LLA Series: ‘People Like Us Never Win’

The attitude of criminal legal aid clients, winning a drug case involving an addict and two prostitutes, and a challenge to assumptions about the previously convicted.

Legal-Aid2A pervasive attitude amongst my criminal legal aid clientele, especially those with previous convictions, is that they will always lose against the police. Even when they choose to defend the charge, they lack the confidence to win. Even if they did not commit the crime. To them the criminal justice system is not about right and wrong. It is about those with power or money and those without. They are acutely aware of their status as an impecunious society outcast. Who are up against the awesome machinery of the State. They – mere drug addicts, prostitutes, previously convicted thieves, often not even making it pass primary school – are up against the police force, the forensics unit, the Attorney General’s Chambers, civil society (if there are witnesses from the public) and sometimes the bias of the presiding judge – people who have learned and trained for their respective specialty. Then there are some of those judges so pro-prosecution they convict with their eyes closed. You may raise so many doubts that you raise the dead but it will all come to naught. And some have no family or friends. The only thing these outcasts have, the only thing they can rely and depend on is that sole pro bono lawyer defending them. It’s like David with two hands tied behind his back against several fire-breathing multi-headed Goliaths.

I used to think those with previous convictions and jail timewould not think it a big deal. Once bitten, twice brazen sort of thing. A case that challenged this assumption was a drug charge against 2 women and a man.

Both the women were previously convicted of prostitution and drug related charges although only one of them was a recovering addict at the time of arrest. The other managed to kick the habit and was trying to get back with her daughter she had abandoned with a friend earlier. The man was your typical drug addict working just enough to afford his next hit. At the time of arrest he was spaced out on his latest high in a room rented from the drug dealer who owned the place.

An accurate depiction of a bag of drugs. Source: wilsonmessengergallery.blogspot.com

An accurate depiction of a bag of drugs. Source: wilsonmessengergallery.blogspot.com

Though all 3 were in different rooms at the time of arrest, they were jointly charged for possession of a bag of drugs found in a room at the end of the hall. They claimed that room belonged to the drug dealer who owned the house. While I was interviewing them about the facts, one of the ladies said (I have paraphrased and translated for reading ease), ‘From your questions, I know you don’t believe us because we have been convicted before. I know you think we are not good people, that is okay, but I tell you those drugs were not ours. I cannot even make ends meet, how can I afford so much drugs? Just because we are prostitutes or a drug addict does not mean we are not telling the truth. For us, if we did something, even if it’s bad, we will admit it. You see our previous convictions. Almost all we pled guilty to all of them. But those drugs I swear to you are not ours.’

And they did tell the truth. At the end of the prosecution’s case they won. Their story was briefly this: They each rented a room from the drug dealer. The man was getting high. One of the ladies was attending to a customer. The other was cooling her heels due to pick up her daughter a few hours later. Early in the morning, the police raided the house unannounced. Although the house was full only 3 of them were caught in the raid. So naturally they were charged for the bag of drugs found in the house.

The tools addicts use to chase the dragon.

The tools addicts use to chase the dragon.

The prosecution’s story went as follows: the lead raiding officer surreptitiously climbed up to the 1st floor ledge. Through an unobscured window spied them ‘chasing the dragon‘ in the room containing the bag of drugs. Upon seeing this they announced themselves and demanded my clients give themselves up. The 3 of them allegedly ran out of the room. The police quickly smashed through the window, gave chase and quickly apprehended them. The prosecution lost simply because the evidence did not support the case. The story was riddled with inconsistencies, but what clinched the win was the investigating officer’s evidence verifying that he found no drug utensils anywhere in the house. This blatantly contradicted the lead arresting officer’s account that my clients fled the room and left the drug utensils on the floor.

Not the type of dragon drug abusers enjoy chasing.

Not the type of dragon drug abusers enjoy chasing.

When the verdict was announced, I did not immediately turn to the back and congratulate my clients. As I mentioned earlier, since they had multiple previous convictions (at least 2 each), I thought an acquittal was not a big deal to them. I gathered my things, tied up my file and only turned to address them after I finished packing up.

To my surprise they were crying and hugging each other. After congratulating them I asked why they were crying. The more outspoken of the two ladies summed it up when she said, ‘We cannot believe the court decided in our favour. People like us never win against the police. Never in our dreams did we think we would win. We still cannot believe that we can just walk out after this.’

I shook their hands and gave them my usual caution to them about how I didn’t want to see their names any more on the Legal Aid Centre list.

Fahri Azzat has chased many things in his time like justice, time and love but never dragons as he thinks them too dangerous. He believes that when we are prevented from chasing more important things in life, we end up chasing dragons, which in truth is a metaphor for our inner demons and inability to control them. The game Dragon Age is highly recommended by him though.


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Posts by Fahri Azzat

Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 13 March 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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11 Responses to LLA Series: ‘People Like Us Never Win’

  1. Hi norizzatiz, I don't have a personal blog. Whatever I write goes up on LoyarBurok. So most of my writings post 2006/7 are on the blog. If you want to read some of the earlier stuff I wrote just click on my name and it should bring up all the articles I have written. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

  2. norizzatiz

    Fahri, do you have your personal blog, the one you conducted yourself? Free to share the link? I'm looking forward for your articles. Cheers.

  3. KC

    Hey Fahri, that's quite a piece! Been learning a lot from your LLA series and please keep it going :) Next LoyarBaca project!

    Also, what are you playing now? ;)

  4. mind-boggling

    Fahri you gave them miracle and justice .

    im always looking forward to read your articles.

    thank you for sharing.good job.

  5. Hi Chong, it's because the police, prosecutor, the judge or my clients are not going to lodge a police report about it.

  6. Chong Hon Mun

    Fahri, good job ^^ I only wonder why the officers involved were not charged for giving blatantly false testimony.

  7. Hi everybody, thanks for the kind words.

    Isketambola, been gaming since I was 7 years old back in the days of the Atari and the 8088 PC chip! Console and PC gamer, jangan main!

    Liam, you have awesome pedigree man. Your dad kicks serious ass! If he's ever down in Asia, let me know cos I wanna meet him! The dude was Tupac Shakur's godfather to boot! And the injustice to him far outstrips those I am usually accustomed to. Pratt was a Vietnam vet to boot – what utter disgrace how America treated him.

  8. Liam

    great piece fahri. My father is a criminal defense lawyer in San Francisco, and, has a bunch of stories just like this. People's sense of despair upon entering the criminal justice system, regardless of the evidence presented against them, is truly astonishing. As you say, the lawyer really is sometimes the only person they have.

    I don't know if you remember talking about this with me on the retreat, but this guy's case is one the most well known things my dad has been involved in. pretty interesting and shocking situation – classic conspiracy theory all the way from the FBI down to the LAPD.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geronimo_Pratt

  9. Nor Izzati Zack

    Nice one Fahri Azzat!

  10. siewchinteo

    and that, Fahri Azzat, is what honor in the profession is all about! word is probably now out in the streets that YOU are their atticus finch ;)

  11. isketambola

    a lawyer and a gamer…..cool