearms began to tremble and I felt the sweat pouring from my face down my neck and back. My mouth and throat were completely dry and my breath was exploding from my chest in short, rapid bursts.

And then I felt a sudden change wash over me. The urge to quit faded away, and I felt the onset of a sense of calm. I allowed the drumbeat to carry me forward, and I pictured myself from above and slightly behind the bike, imagining that I was on a road coasting down a long hill, while actually I was still climbing towards the summit there in the workout room. I was able to gain focus as my breathing became controlled again, and all of the concerns and worries of the week were now far from my thoughts. I felt a renewed sense of strength and energy.

The end of the song signaled our goal of reaching the top of the hill, and I was snapped out of my little moment of reverie when "Kharma Chameleon" by the Culture Club came on to begin the final 5-minute warm down period of class. We finished up with some stretches and then I was outside walking to my car, feeling both fatigued and refreshed with the warm April sun on my face. I got home and ran straight through all the chores on my to-do list, and then spent the rest of the afternoon outdoors with Brendan enjoying a perfect spring day. Later that night I sat down at the computer and laid out the beginning draft of this post.

As I was finishing up my stretches in the spinning room back at the gym, I had noticed a flyer on the wall for the upcoming 2006 Philadelphia Broad Street Run. It's a 10-mile race that begins up by Central High School and finishes at the Navy Yard in South Philly, running in a straight line down Broad Street for the entire course. I had completed the race back in 2000, but had been thinking about running it again to see if I could improve on my results. It was scheduled early this year on May 7, so I would have to quickly step up my training to get in shape for it. But after my little spin on the bike that morning, I was in the mood to start setting another challenge for myself again. So later that night I logged onto to the official website for the race and paid my registration fee.

Three weeks should still be plenty of time to build up my conditioning, and I decided that I will really push this year to finish way under my old time. I also decided that no matter what the outcome of this latest interview, I would continue to search for the right job that provided personal fulfillment and challenge. As I settled into my bed later that night, it felt good to be moving forward once more, with new goals to reach waiting ahead in the morning.

Friday, April 07, 2006

--spoil the rod.

The Public Defender tried to call Dante’s credibility into question during cross examination by searching for any inconsistencies in his initial reports of the assault. But the scope of cross is very limited at the preliminary hearing stage, and it is not the time or place to mount a full-blown defense. The P.D. and I entered into a sort of verbal thrust-and-parry, with him probing for damaging details and me trying to deflect each question with an objection. Whether or not Dante would have to give an answer depended on Judge Clark's particular ruling.

Dante, what did you tell the doctor about how this happened when you first got to the hospital?

Objection, Your Honor.


Did you ever tell the doctors that you didn't know who hit you?



Isn’t it true that you are mad at Jerry because your Mom was spending so much time with him and not with you?



And so on.

He was only doing his job as an advocate on behalf of his client, and certainly there were other judges on the bench who frequently allowed the preliminary hearings to become a free-for-all, but Judge Clark wasn’t one of them.

I had the emergency room records and the photographs taken by the assigned detective at the hospital marked as exhibits. The tipstaff handed the pictures of Dante’s bruised and bloody body up to Judge Clark. She had been hearing these types of cases for years, and always maintained an objective appearance while she was sitting on the bench, but I noticed her mouth harden by the slightest degree as she flipped through the photos.

I moved the medical records and photographs into evidence, and rested my case. The P.D. waived the chance to present any evidence on behalf of his client, which was done 99% of the time at this stage to prevent the defendant or any alibi witness from getting locked into their testimony several months before trial. Judge Clark ruled that all of the charges in the criminal complaint had been made out, and directed that the case be held over for trial. I took note of the defendant’s history of bench warrants in his criminal record, and the fact that he was currently being held on just $50,000 bail for this case. A person being held on bail only needed to post 10% of the total amount to be released, so if Jerry (or someone on his behalf) could scrape together $5000, he would wind up back on the street and be gone in a heartbeat.

I made a motion to increase the Defendant's bail based upon the severity of the charges, the likelihood of a substantial jail sentence, and the repeated failures to appear for court during his prior convictions. The Public Defender objected, and pointed out correctly that these charges were still allegations at this stage and that nothing had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But with the color photos still spread across the top of the bench before her, Judge Clark wasn’t hearing any of it.

