`We are the living Constitution'. Making sure `people without power' get their day in court, says public defender Stephanie Page, protects everyone. `When I keep the cops out of a vagrant's pockets, I keep them out of your bedroom.' The world of a public defender
Boston — STEPHANIE PAGE can't sit still. She paces the nearly empty courtroom as though measuring it for carpeting. She leans over the defense counsel's table, fussing with notes she's studied a dozen times. She looks again at the clock on the wall, pulls on her trademark bottle of diet cola, and resumes pacing. Let the record in the case of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Lawyer Johnson show that the attorney for the accused, public defender Stephanie Page, is - as usual - the first to arrive in court, exhaustively prepared, and impatient.
``C'mon, Judge, c'mon,'' she mutters.
Part of Ms. Page's fidgitiness is simply ``butterflies.'' Even after nine years of arguing before juries, she still experiences the clammy palms and abdominal churning. ``When someone's fate is in my hands and I don't get nervous,'' she says, ``I'll know it's time to quit.''
But there's another reason for her anxiety, as well: She's convinced that her client didn't commit the assault, attempted rape, and robbery with which he's charged. Moreover, she's got what she thinks is an airtight defense. Yet these facts offer only cold comfort.
``I hate cases like this,'' she groans. ``The cops have the wrong guy, and if something goes wrong, if we lose, it'll just kill me.''
She grins. ``Now, if my guy did do it and I had a defense like this, the case would be fun.''
At last there is stirring. Various court officers and the stenographer enter and take their places. Lawyer Johnson is led in and his handcuffs removed. In his mid-30s, he is older than most of Page's clients, many of whom are barely adults. Like nearly all of them, however, Mr. Johnson comes from an impoverished background and has a prison record. He may be not guilty this time, but he's hardly innocent. Public defenders don't encounter many choirboys.
``All rise,'' the bailiff intones as the judge enters the chamber.
Why do you do it? That's the question, spoken and unspoken, that public defenders are asked over and over again - by family, friends, other lawyers, casual acquaintances.
Why do you spend your days with ``lowlifes''? Why do you work those long hours for relatively meager pay? Why do you throw sand into the gears of the criminal-justice system? Why do you try to put murderers and muggers, rapists and robbers, back onto the street?
The answers to these questions are as different as the men and women who are asked them. They are a complex amalgam of reasons personal, philosophical, and political.
From the moment she entered law school at Northeastern University, Stephanie Page didn't want to be anything but a PD. ``I sympathized with people who are without power,'' she says. It probably had to do with her own upbringing, she speculates. Page grew up in a low-income family in rural New Hampshire. After high school, she worked in a shoe factory for four years before enrolling in a local community college. Then a scholarship got her to Vassar for two years, and law school followed.
In 1978 Page joined what now goes under the unwieldy moniker of the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services. The committee's lawyers represent indigent defendants charged with serious crimes and coordinate the work of a network of private lawyers who represent the poor in lesser criminal cases.
The committee has 12 offices around the state. Page works out of the largest of these, the Suffolk County office, which covers Boston.
After nearly a decade, she is one of the most experienced of the 22 trial lawyers in her office. For her work, which includes - in addition to a heavy load of ongoing cases - many nights and weekends spent doing research, discharging administrative duties, or at the scenes of crimes being her own gumshoe, Page makes less than two-thirds the salary paid to starting lawyers at Boston's major law firms.
On the night of Aug. 6, 1986, as Nancy Randolph (not her real name) walked along a Boston street, a black man ran up behind her, dragged her 50 feet into dark shadows, and tried to force himself upon her. When she struggled, the man grabbed her purse and sprinted off into the night. Several weeks later, Randolph pointed to a photo of Lawyer Johnson and told a police detective, ``That's the one.''
Seventeen days before the incident, on July 20, 1986, Johnson had broken his ankle. He was put into a cast that went from his foot to his thigh. When he visited a doctor for a checkup on Aug. 18, his leg was still encased. Page has medical records establishing the chronology, and she also has expert testimony from two physicians about the limited mobility of a man in Johnson's condition.
To be sure, public defenders don't have the greatest working conditions: long days, modest pay, hours spent interviewing clients in dingy holding cells. What's not true about PDs - at least in Boston - is that they don't have the time to do the job properly: PDs have the time and, by and large, the resources to be the best defense lawyers they are capable of being.
``We do everything that needs to be done to represent our clients,'' Page says emphatically. ``We never compromise on that.'' Since they don't have to bill their clients for their time or for the costs of such services as private investigators, medical or psychiatric tests, and expert witnesses, PDs don't have to make the difficult corner-cutting choices that confront many private defense lawyers.
PDs can ask the court for funds for special defense needs, and usually get the money. In deciding whether to perform a test, hire an investigator, or bring in an expert, Page says, ``Our standard is, if the client were a millionaire and could pay for it out of his own pocket, would we do it? If the answer is yes, we do it.''
The satisfaction of doing a difficult job right, and gaining the affection and respect of their co-workers, are among the few rewards PDs get, however. Certainly they get little enough appreciation from the public at large - who mainly see defense lawyers as mouthpieces for the ``bad guys'' and masters of ``legal technicalities'' - and still less from police, prosecutors, and even judges.
