Friday, February 20, 2009

Sue Schmitz Comes Out Swinging

Alabama Rep. Sue Schmitz (D-Toney) took the stand in her own defense yesterday, employing a tactic that more criminal defendants probably should try in corruption cases.

Apparently in Criminal Law 101 at law schools across the country, students are taught that it's a bad idea to let a criminal defendant testify in his or her own defense. The idea seems to be this: If the prosecution fails to prove its case, argue that to the jury and don't take the risk of your client getting tripped up on cross examination.

But time after time, that strategy seems to fail. For example, I've often wondered if former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman could have avoided a conviction by taking the stand in his own defense.

In her testimony yesterday, Schmitz said she took legitimate steps to land a job with the Community Intensive Training for Youth (CITY) program, she was not seeking a job where she would not have to work, and she did work for her paycheck.

Schmitz did not testify on her own behalf in in her first trial, which resulted in a hung jury. She decided to take a more aggressive approach this time, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out.

It's possible that prosecutors will trip up Schmitz on the stand. But these prosecutors work for U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, so they can't be that smart. Martin and her cronies have proven time and again that they are a bunch of incompetent boobs, so why be afraid to stand up for yourself against laughable criminal charges?

My guess is that Schmitz has improved her chances of being acquitted. And it shouldn't hurt that a state judge yesterday ordered Central Alabama Community College, which oversees the CITY program, to rehire Schmitz and pay her back pay.

I haven't spent the first day in law school, but let me take a few guesses at why many criminal-defense lawyers are reluctant to let their clients take the stand, particularly in corruption cases:

* Corruption cases often are complex, involving many activities over a fairly long period of time. If the defendant takes the stand and exhibits a poor memory, that could look bad to the jury;

* Because corruption cases are complex, a skilled prosecutor can get a witness confused and put them on the defensive. Again, this could look bad to a jury;

* For many public officials--governors, legislators, mayors, etc.--their job description is, essentially, "deal making." That's what they do. They engage in give-and-take with various groups and constituents in an effort to get something accomplished--hopefully something for the public good. A skilled prosecutor can make this "deal making," which might be perfectly legitimate, sound like criminal activity.

* When defendants take the stand, it runs the risk of lengthening a trial considerably. Jurors and judges have limited patience and attention spans. Dragging a trial out, perhaps doubling it in length, could alienate the people who will determine your client's fate.

Of course, the No. 1 reason criminal-defense lawyers probably give for keeping their clients off the stand is this: "My client was corrupt and is guilty as h--l. No way I'm putting them on the stand."

That last concern clearly was not the case with Siegelman. And it isn't the case with Schmitz.

I think she made a wise move by standing up to the boobs who work for Alice Martin. If Schmitz is convicted, my guess is that it won't be because she took the stand. A conviction probably will mean the judge is a buffoon and/or the jury is clueless--which means Schmitz would have been convicted anyway.

If Schmitz' strategy is successful, perhaps law professors will think again about the advice they hand out in Criminal Law 101.


Anonymous said...

I thought "public servants" were elected to serve their constituents, not to make "deals" and possibly in Schmitz case to enrich themselves at the public trough. And what is the public good?

Matt Osborne said...

An interesting legal question, to be sure. Of course, most lawyers will give that last reason -- defendants do themselves no favors on the stand when they're guilty or their testimony could be misconstrued. But law is like any other study: there are no absolutes. If a defendant can render strong testimony that bolsters their case, then it's probably not a bad idea.