In early 2004 I was charged with Federal Crime and ultimately indicted. As I considered my options for defense, I think that I was like the average person out there who if asked, would say that they are of the opinion that one would be better represented in court by a big name, experienced, paid defense attorney than by a public defender. Those being my sentiments, I quickly made the decision to hire the best local defense attorney that money could buy from the town in which I lived. I could have gone 90 minutes up the road to Atlanta and hired what I am sure would have been an even bigger named, higher priced attorney in that market but I reasoned that a local attorney would better know the ins and outs of dealing with local law enforcement, prosecutors, etc.. He came highly recommended by other attorneys with different specialties with whom I had the acquaintance so naturally, I thought I was doing what was best for my case.
I was told up front that his representation would not come cheap, but never having been in trouble before for anything more that a speeding ticket, I really had no idea just how expensive his services would be. In our initial conversation, he didn’t as much as blink as he calmly told me that he would need a $10000 retainer to start and that it probably would get us very far, he further stated that I would need to be prepared to increase the retainer in $10000 increments as needed and that I could expect the total cost to be around $50000. I have to admit that I swallowed pretty at that and my family even harder as I relayed the news, but in the end, after much discussion, we arrived at a general consensus that even still, he was the best man for the job.
We made arrangements to make the first installment and I prepared myself to being what I assumed would be a fairly intensive process of getting ready for a trial. To my surprise, little happened, he did have his office contact me and arrange a meeting with an assistant, who turned out to be a law student who worked for him as a clerk, at which she posed a series of very general questions not greatly different from your average job or credit card application. She got my name, address, telephone numbers, place of employment, etc. and upon obtaining a list of that information promptly told me that would be all for now and showed me to the door.
I must admit that entire scenario didn’t set really well with me, but I told myself to take a deep breath and relax, perhaps this was the first and very necessary step in what was surely to become a much more intensive process as we moved forward. My resolve that my assumption was indeed correct quickly began to melt away as days then turned to weeks and I heard literally nothing more. Finally after waiting for as long as I could stand it, I called his office and asked for an appointment. My request was granted, and appointment was scheduled and we met again. After some brief conversation, he told me that the original retainer had been nearly expended with research, meetings with prosecutors, briefs, etc. and that I needed to make an additional $10000 payment as soon as possible.
Fortunately, we set aside the entire $50000 initially so making the second payment was not a problem other than the fact that I had a genuine concern as to whether or not I was getting what I was paying for. I expressed my concerns and was assured that we were about to move into phase two of the process and that I would become a lot more involved at that point. I left that meeting feeling at least some better.
Shortly thereafter, I was called in a few times, asked some specific questions, asked to provide some documents, and given a list of questions to answer in writing. I did so promptly and upon their return I was told that and additional $10000 payment would need to be made soon. This sort of activity carried on over several weeks until the final $10000 installment of the $50000 had been paid. We were nearing a trial date and I was being told that things were going well.
Two weeks before the trial was scheduled to start, I received a call from the attorneys office requesting a meeting as soon as possible. At that meeting I was told that cost had become higher than expected, and that I would need to arrange for an additional payment of $10000 to $15000. Sadly, these were funds that I simply did not have. I explained that and was told that If I could no longer pay, the he would have to petition the court to be released as my representation. He promptly did so and the release was granted.
Two weeks before trial I had no attorney, I was broke and frankly had no idea what to do next. I was offered a court appointed public defender and even still thought it a bad move to go that route.
We made arrangements to borrow money from my wife’s mother. That went over well! Then vigorously sought yet another paid trial lawyer, who again was touted as an “up and comer” someone who would do me a great job and really dig in there and fight for me. Boy was that a real load of “bull”!
With little time left to prepare, he was able to get a short continuance, he also requested a $10000 retainer. What is it with the guys and $10000? He quickly put together a defense that seemed plausible, and we prepared to go to trial. Two days prior, his office contacted me and asked me to come in and to bring a payment of $8000 when I came. I made arrangements for the money and again tapped out went in to see him. It was at that meeting that he informed me, after receiving the $8000 payment, that after a thorough review of my case, he felt it in my best interest to plead guilty to a lesser charge if he could strike a deal for me to do so as opposed to facing up to 10 years in prison if I went to trial and lost.
I was devastated. After many months and $68,000 in legal fees, I was told I needed to plead guilty. I didn’t want to, I didn’t think I was, but I also had zero interest in spending 10 years in prison. After much thought, conversation and pure angst, the decision was made to take his advice. Largely based on his assurances that he thought he could cut a deal that would get me a virtual “slap on the wrist” 6 months maybe but in no case more than 18.
Two days later, As the judge rendered my sentence, I could not believe my ears, 44 months. I received a 44 month sentence, the maximum allowable under Federal sentencing guidelines. All the money, all the time invested, all the worry and I literally had nothing to show for any of it. The sentence I received, the deal I got, could have been brokered by even the weakest and most inexperienced of public defenders. I fact no one could have done worse.
Four months later as an inmate at the Atlanta Federal Prison camp, I began to do my own research, and I learned much about the Federal legal system and how it works. First of all, it is virtually impossible to beat them. Once you are on their radar and they decide to come after you the probably of your being convicted is extremely high. Some 90% of Federal cases end in a plea bargain, in essence a conviction, of the some 10% of cases that do go to trial, some 90% of those result in a conviction and of the small percentages of cases that are won, those defendants are often charged with yet another crime related to the case and convicted or cop a plea. It is essentially impossible to out spend, out wait or out smart Federal prosecutors when they set their sites on you,
Why then do high priced defense attorneys hold themselves out as a bastion of hope for an unknowing defendant in a situation where the deck is so stacked that it is virtually impossible to win? I can only thinks of one reason, why the almighty dollar of course, the coaxing of which from a man or woman who is fighting for his or her life, with little hope of offering any real help, should be a crime, and yet I am the guy who ended up in prison!