This is a story with a happy ending. It involves a knucklehead judge, a savvy judge, a lawyer, me, who was on this day smart enough to read the tea leaves, and a good person who got a good result.
The first part involves a tragedy. Ten years ago I represented a man who was charged with vehicular homicide. This was back in the days before the AR statute was changed to exclude the program for that offense. The client was an extremely decent, middle-aged, self-employed businessman. Although married to an American, he was not a citizen. In his Mom and Pop operation he employed a young man in his late teens who, as happens in those circumstances, had become almost a member of the family. He worked long hours with my client and often joined the family at dinner after the work day. My client and the employee became very close.
One night, or rather early morning, on the way back from an out-of town job, my client fell asleep at the wheel. There was no alcohol involved. You know the rest. He drove off the road and hit a tree. The young employee passenger was killed when the vehicle hit a tree. My client was devastated. He was overcome with guilt.
Charges were filed and he found his way to my office. These are always difficult cases. They tear your heart out. Fortunately, the parents of the young man understood in a way few of us can ever understand. They did not want my client to suffer any more than he and they already had. The case cried out for a disposition without a conviction. The parents strongly supported our application for Accelerated Rehabilitation. They wanted to come to Court to make their feelings known.
It seemed like an appropriate disposition. The understanding prosecutor did not disagree. We met with the knucklehead judge in chambers. We explained the tragedy, my client’s deep and sincere grief and the counseling he required, the lack of alcohol, and the fervent support of the decedent’s parents for this result. The judge listened patiently and indicated he understood.
We left chambers and approached when the case was called. I made an impassioned plea. My client was shaking beside me. The parents expressed their support for the program. Judge Knucklehead arrogantly announced that it was “this Court’s policy” not to grant AR in these situations. No prior warning, thank you. Just an announcement of the “policy” of “this Court”. My devastated client nearly collapsed.
We returned to the same courthouse a month later. The knucklehead had moved on. We pretried the case before a gentleman. I repeated my plea in chambers and asked this judge to reconsider the AR application. Judge Gentleman got it. He understood, he said, but he was uncomfortable being asked to, in effect, over-rule his esteemed predecessor. He pondered a while. Then a light went on. “How about”, he suggested, “a court trial? . . . Now.” I was awake. I got it. So did the prosecutor.
We went into the courtroom. I stipulated to the necessaries. The prosecutor presented what he had to. I didn’t object to hearsay. My greatly relieved client experienced the bittersweet acquittal. The legal end to a horrible experience which would scar him forever.
The client, sad but grateful, returned to work and I to my office to generate form letters assuring the records would be erased. Copies to the client. I moved on and assumed he did too. I expect my client’s perspective on the experience differed from mine. He had to live with the memory of the accident magnified by his courtroom humiliation. I was bitter at a judge who didn’t know enough to tell me “this Court’s policy” in chambers and, in denying the motion, assure the effects of the tragedy would be even more indelible for my client as well as his employee’s family.
That was ten years ago. I moved on to deal with other misfortunes of greater and lesser dimensions. It was yesterday’s problem. That book was closed.
Just last week, out of the blue, I got a call.
Did I remember the client.
Yes, of course.
Well, I want you to know I just became a citizen. In going through the process, though, I had to inform the authorities about the accident. I had to relive it all, including what happened in court. There was a real possibility this could stop me from becoming a citizen. But I showed them copies of the letters you sent [rather the form letters spewed from a machine into which his name and other identifying data had been injected] and they understood! It was a nullity. He had been acquitted and the records had been erased. He was euphoric.
He just wanted to say thank you. I reminded him this came about all because of a good judge who understood the right result and knew how to get there.
I have often said that the number of times in a career that a lawyer can actually get a good result for a good person—when all the gears actually mesh—are few and far between. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. This was one of them.