Five years ago: Client comes to us, saddled with a federal third-strike drug conviction and life sentence without parole. Client, who is more at peace with leaving prison in a box than I am living in the lap of luxury outside, makes me feel ashamed about it. We handle the direct appeal. Judge Kozinski chews on me for 30 minutes on what was supposed to be a 10-minute argument. We lose, despite good issues.
One year ago: we win the 2255 motion (the equivalent of a habeas corpus motion for federal prisoners) on an ineffective assistance of counsel issue.
Six months ago: we convinced the government to make a much better offer that dropped the allegations of the two priors, eliminating the mandatory life sentence and giving the judge broad discretion.
Today: Client gets about 15 years. The government was asking for about 23 years, which was his guideline range. Thanks to an associate's excellent FOIA work getting Client's full prison file and diplomatic work getting good letters from prison ministry pastors and prison officials, we convinced the court that he's rehabilitated substantially.
He's done about 7 years; he'll do about another 6 given good behavior– perhaps less than that, as he may now be eligible for the drug rehabilitation program. Plus he'll probably do it in a lower security facility. Rather than leave in a box, he'll get out in his mid-forties, in time to see his kids hit high school.
Given what he was looking at when we came in, I can live with that.
Lessons learned as a lawyer:
1. There is always hope. I would have given less than 5% odds of winning that 2255 motion. We can offer clients something to live for, so long as we don't give them artificially inflated hope. That hope is important for how they live their lives.
2. You've got to take the long view. This took five years — but the result was worth it.
3. A client's efforts to better himself in prison is not wasted time.
4. No matter what you accomplish, the client and the client's family will never be completely happy. You can get them an acquitted and a public-square apology, and they'll bitch about your bill. Learn to live with it as an expression of what they're going through, and be content with your own satisfaction with the result.
5. Criminal defense involves a lot of losing battles, in part because so many people view the rule of law as a barrier to justice to be evades rather than the playing field on which we ensure justice. The rare victory keeps you motivated for the long haul of injustices.
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