In 1992 I was arrested, tried and eventually found not guilty of a crime that I did not commit. I’ve written about some of the details of the case before if you are interested.
In hopes of writing a memoir someday, I tried to obtain the transcript of my arraignment and trial from the Massachusetts courthouse where these proceedings were held. It turns out that those transcripts no longer exist. Audio transcripts, which are how the court’s proceedings are recorded today, must only be saved for two years following a case, and anything prior to 1996 no longer exists in any form save a single sheet of paper indicating the determination of the court.
I was pretty disappointed. I recall a great deal about the trial and the days leading up to it, but I had hoped to have an exact record of that frightening time in my life in order to gain a better understanding of how certain things happened.
The part about the trial that still bothers me the most was the way in which I was denied a court-appointed attorney. At the time of my arrest, I was earning $24,000 a year as a McDonald’s manager. I had recently purchased a 1992 Toyota Tercel. These two factors, and especially the car, caused the judge at my arraignment to declare me fit to retain my own counsel.
I tried to explain that my arrest would surely result in the loss of my job and a complete loss of income, but the judge’s fixation on my “brand new car” left me without legal counsel.
I never quite understood how this was possible.
So I contacted an attorney and former prosecutor this week to ask how this could have happened, and she explained that legal counsel is appointed based upon financial need. “You need to be pretty close to the poverty line to be assigned an attorney by the court,” she explained.
Even though I would be jobless and homeless less than a month after my arrest, I was not technically near the poverty level at the time of my arraignment, and therefore the judge was entirely within his rights to deny me counsel.
Without an attorney or parents to advise me about the possibility of reapplying for legal counsel after I had lost my job and home, I was stuck.
But regardless of my financial standing at the time of my arraignment, I have a serious problem with this poverty-line requirement.
If you are arrested for a crime that you did not commit and you are not living at or near the poverty line, you are required to pay for your own legal counsel. This means that when and if you are found not guilty, there is no way of recovering the thousands of dollars spent defending your innocence.
In my case, a single police officer ignored the assertions of my employer that I was innocent and arrested me for grand larceny, even after several company officials assured the officer that the money had been lost and not stolen.
This decision sent my life into a two year spiral which resulted:
- The loss of my home
- The loss of my job
- A three year suspension of my college aspirations
- My inability to leave the state (which was initially planned at the time of my arrest)
- $25,000 in legal fees
- Two years spent working eighteen hours a day at two different jobs in order to recover financially, find a new home and pay my legal bills
In addition, it was while working at the second of these two jobs that I was robbed at gunpoint, beaten, tortured and left suffering for years with post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s bad enough that a police officer’s incorrect decision can do so much damage to a person’s life, but to then be told that you are required to spend thousands of dollars defending your innocence with no means of restitution once that innocence has been proven is not the way the legal system should operate. Saddling innocent people with enormous debt after they have done nothing wrong is something that we should not accept.
I understand that police officers and prosecutors can make mistakes, but just as the guilty must pay for their mistakes, the justice system should pay when they make mistakes of their own. There was no way that the Massachusetts criminal justice system could have made up for the two years of turmoil that their mistakes cost me, but is it too much to ask that they cover the legal bills after denying me legal counsel?
I don’t think so.
In the end, I got lucky. Rather than going to trial, I could have accepted a plea agreement for a suspended sentence and a fine considerably less than the legal fees that I eventually paid, and I suspect that most people in my circumstances would have done exactly that despite their innocence.
At the time, my attorney said that most people would have accepted the deal and moved on with their life.
I nearly did.
How many people in my position; innocent, homeless, jobless, and without any support of family, would find a way to hire legal counsel, work two full time jobs in order to pay for it, and ultimately prove their innocence?
But for those of us who find ourselves in these bewildering, frightening circumstances, trapped in a miasma not of our own making, with the full financial resources and legal expertise of the state pitted against us, shouldn’t there be a path to financial restitution once the fault is found to lie not with us but in the hands of a police officer and a prosecutor who arrested and tired an innocent man?
I think so.