Radley Balko interviewed longtime Louisiana defense attorney Sam Dalton for an August 2013 article on prosecutorial misconduct. As his final Huffington Post piece (before moving to the Washington Post), Balko published the whole Dalton interview.
Dalton is something of a legend in Louisiana courtrooms. He has just entered his seventh decade of practicing law. In that time, he has defended more than 300 death penalty cases. Of those, he spared 16 defendants from execution -- this in a state that's rather fond of executing people. He has also been a voice for civil rights, he chartered a model public defender system, and he's currently leading a charge to impose some accountability on Louisiana's more egregiously misbehaving prosecutors. My favorite thing about him: Outside his office door there's a "welcome" mat that reads: Come back with a warrant.Talking about why prosecutors still try to avoid handing exculpatory evidence over to the defense, even though it has been the law for 50 years, Dalton said:
[Y]ou have to look at what the system rewards. The best way to get attention for yourself as a prosecutor is to put a lot of people in jail. There's no votes to be won for deciding not to prosecute someone in the interests of justice. No prosecutor runs for higher office by touting the charges he didn't bring, or the fairness he showed to those accused of terrible crimes. You put those two problems together, and you get a culture that encourages deliberate indifference, especially once they're publicly invested in a particular suspect.Anyone who has watched someone go through the meat grinder of our justice system knows this already. It is a sad time when prosecutors fear being accused of being fair. We also know the Department of Justice is publicly invested in a particular type of suspect--drug offenders for one, sex offenders for another. These offenses are easy to detect, easy to prosecute, easy to convict. I would note, too, it is easy for law enforcement to entrap someone for these offenses.
Now that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use, it seems clear that public opinion will support further legalization. Perhaps that is why federal law enforcement has increased its investment in catching those who download child pornography--easy pickings will make it possible for a prosecutor to continue to boast the number of convictions on his watch.
I think it's a mistake for a defense attorney to define success by how many acquittals he wins. I define it by whether I've forced the state to do its job, and to do it fairly and in compliance with the Constitution.
But let me say something about convictions. Convictions are important. And it's important for attorneys to represent even clearly guilty people. There's the obvious reason -- that everyone deserves a fair trial.
But here's a less obvious reason: Ask yourself, what contribution do convictions make to criminal case law? The answer is that they're responsible for almost all of it. When you're acquitted, you don't appeal. Only convictions are appealed. And it's on appeal that you argue that your client's rights were violated. Appeals are where the appellate courts enforce the Constitution. At least where they're supposed to. It's only because someone was convicted that we have the rules in place today that protect the accused. There's a kind of beautiful symmetry to that. It's because of convictions that we have the rules that protect the innocent.I had not thought before about the role convictions play in the important battle to change laws. Dalton makes me see them differently, though I have to wonder if Dalton overlooks the fact that when prosecutors have been given the power to pin a defendant between a plea agreement and a mandatory minimum sentence, convictions lose that importance.
Plea agreements often require the defendant to waive his right to appeal. No appeal means no way to argue that rights were violated, even when it is clear that a plea is less about admitting guilt than about avoiding the mandatory minimum.
Dalton talks about punishment:
We focus too much on retribution, and too little on protecting society from harm.
Let me give you an example. Two men commit an armed robbery on the same night. The first man is a father of four. His family is about to be evicted. Or if you want to make him less sympathetic, let's say he's a drug addict who needs money to buy his next fix. He's nervous, he's sweaty. He's desperate, and he's panicky. He approaches his victim and roughly accosts him. He puts his gun to the victim's head. He's screaming profanities. He screams out for his victim's wallet, then screams louder and threatens the victim for moving too slowly. He takes his money and runs off. His victim is terribly frightened.
In the second scenario, our mugger is calm, cool, and methodical. He approaches his victim from the front, puts a light hand on the victim's back, and slowly and unemotionally explains that he has a gun in his coat pocket. He tells his victim that if he hands over his wallet, no one will get hurt, and they can both be on their way. The victim hands it over. The mugger walks off. The victim is angry at just having been robbed, but he isn't terrified. And he was never in real fear for his life.
Which of the two armed robbers is likely to get the longer sentence? Almost certainly the first one. Which of the two is the bigger threat to society? Unquestionably the second one. In fact, the second one is not only a likely career criminal, he's more likely to actually kill someone. The first one is scared because he knows he's doing something wrong. He feels some empathy for his victim. He's committing a crime of necessity. That isn't to say it excuses him. But his aggression comes from fear. The second mugger is incapable of empathy, or has learned to turn it off. He's cold-blooded.
So you see we impose punishment based on fear and a desire for retribution, not based on rational evaluations of what crimes and criminals are most dangerous. [My emphasis.]Sex offenders and their families know this well. The majority of those convicted of sex offenses are unlikely to commit another sex offense and yet they are sentenced according to the fear engendered by the term sex offense instead of any rational evaluation of danger.
Punishment should include alternatives to incarceration because incarceration is often a training ground for criminals and because the United States prisons are overcrowded. Another reason to avoid incarceration when possible is to avoid giving more people power over others.
Though Dalton is talking about judges and prosecutors, his warning also applies to correctional officers:
Power is insidious. It will creep up on even the most decent people. Always be aware of that, and be vigilant against it.Read the whole interview. Defense attorneys take a lot of heat for their part in letting criminals go free but they stand between us and unjust convictions. I have great admiration for attorneys who defend the obviously guilty and especially those obviously guilty of terrible crimes.
Obvious guilt should be defended just as fiercely as innocence is.