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.
A 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.
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 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.
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.