Ross Essay Contest

Guardians of the Sixth Amendment

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Illustration of Handcuffs

Illustration by Brenan Sharp

It had been a week since Da’Vonte’s hearing, and she had received four emails from him and two voice messages from his mother. Every communication reiterated the same point: Da’Vonte did not sell the informant $500 worth of heroin, and he certainly did not have a kilo of heroin in his car. The government was lying. She had responded to each of the emails briefly with relatively the same message: “I will look into it.” His arraignment was still about three weeks away—a lifetime to a public defender.

After being in court all day, Sonya returned to the office to attempt to prepare for tomorrow’s cases. It was 4:50. Tiffany’s senior night for basketball was tonight, and Sonya had promised she would be there at 5:15 sharp. “Five minutes to prepare six cases. Great,” she thought.

Kate poked her head in the office. “Sonya, Peter’s on the phone. He’s calling about that Moore case.”

“OK, you can transfer him. Thanks.”

She answered the phone on its first ring. “Hey, Peter. How are things?”

“Busy as always. But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that.” They both chuckled at the ridiculous reality they shared, even on opposite sides of the courtroom.

“So this Moore fella. Think he’ll plea to possession with intent? Lower the weight to 500 grams. I can’t do anything about the gun, but at least we can knock out the weight a little bit. We’ll recommend 10 years, so on good behavior he’ll get out in a little over eight, likely with time served. Much better than the max of 40 years.”

Pleading in a drug and gun case was always the way to go: They found the drugs and gun on you, they have agents to testify, you have a criminal record, you don’t have a job. If you plead, then you get an “acceptance of responsibility” credit, which helps to knock down the sentence, and often the prosecutor offers to knock down the drug weight, which also lowers the sentence. Trying a drug case was futile.

“Sounds good to me, but you know it’s not my decision. I’ll run it by Mr. Moore and let you know.”

“All right, I’ll keep the deal on the table until this time next week. Is that enough time?”

“Yup, have a good night.”

She hung up. 5:01. Damn.

. . .

“No way in hell, Ms. Sonya. Nope. The government thinks they can pull this shit on me, but they ain’t. I know what they tryna do. I sold that snitch a hit three times. I ain’t have nothing in my car, I ain’t have no $500 on me. I sold that shit to him for 20 bucks. You think Pit would let me drive around with a kilo in my car?”

They were back in the dark, damp attorney room in the Byrum County Jail.

Luckily, the guards had agreed to unshackle his feet during the meeting, but they insisted that the handcuffs remain on.

Exasperated, Sonya asked, “What evidence do you have, Mr. Moore? What does a trial in this case look like? Tell me.”

“Whatchu mean what evidence do I got? It’s their job to show the evidence. They got busted, dead equipment, they got bullshit money, and they got a lying cop and a snitch to testify. Ain’t nobody gonna believe any of that.”

He spoke without taking his eyes from hers. “I’ll serve my time for selling heroin and having a gun. I admit that, and I will do the time for what I did. But I ain’t gonna say I’m guilty of some made-up shit.”

“Let me tell you what I know. No one in my office has tried a case similar to yours and won. Never. You have a history of selling drugs. They have eyewitness testimony. The weight and money issue comes down to his word against yours. And who do you think a jury is going to believe?” They sat in silence for a few seconds. As Da’Vonte shifted in his seat, the handcuffs clanged against the table. Sonya sighed.

“Listen, I get it. Rarely are the facts that the government alleges fully true. That’s just the way it is. But you have to look at the risk here. You could be looking at at least 40 years in prison! If you plead, you get out in eight with good behavior.”

This part of the process was tedious. Explaining to a client why he should admit to something he insists he did not do was a delicate art. It required sympathy and empathy mixed with just the right amount of persistence and hard-balling.

“It’s ultimately your decision, but I advise you take the deal. It’s generous.”

Da’Vonte covered his face with his cuffed hands, his head shaking from side to side.

“My family’s gon’ be crushed.”

“They’ll be a lot less crushed with eight years than they would be with 40.” Deciding to plead guilty was always a numbers game.

“Fine.” He removed his hands from his face. “But I sold that man three hits in two weeks for 20 bucks each. I’m about to go to the penitentiary for 10 years for a couple 20-buck sales.” He closed his eyes and shook his head again.

Up until this point, Sonya had not believed a word of his story.

Every defendant insists they are being set up. But the fervor with which he spoke now was convincing, and his story had never changed since she met him.

Even if he was telling the truth, it did not change the fact that he had zero chance in court.

He had never worked a day in his life but somehow was able to have a car, put gas in that car, eat and clothe himself. How was he doing that if he wasn’t making his money some other way? Plus, no matter what he said, no jury would find him not guilty with the evidence the government had. And those files piling up in her office did not allow her the option to try an unwinnable case. That is not how things worked here.

So she put those uneasy feelings aside and focused on the eight versus 40-year calculation that she had imparted on Da’Vonte only moments ago.

“All right, let’s go over this plea agreement word for word, just to be sure we’re on the same page.”

. . .

Da’Vonte pleaded guilty at his arraignment, and Judge Bridgeman sentenced him to the recommended 10 years. He’d get out in eight with good behavior, and then serve five years of supervised release.

The judge complimented Sonya on her zealous advocacy and told Da’Vonte he was lucky to have her as an attorney. “This is a good deal you got here, sir, given what they found you with.”

Sonya had received a few voice messages from Da’Vonte’s family asking if there was anything she could do. But she explained to them her representation of Da’Vonte had ended.

Case closed. One less file in her office.

She headed off to the Byrum County Jail to meet with a new client who had just been picked up for selling drugs to an informant. How original.

She was perusing the client’s
file for the first time when she heard the familiar clatter of chains approaching the little room. A young black man sat before her, dreadlocks piled atop his head.

“Hi, Mr. Edwards, my name is Sonya Church, and I’m here from the federal public defender’s office to represent you in this case.”


Ross Award winner sees the honor in public defenders' work

Runner-up essay: Still There in the Ashes