“Bail is hereby raised to $500,000--effective forthwith.”

The Defendant's shoulders slumped down and Dante’s mother became all agitated in the front row. The sheriff snapped a pair of handcuffs around Jerry's wrists behind his back, and led him out of the courtroom down to the holding cells in the basement. Later that night a bus would be taking him back up to the main prison in Northeast Philly, where now he would sit tight until his case was eventually called to trial.

It was obvious that Dante needed someone looking after his rights full-time on his behalf, since his mother had a clear conflict of interest. As an Assistant District Attorney, I technically represented all of the people in the city—Dante was a victim of crime, but not my individual 'client' to advise or supervise. I made another motion and the Court appointed the Support Center for Child Advocates to step in and become Dante’s legal advocate. They had a lawyer assigned to B Court full-time for just such a situation, and she came over and introduced herself to Dante. I dropped down to one knee again and shook his hand, telling him that he was very brave and that he had done a great job. He gave a faint smile and walked out of the courtroom with his new attorney.

I gathered all of the photographs and medical records back into the file and placed it on top of the disposed pile on the far side of the table. There was a temporary lull within the courtroom as the clerks processed the paperwork from the hearing we had just concluded. Judge Clark sat back in her chair and glanced over in my direction from behind the bench.

"Counselor, is that a purple tie that you're wearing?"

I already had the chance to see her go through this routine with new attorneys on both sides of the aisle, and recognized it as an invitation to play right along.

Why, yes it is Your Honor.

"Are you aware that purple just happens to be my favorite color??"

I held the tie out from my body and looked down as if noticing it for the very first time.

I had no idea, Your Honor.

She flashed me a knowing smile and then returned to a formal tone as the crier called the next ready hearing up to the bar of the court. I appreciated the effort to lighten the mood, if only for a brief moment. A long list of the day's scheduled cases still remained to be heard. And upstairs alongside the desk in my office, a box filled with tomorrow's files already sat waiting on the floor.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

spare the child--(continued)

Dante was frozen in place. With the man accused of severely beating him standing just 15 feet off to the side, most people would feel intimidated in that position, let alone a slender 9-year old child whose wounds were still healing. Our office had already been granted one continuance by the court at a prior listing of the case. If this hearing did not go forward today, the charges against the Defendant would have to be dismissed and he would be released from custody. There was always the possibility of refiling the charges against him at some point if a new arrest warrant could be obtained, but with Jerry’s history of failing to appear for prior cases in the past, he would most likely vanish as soon as he hit the street. At that point, the case might not be brought to trial for years, if ever.

Unfortunately, Dante’s reaction was not an uncommon one. In the week prior to being assigned to B Court, I had the chance to tag along with some of the senior prosecutors to observe how they handled these situations. Naturally, each child is unique and no two cases have exactly the same facts, but the A.D.A. whose files I would be assuming had explained the general theory to me at one point: take the focus away from the perpetrator in the courtroom and the shocking nature of the overall assault, and break the witness’ testimony down into separate, less traumatic pieces. If you were lucky, you could establish a simple chain of facts one link at a time and still make out all of the charges against the defendant in the end.

First, I needed to change the dynamic of things in the courtroom. I shifted over to Dante’s far left side so that he would have to turn completely in my direction, thereby putting the Defendant's looming presence behind his back and totally outside of his field of vision. I placed the casefile on top of the table and knelt down on one knee so that my face would be at Dante's eye level. The courtroom was immense with 30 foot granite walls and there were no microphones, so normally you had to really project loudly for the judge and the court reporter to hear everything. I softened the tone of my voice and was grateful to see the stenographer and the judge lean in closer towards us in response.

The rules of court prevent a lawyer from asking his own witness a leading question, so I couldn't just cut to the chase and ask, So did the Defendant hit you with a belt and cause all of these injuries??? Dante had become mute at the thought of identifying Jerry in the courtroom, so I tried shifting the focus to someone less threatening.

