Q: Have you ever been a victim of a crime, or anybody you're close to?
A: I personally haven't been the victim of serious crimes. I've had my house broken into. I've had things taken out of my car, including a case file. I've had friends who have been raped. I've had friends who have been held up.
Q: What are the effects on you when you go in to represent a guy who's charged with rape or armed robbery?
A: I feel as though I separate these things out in my mind pretty thoroughly. I'm not saying that I don't feel for the victims of crimes. I do. One of the commonest perceptions is that by being a defense lawyer and trying to help people who are accused of crimes, I somehow condone criminal activity. I don't. But I think it's terribly important that people who are accused by the government -- with all the government's resources that are enforcing the law and locking people up and depriving them of their liberty -- that those people have somebody to represent them. Somebody to go in and present their side in a competent, knowledgeable way. That's so important to me that it motivates me even though I think sometimes my clients have done awful things.
Q: You come from the suburbs of California. Your clients come from the streets of Washington. Where is the common ground?
A: There's no question that it's a problem. My clients know I don't come from the same background they do. It raises the question in their minds, certainly, why would I care what happens to them? They don't trust me. I don't really blame them.
If people are represented by me, they're in a mess. I sometimes don't understand what is happening in a situation. I'm not as able to read between the lines as I would be if I had grown up in the same environment my clients have. I don't think it's insurmountable. I think it's a problem that can be worked on partly just by getting out there in the streets. Which I do. I don't have as much time to do it as I would like to. But you can learn by visiting people in their homes, by talking to people in the streets. Now, I'm not so naive to think that people just open up and tell me their life stories. I'm not so naive to think I always get the straight scoop. But it's certainly better than sitting in my office.
Q: Is there any trust in the relationship between you and your clients? If not, what is the basis of the relationship?
A: The basis of the relationship is that this person is accused of a crime. It's been determined that they don't have enough money to hire a lawyer and the court has said, "Miss Lyman is your lawyer." They don't have too much choice. That's a problem in trust. Simply the feeling, "I don't have any choice about my lawyer. They've just assigned me this white lady to be my lawyer."
An enormous portion of the time I spend with clients is spent trying to convince them I really am trying to serve them and nobody else. I try and explain that I'm paid my salary whether I get them off or whether they get convicted. So they don't somehow think I'm not going to get paid if I get them off. But it's hard. Most people don't understand why I would want to do what I do.
Q: Why would you?
A: (Laughter.) That's a good question. Most people in the public don't understand why I want to do what I do.
Q: What are most of your clients charged with?
A: Everything from petty theft to first-degree murder. At this point I'm handling mostly major felonies.
Q: Why do you want to do what you're doing?
A: I'm not a person who would want to sit behind a desk all day. Certainly my job involves a lot of action. I find I'm much more motivated to work hard if I'm working for a person -- an identifiable individual -- than if I'm working for a corporation or a business.
Q: Do you feel you had illusions about what the job was like?
A: I'm kind of a cynical person. I don't feel as though I was very naive, thinking that I was going to be representing mostly innocent people. Logically that just doesn't make sense. The police may make mistakes. Cases may be more complicated than they appear to be at first. But the police aren't making a general practice of arresting people who are not involved in any way in criminal activity.
Q: So what is the role of the public defender then?
A: To protect everybody from the state going haywire and locking people up unjustifiably. My first and foremost role is to try and equalize the battle. The prosecutor is a lawyer backed up by the police, who are the prosecutor's investigators. My client is usually a person without education, without money, without resources of any kind, who doesn't understand what's happenning to him. And I'm there to present the other side. There always is another side, no matter how bad the guy is.
Q: What do you need to know about your clients?
A: Is my client crazy? Is my client an absolutely scared-stiff kid who's never been arrested before? Has no idea what's going to happen to him? Has been terrorized either by the other people in the lockup or by the police? Someone who's been through the system many times before and doesn't need to be told what I'm going to do? Who is my client?
Q: When do you know that usually?
A: I'm assigned a number of names off the list. I have the name, what the police think he should be charged with, and my name. I go down to the cellblock in the basement of the courthouse and I introduce myself. Then I have to start getting reactions from my client.
I've had clients who were arrested -- particularly this happens in homicide cases -- where the client is in shock. They know they've just been responsible for somebody's death. It may be a matter to be determined in court whether that responsibility amounted to murder or manslaughter or justifiable homicide or something else. But whatever the appropriate legal category, this person knows he's just been responsibile for a human being dying. That man is having an emotional reaction. I have to find out what condition he's in. Is the person in almost a catatonic depression over something like that?
Q: What can you do if they are?
A: I had a homicide case involving a child death. This man was distraught over the death and had attempted to kill himself. This man had never been arrested before. The prosecution wanted that man stuck over in the D.C. jail. He was already dangerously depressed. I thought it was my job to get him over to St. Elizabeth's. Or get him released with the condition that he have some outpatient psychiatric attention.
Q: About two months ago you told me you had three or four trials scheduled in the same week. What happened?
A: It's very rare that a defense lawyer would have more than one trial in a week. A trial is an enormously time-consuming, energy-consuming, concentration-consuming event. Most people have no idea how much it takes out of you. I've been in trial practically constantly for the last month and a half. I had a situation a week ago where I essentially had to prepare two cases at once. That was just awful. It takes such concentration to keep track of all the details and the things you need to be thinking about. The prosecutors laugh at us because they have four or five trials a week. However, they have police and other support staff that they can call on.
Q: How many of your cases do you plea bargain?
A: Probably 95 percent of all cases in any criminal system in this country result in guilty pleas. A guilty plea is a settlement. It's the two sides coming to an agreement about what this case is worth. I think there's a public misconception about plea bargaining. The public tends to think plea bargaining is some way that the defendants get off.
