Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why We Need Healthcare Reform

My daughter asked if her 15-year old best friend could stay the week, as one parent is going out of town and the other doesn't have room in the apartment that she shares with a friend to save money. Last Friday morning, after I agreed to this, my daughter told me:

"Dad, we need to get there early since she's got a broken toe and they don't have health insurance and they can't afford to take her to the doctor so they're just letting it heal on its own which means she needs extra time to walk to class, so can you get us there fifteen minutes early all week?"

Thickening Blue Line?

I ran a 10K this morning in downtown Omaha with thousands of other runners. I came in just over 56 minutes, which isn't fast but about killed me, especially since I haven't run more than 10 times this year.

One reason I was able to run without stopping was the people who came out to cheer us on, to yell out our pace and simply to watch. It was uplifting to be out early on a beautiful Fall morning, running in perfect weather and for a good cause, as the proceeds went to the American Lung Association. At the end of the race, my lungs were expanded yet exhausted.

The only downside to the morning came from a few of the police officers who waited along the route. I knew most of them from court and waved at them as we ran by. I even knew a few of their first names and yelled them out. Most waved back, a few even remembering my name. It was great.

But a few simply stood there behind mirrored shades, neither waving or even acknowledging my presence as we ran by. I understand this when it happens in court, how when you're with your fellow officers you don't want to acknowledge that you occasionally have conversations with a defense attorney. It always strikes me as funny, however, sort of like high school, how one group can't acknowledge that they associate with a different group when their friends are around.

The good news is that for every officer who stands there like the man with no eyes in Cool Hand Luke, there seem to be more who are willing to wave back on a Sunday morning, who seem willing to follow the law rather than becoming it.

I hope the ratio stays that way.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Real Lawyer?

Met with a 19 year old today who is confronted with a choice: plead to a charge that he’ll likely win at trial or wait for two months to take his case before a jury. The story he told me, about joining a gang as a kid when his family wasn’t there, and then finding out that only a few of this new “family” was true to him, was terribly sad. He described “taking a charge” for two felons after being pulled over in a car with a gun under the seat. Since he wasn’t a felon, taking the hit for them gave him some cool points and saved them from going to back to prison.

My wish would be to take the case to trial, but I’m not the one who has to wait it out in a jumpsuit. Still, I try to tell my clients that it’s my job not only to take care of them in the short-term, but also to make sure they’re advised to think about the consequences, in the long term, of another conviction. When I was a Public Defender and a client would ask to come in right away, to plead guilty and thus get an “out date” to visualize, I used to say, “give me a week and I’ll save you a month” or “give me a month and I’ll save you a year” in some circumstances. Put in these terms, it brought home the fact that the certainty they wished for, that drove them crazy in jail, wasn’t something to grab at teh first opportunity. Better to wait until the time was right and claim the type of certainty that not only made you feel better in the short term but also kept you from sitting in jail any longer than necessary.

But who am I to decide? While I tell people whether I think they should go to trial, I always tell them it’s their decision. How easy is it for me to say, “wait in jail for a couple months to go to trial” when I get to walk out of jail and sleep in my own bed that night?

During my first year out of law school, when I was working as a p.d. in misdemeanor court, a client called me with a compliment I’ll never forget. He said, “you’re a real lawyer.” It meant a lot, but it was also a little double edged. What I’d done for him, that made him call me with this compliment, was to assist him in pleading guilty to a charge that he would likely have won at trial. He was simply happy because he’d gotten out of jail before his trial date, which was better that he’d expected. He’d disregarded my advice to go to trial and chosen to admit to a weak charge, being unable to make bond and likely a little nervous about going to trial.

He thought I was a real lawyer not because I fought to take his case to trial, but because I arranged a deal that got him out of jail earlier than he’d expected, but which had also planted yet another charge on his record.

While I was worried about sufficiency of evidence and innocence, he was more concerned with sleeping in his own bed. I couldn’t blame him, but I didn’t feel very “real.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Removing Gang Signs

I have a client who is in inpatient treatment for meth addiction. She called me the other day, asking about getting the tattoo on her neck removed, as she’s reached the level of the program where she can begin working again. I guess there are only certain places you can find jobs when you have a visible gang tattoo on your neck. She wanted out of those type of jobs, even after just a few months of sobriety. A good sign, I guess. Her tattoo is of the number 13, apparently for the 13th Street Surenos. I’ve never asked her about it, but it’s hard to miss the numbers.

Last Sunday morning, when I woke up early, put the kayak on top of the car and kayaked around an almost deserted lake about a mile from my house in West Omaha, I saw this same symbol spray-painted on a concrete wall as I passed under a bridge, between a couple boats. The letters “Sur” were scrawled beneath it, a symbol of a South Omaha gang about 10 miles from 13th street, on the edge of the suburbs.

The morning kayak ride was a good way to forget about the pain, the violence and the drug addiction I deal with all the time. But the symbol, close to home, was a reminder that the problems on 13th street will eventually show up on our own streets if they’re not properly addressed.

My client tells me she’s heard of free laser tattoo removal of gang tattoos and wants to ask her friend about it. I thought of approaching the prominent Omaha dermatologist, the guy who founded, and asking him to donate a free laser tattoo removal, a reward six months of sobriety.

Do you think he’ll laugh? Since he probably lives “out west” where I do, I can show him the gang symbol on the bridge, tell him that if he takes the gang symbol off her neck, I’ll find a way to remove the sign from his neighborhood.

Do you think there’s a chance?