Okay, Dante…I want you to relax and just listen to my voice while I ask a couple more questions. Do you think you can you do that?


Great. Do you see that person sitting behind me in the front row? (I was referring to the assigned detective who had first interviewed Dante shortly after he arrived at the hospital.)

He nodded again.

Terrific. Have you ever seen her before?

He nodded a third time. Judge Clark was giving me a lot of leeway but I still had to establish his verbal testimony on the record.

Okay. I see that you nodded your head but the court reporter over there needs to take down your words, so could you make sure that you say all of your answers out loud?

He nodded again.


Just like that. Where did you see that person before?

At the hospital.

Okay. Is she a doctor or a nurse?

Nope. She’s with the police.

All right. Did you get the chance to talk to her at the hospital?


Were you there visiting somebody who was sick?


Why were you at the hospital?

I was hurt.

How did you get to the hospital?

The ambulance drove me.

Where did the ambulance pick you up?

My house.

What part of you hurt?

It was on the outside.

Where on the outside?

All over.

I see you have a mark there on your arm. (I gestured towards the spot where his stitches had recently been removed.) Did they look at that when you went to the hospital?


Did you have marks like that anyplace else?


Could you point to any other spots where you had marks like that?

He slowly pointed to his other arm, both shoulders, his stomach, his back, his buttocks, his thighs, and the backs of his legs.

Did you wake up that morning with those marks?


Did something happen on the day that you went to the hospital to make those marks?

Dante paused and was silent for a moment. Eventually, he answered.


You're doing just great. Did you get those marks from falling down?


Did something touch your skin when you got those marks?


What touched your skin to make those marks?

He got quiet again and looked down at the floor before he gave his response.

A buckle.

What did the buckle look like?

Dante held his hands in the shape of a rectangle about the size of a deck of playing cards.

It was gold.

So far, so good. Without pausing or changing the inflection in my voice, I asked the next question.

When the buckle made those marks, was it connected to anything?

A belt.

Did the belt fall down off of something all by itself to make those marks?


If there was a buckle at one end of the belt, what was over on the other end?

A hand.

Almost there. I had been gradually building to a quicker cadence with my questions, so that Dante wouldn't hesitiate and dwell on his prior answers.

Whose hand was holding the belt?


Do you see Jerry in the courtroom?

He still held his gaze down towards the floor, but this time he lifted his right arm slightly and pointed a finger over in the general direction of the Defendant.

That was good enough.

I stood up and brought my voice back up to full level as I turned to face the court reporter.

Let the record reflect that the witness has identified the defendant at the bar of the court.

I gently put my hand on Dante's shoulder and felt the knot that had been in my stomach this whole time slowly begin to unravel.

No further questions, Your Honor.

I couldn't relax completely. The hearing wasn't over just yet.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Spare the child--

April is 'Child Abuse Awareness' Month. According to the U.S. Department of Health, there are over 3,ooo,ooo cases of child abuse reported each year.

Right after I graduated from law school, I was hired as an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia. At the end of my first year there I was rotated along with the rest of the rookie prosecutors into the Juvenile Court Unit, where for six months I handled child abuse hearings on a daily basis. All of the custody, dependency, and juvenile crime cases in the city were exclusively heard in a separate courthouse, appropriately named Family Court. The courtrooms were all designated by letters, and Courtroom B was set aside for the preliminary hearings of adult defendants accused of crimes against minor children.

The "prelim" is a bare bones hearing where the Commonwealth (i.e. the prosecutor) has to prove that enough facts exist to support the crimes that have been charged and to send the case on to trial. The other crucial requirement is that a victim or eyewitness must make an in-court identification of the defendant. The full-length trials would be handled months later over at the Criminal Justice Center by the senior prosecutors from the Special Assault Unit in the main office. Since the Juvenile Unit was located right inside the Family Court building, a few of the newer prosecutors were assigned to handle Courtroom B.

A single judge presided over B Court when I was assigned there. Judge Tama Myers Clark was a former prosecutor herself, and she ran a very formal courtroom. Judge Clark did not put up with the usual defense attorney antics when children were involved. Her appearance resembled a cross between Patti LaBelle and Phylicia Rashad Allen, and she absolutely loved the color purple. By their second week, most of the prosecutors and public defenders who were assigned to her courtroom had already gone out and scoured the local department stores for purple ties and scarves--the thinking being: every little bit helps.