Q: Isn't it?
A: Not at all. The prosecutors through the grand jury will charge every possible charge that is even arguably supported by their one- sided evidence. The official charges in the indictment will often be a pretty big overstatement of what happened. The plea bargain is the prosecution dropping some of those charges because in their overall view the case isn't worth that serious a charge. Their evidence isn't as strong as it might be.
Q: What's the most important consideration for you in a plea bargain? Guilt or innocence? The record of your client? Public safety? What?
A: My obligation is to try to get my client out of the fix he's in with as little damage to him as possible. Any member of the public should simply consider how they would feel if they thought their lawyer in a case was considering somebody else's interests besides their own. It's not ethical. I can't consider anybody's interests but my client's.
Q: If you thought a client was actually innocent but they had a record of convictions that would inevitably come out in court and that would look just awful to a jury, would you have any interest in plea bargaining?
A: My opinion of the guilt or innocence of my clients has virtually no place in the job I do. It's a distraction. My job is to try and give my client the best information possible about whether he's going to win or lose a trial. If I believe he's going to lose, then chances are we should try to plea bargain. Judges punish people in sentencing for going to trial. They call it giving people a break for pleading, but that's just the flip side of giving you a bigger sentence if you lose the trial.
Q: Like giving a discount if you pay cash?
A: Right. It's giving you a handicap if you use credit. If you go to trial and lose, the judge will essentially be saying, "You should have owned up. You should have saved us the trouble of going to trial."
Q: What you're doing is saying to the client, "It is too big a risk to go to trial. Maybe we'd have a 15 percent chance of winning. But if I were you I wouldn't gamble on that. If we go to trial and lose, you're going to lose big. The judge is going to give you a lot of time."
Q: So abstract notions of justice come down to gambling?
A: Even if you have a strong defense case, going to trial is a gamble. You never can predict what those 12 people are going to think of the evidence. I am sure that innocent people do plead guilty because they are too scared to take the risk of being sentenced to a great deal more time.
Let me give you an example -- a murder case where there was no dispute over the fact that the defendant shot the decedent. The question was whether it was in self-defense, and how much force was he reasonable to use under the circumstances. The government charged first-degree murder. I thought that was overcharging. That means planned, premeditated murder. They offered second-degree murder as a plea bargain. The case looked more to me like a manslaughter case, where there was some justification but not enough to use deadly force. We proposed a guilty plea to manslaughter. The government rejected it.
I advised my client to take the plea to second-degree murder, even though that was more than he was, in my view, guilty of. First- degree murder carries in the District of Columbia a mandatory 20-years-to-life sentence. The judge has no choice -- no matter how great a person you've been all you life -- that judge has no choice but to give you the next 20 years of your life at Lorton.
Q: Do you have serious doubts about the advice you were giving in that case?
Q: You're talking about a young man, and you're playing with 20 years of his life?
A: I put a lot of pressure on him to plead guilty because I felt the risk was so enormous. He had never been in trouble before. He was in his early 20s. I felt extremely sympathetic toward him. He had raised himself up from a very, very difficult neighborhood to being an extremely responsible working man, and got into a situation that got out of hand. There was no dispute that he was being ganged up on. The only question was what happened in the final minutes before he fired one shot. I certainly felt a lot of misgivings about advising him to take the plea.
He didn't take my advice. He decided to go to trial. He decided to take the risk. In the end, the jury did what the government wouldn't do. The jury found him not guilty of first-degree murder and not guilty of second- degree murder but guilty of manslaughter. That was an example of the community saying what this case was worth.
Q: What was the jury saying about what is guilt and what is innocence?
A: The case is a good example of how hard it is to tell whether your client is "guilty" or "not guilty." People come up to me constantly, even lawyers. They say, "Don't you feel bad if you know your client is guilty?" And I say, "Look, the vast majority of the time I don't know anything. I don't think it's possible in many, many cases to tell who is really telling the truth. What exactly happened in split seconds.
Q: You've been in the office four years now. Of the people who were there when you came, what is the burn-out factor?
A: Tremendous pressure. Burn-out is a very real problem. The job is absolutely relentless. It never stops. There's always a large number of people who think they should be your first priority. There's tremendous emotional demands. I have to work very hard to convince my clients that I'm working for them, that I'm giving them the right advice.
Somebody who's incarcerated at the D.C. jail -- it's a tremendous logistical effort, just to visit the man and talk to him. They have to count the prisoners four times a day. There are approximately twice as many prisoners now as the jail was built to house. They have to stop everybody from moving while they're counting the people. If you go to visit somebody and they haven't brought them to you by the time one of the counts starts, you have to wait until the count "clears" -- that they have arrived at the right total number of people who should be in the jail. That may take anywhere from half an hour to four or five hours. Then they have trouble finding your client, because he may have been moved to a different part of the jail to make room for somebody else. Or he may be on a work detail. Or he may be asleep and not responding to something that's broadcast over the loudspeakers. You never know what's happening in there.
You're sitting here talking to them at 10 o'clock on a Thursday night and they're saying, "What are you doing for me?" And I'm saying, "Well, for one thing, I'm here at 10 o'clock on Thursday night. I'm here on Christmas eve. I'm here Sunday morning." But you have to constantly point these things out. I am obviously from a group of people that's never done anything for him. I seem to be more a part of the system that's prosecuting him.
Q: How do you measure at the end of a year whether you've made a difference?
A: Sometimes the only difference it seems I make is at the end a person may feel they got a fair shake.
Q: How often does that happen?
A: It's not the majority of the time.