Do I even need an attorney? If I am accused of a low-level crime, is it important to seek counsel? Is self-representation ever a good option?
There is an old saying that an attorney representing himself has a fool for a client. It’s especially true in criminal defense cases. The rules of evidence are so complicated that they are hard to stay on top of, even for an experienced attorney. The law is being modified on a daily basis. The decisions being made by the higher courts and the Supreme Court are changing constantly, so we need to stay on top of that and even as an attorney it is difficult. For a layperson lacking a formal education in criminal law procedures, it is impossible. It is impossible to do it right with so much at stake: your freedom, your money, your criminal record, and your life.
Another important thing to consider is that judges hate self-representation. The clerks hate it. The deputies hate it. The entire courtroom staff hates the fact that every court appearance is prolonged. You turned what should be a five-minute court appearance with an attorney into an hour long, complicated fiasco because every tiny aspect of the law has to be explained to the accused or the defendant. The judges and the prosecutors cannot help but be negatively affected as they observe the defendant and they end up getting more severe sentences as a result. They could end up being found guilty when they may not have been found guilty if they had experienced legal representation. Also, remember that an experienced prosecutor is representing the complaining witness. So, you are going up against an attorney who is well versed in the rules of evidence, as well as the current law surrounding the charge you are facing in court. You are basically going up against an expert. It is kind of like sitting down to play chess against Bobby Fischer when you have never played chess in your life. You are going to get destroyed. You do not have a chance of winning.
If I don’t choose self-representation, I have two other options for defense: a public attorney or a private attorney. How does hiring a private attorney give me an advantage?
There are some really skilled, well meaning, and talented public defenders. However, Cook County is, I believe, the busiest criminal court system in the country. We have over 40 felony level criminal judges handling felony criminal matters every single day, so there are roughly 150 to 200 people going through felony bond court every day. The public defender felony trial division now has 60 to 70 full-time attorneys. We would have to check these numbers later, but each one of those attorneys is currently working on more than 100 cases, so they obviously cannot and do not pay close attention to every file. Even the most well-meaning, talented attorneys in the public defenders office often end up frustrated at the disparate sentences that get handed out to their clients merely because they just did not have the time to investigate the case and find its weaknesses and strengths. They simply lack the time to form a competent, effective strategy for defense.
In terms of your representation versus that of other firms, what makes you different and uniquely skilled to win cases?
The primary thing I hear is that we do investigation more than anybody else. I actually enjoy going out to the scene of where the “crime” supposedly happened. I have won so many cases just by going out to the scene of the crime and taking measurements and photographs and having my investigator take statements from other witnesses. I enjoy that. I have seen such a great return on investment with regard to investigation that we almost overemphasize it.
Another reason we’re different is that we really do things differently from a preliminary hearing standpoint. I win a lot of cases at the preliminary hearing, meaning that the case gets thrown out even before formal charges have been levied and the case is passed over to the felony trial division. We have a technique we use for preliminary hearings: once you hire us, and the preliminary hearing has not taken place, we go to the preliminary hearing court room, take the file out, and get hold of all of the relevant information we think we need that could help you. We also subpoena information from the police department and the OEMC, which is basically the 9-1-1 and dispatch recording center where every 9-1-1 call and police dispatch are recorded. We get those recordings immediately because the Chicago Police Department has a policy of erasing them after 30 days, so most lawyers and every public defender never get a copy of those. Basically, if there are 9-1-1 calls related to your case, we will get them. If there are relevant and helpful police dispatches, meaning things that the police said over the radio related to your arrest and relating to the case that you’re charged with, we get those. Ninety percent of other attorneys do not get those. The public defender’s office cannot get them. They do not even subpoena them. They don’t even waste their time subpoenaing them, so if you start your case off with a public defender and there is a 9-1-1 recording that would completely exonerate you, you are not going to get it; the same applies for most attorneys. I do not know the exact number of attorneys that do not subpoena 9-1-1 and dispatch from the very start of a case, but it is considerable.