Friday, May 12, 2017

Guilty Pleas

Short post, inspired by Ken White's "The Elaborate Pantomime of the Federal Guilty Plea" over at Popehat. Read that first, because this is kind of an extended comment on that.

This past semester, the entire 1L class has been working with a fictional case involving a woman named Brandi Williams who, when she was 17, pleaded guilty to second-degree assault for causing an accident after she and some friends threw rocks off an overpass. Now (14 years later) she can't get a promotion because of her conviction. She sought a writ of coram nobis (yes, Maryland still does that), lost, and appealed.

At the beginning of the semester, half the class was assigned to represent Brandi and the other half represented the State for the petition, then we switched sides for the end-of-semester appeal. I was on the State's side for appeal.

On the one hand, the appellate memo was easier for me being on the State's side because I had a lot of legal advantages for my argument. There were some glaring weak spots, of course, otherwise it wouldn't have been a good project, but most of the work was pretty easy. Much bellyaching was heard echoing throughout the glass and concrete maze of walkways* from the unfortunate souls who had to argue on behalf of Brandi. The rest of us mostly just made sympathetic-sounding noises. We knew how hard their arguments were to make because we had just made them a few weeks prior, except fewer points were riding on it then.

On the other hand, part of me really wants to pretend I was shocked and appalled at some of the things that had to come out of my mouth to make the argument for the State. But I've been reading blogs like Popehat long enough to know better.

The relevant argument to Ken's post was that Brandi, at 17, understood what she was pleading guilty to and understood the consequences of that plea. In truth, it's hard to believe she did. She was scared. Charged as an adult. Parents urging her to take the plea. Initially charged with a handful of things that added up to a potential sentence longer than she had been alive at that point. She was partially deaf and left her hearing aid at home accidentally the morning of the plea hearing and could only half understand what anyone was saying to her. And to top it off, her plea was on Monday - she had only just hired her attorney on Friday and he spent the weekend playing golf with the judge. It's a safe bet to say she was confused. I mean, yeah, sure, she's a fictional character, but dammit, I have an English degree. I can get into character motivations and psychology and all that shit.

Who in their right mind honestly could think that she would understand what the State had to prove to show she was guilty of assault?

But that's what I had to argue. Basically, I just had to pick a definition of assault out of a hat and insist with a straight face that it's obvious that that's what the State meant by "assault."

Easy enough.


*I would have said "corridors," but Lego Law doesn't have too many of those.

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