Law Day Reflections from an AmeriCorps Member

By, Michael Patterson

On Law Day (April, 29th) three attorneys from Bronx Defenders, Judge Hecht, and myself sat with a group of students from the school of Law Government & Justice high school to examine the role of defense attorneys in the criminal justice system. The students asked a few questions and each of the panelists would answer each question the students asked.  It was a learning experience for them and for me as well because i received answers to some of the questions I always wanted to ask. Three Questions that caught my attention were:  1. What made the panelists want to become a defense attorney?  2. Why should an attorney defend a guilty client? 3. What makes me (Michael) want to become a defense attorney?

What made the panelist want to become what they are today? I always felt like this was a very competitive field to study with a lot of difficulties so I found that question very interesting and I always wondered how an attorney or judge would answer that question.  One of the attorneys answered that question by saying he wanted to be the voice for those who couldn’t afford a private lawyer. I agreed with him because that would be the reason why I would want to become a public defense attorney. I live in similar neighborhoods that these defendants come from so I know how it is to not be able to afford a lawyer and I know how it is to be accused of something that you did not do.  For  example, “Trespassing”.  A lot of people don’t know or even think about trespassing when they are at their destination. So for the police to approach them off guard can be a little aggravating. Although it is the law, I feel if the person can prove that their going to a friend’s house or they do have a reason for being at that location then the arrest should not be made.

When I asked the panelists “Why should an attorney defend a client if he/she is guilty?” I thought they wouldn’t know how to answer it. I thought that was a brilliant question because that is a question I always asked myself but never had an answer until that day. Sean Riley, of the Bronx Defenders said that everyone deserves a second chance and as an attorney it’s his duty to defend his client as much as possible. The students didn’t seem to agree by the looks on their faces.  I agree but I wonder how the attorney feels when the accused was proven innocent with them knowing that their client was really guilty. Tricky question.

When one of the students asked me “What makes me want to become an attorney?” it sort of caught me off guard because I wasn’t expecting to answer any questions. I would like to be an attorney because I’ve been on both sides of the fence which gives me the ability to understand my clients more.  I’m young and I’ve had police interaction before. Also from what I see and hear, the majority of the people getting arrested for low level crimes are age 17 through 25. I see a problem in that and I wouldn’t mind being the voice for the accused.  Sean Riley of the Bronx Defenders said if the youth see the police the first thing they think is harassment and when the police see the youth the first thing they think is trouble. I agree with that statement and I feel there has to be a way to change that perception.

Having the opportunity to sit with the students from L.G.J. and the 4 panelists was a great experience. It was also an honor. I never actually got to sit beside judges and defense attorneys before.  I hope to do something like this again.