Within one week of being assigned to B Court, I was faced with the first of many challenging cases. The crime involved a man who had severely beat his girlfriend's young son using a leather belt with a large metal buckle. The Defendant was about 6-feet tall, in his late-30's, and easily weighed over 225 pounds. The victim was a thin 9-year old boy named Dante who had been taken to the hospital with lacerations and deep tissue contusions over 80 percent of his body. As bad as his physical injuries were, it turned out that his own mother was supporting the boyfriend. Unfortunately, that situation occurred in case after case during the six months while I was there. The Defendant had not been able to post bail, and had been in custody since his arrest a few weeks before. He had been charged with aggravated assault, child endangerment, and a host of related crimes.

Dante and I were standing over on the left-hand side of the courtroom up at the bar of the court. The Defendant and the Public Defender were standing about 15 feet away over to our right. A sheriff in charge of the defendant's custody was over on the far right side of the courtroom next to the single door leading out into the main hallway. The rest of the room was filled with dozens of defendants, witnesses, other attorneys, and police officers all waiting for their case to be called as soon this hearing was finished. Judge Clark sat up high above it all behind a rich mahoghany bench; a 30-foot Art Deco mural of a father, mother, and two small children walking hand-in-hand down a road towards a distant city served as a backdrop behind the judge.

At the time, Pennsylvania did not allow video cameras or closed-circuit testimony in the courtroom, so the victim would have to appear in the same room as the defendant and visually identify them as the perpetrator of the crime. Whenever a minor was being called as a witness, their competency to testify also had to be established. I had already run through a colliquy with the victim to show Judge Clark that Dante understood the importance of telling the truth and knew the consequences of telling a lie. I started to ask him about the facts of the crime itself.

Hi, Dante. See that person sitting up there in the black robe? That's Judge Clark. I'm going to ask you a couple of questions and she needs to be able to hear all of your answers. Do you think you can speak up loud enough so she can hear you?


Okay. You need to say the words out loud so that nice lady typing on that machine can write everything down, all right?


Great. Why don't we start with your full name.

Dante ______.

Okay. And how old are you?


Wow, you're pretty tall for nine. So you must be in, what, fourth grade?


What school do you go to?


Where do you live?

_______ Ogontz Avenue.

Who do you live there with?

My mom, my sister, and....Jerry.

You're doing just great. What's your sister's name?

Kim. She's six.

So you're the big brother.


Do you see your mom in the courtroom?


(pointing over at his mom sitting in the first row, right behind the defense table.)

And do you see your sister?

Nope. She's at school.

Okay. Do you see Jerry in the courtroom?

(staring at the floor)

Take your time and look around the room. You can just point if you see him.

About a minute passed by, with Dante still staring at the floor.

Do you see that big sherriff standing over there in the blue uniform? He's here to make sure that nothing bad can happen to you so you are completely safe. Just take your time and look around and let me know if you see Jerry.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the Defendant turn and look over his shoulder at Dante's mom and give a little smirk. A loud crack rang out as Judge Clark slammed her gavel down onto the top of her bench.

"Counselor (addressing the public defender), you had better advise your client that if I see his eyes move so much as one inch over towards the direction of the witness I will revoke his bail and find him in contempt of court on the spot. Do I make myself perfectly clear???"

The P.D. leaned over and furiously whispered into the Defendant's ear. His head snapped forward and the smirk was now wiped from his face.

Dante was standing with his hands buried in his pockets and his chin practically on his chest. I tried to ask the question a third time and got the same silent response.

The public defender cleared his throat and finally piped up after a moment.

"Your honor, I make a motion to dismiss all charges for failure to establish an in-court identification."

Judge Clark raised an eyebrow and looked over at me for a response.


Now it was my turn to bury my chin in my chest as I looked down at the casefile in my hands and shuffled through some papers to stall for time. Not even my purple tie was going to be much help in this situation.

They had never covered anything like this in law school.