Ross Essay Contest

Guardians of the Sixth Amendment

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Illustration by David Owens

Illustration by David Owens

Wednesday arrived. Luckily, Sonya had successfully convinced three of her five clients to waive their detention hearings. Da’Vonte, however, remained immovable. He gave her his grandmother’s contact information, and unfortunately for Sonya, she was more than willing to serve as third-party custodian. Unlike other defendants’ grandmothers who were volunteered to be third-party custodians, Da’Vonte’s grandma, Ms. Ethel, was responsive to all of Sonya’s messages and consented wholeheartedly to the duties that came with the role. She even made a point of telling Sonya that she would be at the court 30 minutes early, just in case.

It was Sonya’s practice (when she wasn’t serving as the transport for her daughters’ medical appointments) to arrive at the courthouse an hour before court commenced in order to speak with her clients in the holding cells. After 18 years of practice in this court, every guard knew Sonya to the point where she rarely had to knock on the door before it was unlocked and opened for her. She handed one of the deputy marshals a list of her clients and asked to speak to Da’Vonte in particular. She made her way into another all-too-familiar tiny meeting room in the bowels of the federal courthouse.

Hands and feet shackled, the deputy marshal sat Da’Vonte across from Sonya. “Hi, Ms. Sonya.” He seemed in much better spirits than he had been on Monday.

“How are you, Mr. Moore?”

“I’m great! I’m excited to see my family! Have you seen any of them yet?”

“No, I haven’t been in the courtroom yet, but I’ve spoken to your grandma a lot over the last couple days. She definitely loves you; says you are the best grandson a lady could have.”

Da’Vonte’s face lit up. “Yeah, my grandma’s dope.”

“Well, don’t forget what I told you on Monday: Your expectation should be to stay detained.”

Da’Vonte nodded his head, but the expression on his face remained unfazed. “I hear ya, Ms. Sonya, but I have to try. I can’t just lay down and let ’em throw me in a cell without puttin’ up a fight.”

The detention hearing was a disaster, just as she had expected. Ms. Ethel took the stand and proclaimed her grandson’s innocence, testifying that he is a God-fearing boy who would never touch a drug. She blamed any misbehavior on the devil and then accused the prosecutor of lying on cross-examination. In sum, not the optimal qualities of a suitable third-party custodian.

When the DEA agent testified, Da’Vonte balked at nearly every sentence. The agent testified that DEA had been investigating a dealer named Pit for months. Through their investigation, they came upon Da’Vonte and another low-level dealer named Kush, each of whom sold for Pit. The agent testified that they arranged for a confidential informant to meet Da’Vonte and purchase $500 worth of heroin. The DEA had equipped the informant with audio and visual recording devices, but the batteries in both of the devices died before the buy took place. However, the government had testimony from the informant, plus the fact that Da’Vonte had the $500 of marked government money and an unregistered firearm on his person when he was searched and arrested. Once he was apprehended, his car was searched, and nearly 1 kilogram of heroin was found, packaged in small individual baggies.

Throughout the agent’s testimony, Da’Vonte continuously tapped Sonya’s shoulder, whispered to her and took notes. He was as actively engaged as she had seen a defendant in some time. When the agent testified that he had $500 on his person at the time of his arrest and 1 kilo of heroin stashed in his car, Da’Vonte audibly exclaimed, “Are you serious?” Judge Sunstrom reprimanded him on the record, instructing Sonya to control and silence her client. Sonya sternly told Da’Vonte to be quiet.

“Ms. Sonya, he’s lying! Ask him about that $500. I ain’t have no $500 on me! Dude asked for $500 worth, but I told him on the phone I only had a hit or two on me. Pit ain’t give me that much to sell! Ask him about those baggies. This is some bullshit.”

Sonya frowned and put her hand up in front of him, silently admonishing him.

“Ask him! Anything he say gon’ be a lie.”

Her patience began to fray. This hearing was a waste of her time to begin with, and now Judge Sunstrom was shooting daggers at her from the bench. Da’Vonte was not getting out of jail today, and all she could concentrate on was going through the motions and getting to the end of this hearing.

“I have no further questions, your honor.” The prosecutor turned his attention to Sonya, a neutral, unfazed expression on his face. Unlike the passionate TV lawyers who are portrayed as hating their opposing counsel, things between her and the assistant U.S. attorneys were always cordial. This was a job.


“Yes, your honor.” Sonya intended to make this as brief as possible. “Agent Willis, how often do you send confidential informants into controlled purchases with malfunctioning equipment?”

“Well, we do our best not to, ma’am. Unfortunately, things happen. But it’s rare that the batteries would die like they did.”

“Is it not part of DEA’s procedures and protocols to test the functionality of their equipment before they send an informant into a potentially dangerous situation?”

The agent smiled in an unfriendly way. “Sometimes things happen. We do what we can. But as I said before, we had more than enough evidence to prove that the defendant is the dealer, even without audio and visual.”

“And agent, did this confidential informant know my client? Did he claim to have purchased drugs from my client in the past?”

“Ma’am, I’m sure you understand that I cannot divulge any information about the CI to protect his or her safety. So I am going to decline to answer that question.”

This was pointless. “No further questions, your honor. Thank you.”

Da’Vonte turned on her ferociously. “Are you kidding? You ain’t ask him what I told you to ask him! I told you to ask him about that $500! I sold the dude $20 worth of heroin. One hit! $500 woulda been like 3 grams.”

Sonya furiously threw her hand up to silence Da’Vonte. Openly admitting his wealth of heroin-dealing knowledge 8 feet away from a federal prosecutor probably was not the greatest idea. Plus, Judge Sunstrom was looking at her to begin her closing argument for why Da’Vonte should be let out of jail. She rose from her seat to give the best argument she could muster, given the impossible circumstances. Da’Vonte sat in his chair shaking his head back and forth and bouncing his foot off the floor.

When she concluded her argument, Judge Sunstrom predictably ruled that Da’Vonte was a danger to society, Ms. Ethel was unfit to serve as his third-party custodian, and he needed to be detained pending the outcome of his case.

The deputy marshals walked over to escort Da’Vonte back to his holding cell. As he was being led away, he turned to Sonya. “You ain’t do what I told you.” He then smiled and waved to his family who watched him retreat with tears in their eyes. Sonya picked up the next file in her stack as the second detention hearing began.

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