Partly this is because the other participants in the criminal-justice system fret that PDs slow down the process. But also, PDs say, the hostility from officialdom they encounter stems from contempt for their clients. ``Everyone in the system is after your client,'' says Arnold Rosenfeld, the committee's chief counsel and Page's boss. ``You are his only defender. The presumption of innocence doesn't actually operate for poor criminal defendants. PDs must act on the assumption that they have the burden of proof, not the commonwealth.''
Says Page, ``You always have to keep people mindful that your client is a human being. The prosecutor has the whole power of government behind him. He's got the police, he's got detectives, he's got all sorts of resources, and he's got the predisposition of jurors to believe in their police and their government. ``All the defendant's got is me. But that prosecutor has to go through me to get my client, and I'm going to make it as hard for him as I can.''
Not that PDs can expect much gratitude from their clients, either. ``Clients rarely say thanks,'' Mr. Rosenfeld says. ``Our gratification has to come from knowing we did the best we could and, to some extent, saw justice done, whether the client knows it or not.''
``Here's how a lot of clients look at us,'' says Page. ``The Constitution says you must have a lawyer to go to jail. So we're the lawyers who make it legal for the state to send them away. To them, we're just an-other part of the system....''
Page is cross-examining a police officer about discrepancies in two descriptions of her assailant given by Nancy Randolph. Page intimates that the second description, which more closely resembled Johnson than one Randolph gave immediately after the incident, resulted from coaching by the officer. Page is persistent but polite. The policeman holds his ground.
Out of earshot Page mutters, ``He's lying through his teeth.''
What about the police, she is asked. In the years since Miranda and other Supreme Court decisions tightened the restrictions on police procedures, have the forced confessions and other abuses ceased? ``Of course there are fewer police beatings and things like that,'' Page says. ``But there is still plenty of misconduct. The police have just gotten better at it. They know what to say [on the stand], how to testify so that misconduct doesn't come out.''
Page says she is circumspect about calling attention to what she sees as misconduct, however, because in most cases it would be counterproductive. ``Jurors want to believe that police tell the truth,'' she says; ``they want to believe that their government is doing the right thing. You have to be careful about disabusing them of those feelings.'' Even when she thinks that a witness is lying, she'll comment to jurors on how ``we all make mistakes'' and have ``lapses of memory.''
She can be tough in cross-examination, though, which she calls the real art of her profession. She recalls with glee the time a prosecution witness became so roiled as she shredded his testimony that he stood up and took a swing at her.
Page is also very protective of her reputation with judges. She says she never tries to make a judge look bad or engage in showy or dilatory tactics simply for their own sake. ``Everything I say to a judge has to be true. When I appear before a judge, my credibility is the biggest asset I and my client have. I can't afford to squander it.''
Page has rested her defense without putting Johnson on the stand. The Fifth Amendment gives defendants the right to be silent, and Page says she calls her clients to testify only when ``absolutely necessary.'' The defendant is likely to be nervous and inarticulate. ``I'd rather have my client sitting at the defense table looking good than sitting on the stand sounding bad,'' she says.
The PD delivers her closing argument. She rehearses the facts and lets sarcasm enter her voice as she debunks the prosecutor's suggestion that Johnson could have removed his cast, committed the crime, and replaced the cast before his next doctor's visit. She concludes: ``What happened to Nancy Randolph was dreadful. But don't compound the horror by convicting an innocent man. If Lawyer Johnson wins, that doesn't mean that Nancy Randolph loses, or that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts loses. Nobody wins when an innocent man goes to jail.''
The question persists: Why does she do it? OK, maybe the police arrested the wrong man in this mugging. But what about the two rapists Page defended a month ago? What about that murderer last year? What about the child molesters, or the guys who beat up old people for a few dollars, or the ones who deal crack to school kids? What about the 90 percent of her cases that end in plea bargains because the evidence against the defendants is too strong to go before a jury? How can she defend those people?
The ever-intense Page becomes even more so. ``I don't believe in a sliding scale of justice. The Constitution applies to all of us equally. And, believe it or not, I've almost never had a client I couldn't like as a person. They're people, too.''
She warms to her subject. ``There are lots of victims in our system of justice. The victims of crime are just one kind of victim. What about the people whose lives are ruined because they're falsely accused, who have the full weight of government fall on them for something they didn't do? Lawyer Johnson served 10 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, before they caught the right guy.
``And talking about victims, we have a society that allows families to live in poverty for generation after generation,'' Page continues. ``We let kids graduate from high school not even knowing how to read, and without any life prospects. The criminal-justice system is just the tip of the iceberg of the lives the poor lead. These people come to me with no hope. I won't have any trouble doing this job until society makes sure everyone is treated equally.
``You asked if people like me aren't proof that our criminal-justice system is fair. I would never say to a client, `Look, I got you off, or I got your sentence reduced, so the system works.' That would be a disservice to them, because it might make them let down their guard. For them the system doesn't work; it's oppressive.''
She pauses. There are things that have been left unsaid, about individual free will, and human depravity, and the right of people in an ordered society to be free of crime. Yet the passion - and the truth - of her words hang in the air.
``I'll tell you another thing,'' Page continues. ``You benefit from what I do, too. When I keep the cops out of a vagrant's pockets on the street, I keep them out of your bedroom. I really believe that. We're the living Constitution.''
On Friday, March 4, 1988, the jury finds Lawyer Johnson not guilty. On Monday, a new case awaits Stephanie Page.