“The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” –The myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
After three grueling days of jury selection and trial testimony, the anticipation of the final verdict made the courtroom eerily quiet. The stakes were high, as the defendant was charged with armed robbery and attempted murder, both of which carried a penalty of life imprisonment without parole.
My client, only sixteen years old at the time of the crime, still looked like a young boy despite having spent nearly three years in lockup waiting for trial.
While I had tried a number of cases to that point, a few misdemeanor and minor felonies, none matched the seriousness of this one. I knew the prosecutor, James Haselden, from my brief stint as a prosecutor two years earlier. Haselden had a well-earned reputation of being a competent, methodical sort—almost boring, but highly effective. I realized that for whatever reason, he was self-assured throughout the negotiations in this case, which included an offer of forty years in prison.
One of the clearest ways to know whether a prosecutor is unsure of his case is when he begins acceding to defense demands in plea conferences. At any rate, if left up to Haselden, my client would have next seen freedom as a middle-aged man, if he survived at all considering the putrid living conditions in state prison.
Haselden’s cockiness bewildered me considering that my hours of preparation, which included pouring over numerous pages of police reports and depositions seeking to ascertain the truth, had revealed weaknesses. To be certain, his trump card was a surveillance video, similar to the one in the critically acclaimed 1993 movie “Menace II Society” where the film’s main characters participate in a robbery and murder–on tape. One character in that film, “O-Dog,” was so amused that he played the tape over and over for his friends and joked of selling it for “59.99.”
The difference in this case was that the tape was far from high-definition, and the shadowy figure shown demanding money and firing shots at the store clerk could have been one of a number of misguided young black males living in or passing through Tallahassee, Florida.
The prosecution had another problem–the victim, a recent immigrant from Nigeria, could not successfully pick my client out of a photo lineup. Therein lay our best chance, I reckoned, with the understanding that if one black man could not definitively say that another was the perpetrator, even a predominantly white jury would be hesitant to convict.
The courtroom filled quickly for the closing arguments; my client’s family on one side holding vigil, some crying, others praying, all hoping that their loved one would be set free. On the other side sat mostly younger prosecutors, eager to learn from their older colleague the techniques of persuading juries to their cause.
(A young and idealistic Hobbs)
Assistant State Attorney Haselden had done a commendable job in trying his case, up and until the point that the victim testified and hesitated to name my client. During closing argument, he tried desperately to get around that by showing the video image and asking the jury to decide based upon that.
“Big mistake” I said to myself.
During closing argument I pounced, displaying a cool demeanor that belied the major tremors of apprehension that roared in my stomach. I carefully began poking hole upon hole into the state’s theory. With my usual mixture of history and poetry, with a voice that boomed like a Baptist preacher one moment, or seemed detached and clinical like a college professor the next, I continued to hammer upon the one thing that the prosecution could not prove—the identity of the perpetrator. I even went so far as to suggest that for all that we knew the perpetrator in the video was Peter Warrick, the former Florida State football star who was well-loved in these parts. While the jury laughed and knew that it wasn’t Pete, the point resonated that they were not sure of the identity.
(Years after invoking his name during closing arguments, I’m chilling here with football legend Peter Warrick during the 2018 Florida vs FSU football game)
After closing arguments in any trial the courtroom personnel, who sometimes includes the judges, linger nearby discussing idle topics like football while awaiting the verdict. Most defense attorneys feel that the longer the jury stays out, the better it is for the defense. This is inexact science, as the reverse has also yielded acquittals in my experience, too.
Despite my closing argument, which the family and several other interested observers had referred to as “wonderful,” the prosecutor continued to strut about like a peacock– arrogant and confident–as if he knew the outcome was secure and that my client’s fate was sealed.
After several hours of waiting, the rap on the door by the bailiff indicated that a decision had been reached. The family, having prayed with me in the hallways to have the strength to accept the Lord’s will whatever it may be, slowly filed back into the courtroom.
Although I had already warned the family to avoid any outbursts either way, the Judge, an affable former prosecutor named Timothy Harley, reminded all parties to avoid any outbursts following the decision.
It is common practice that the defendant is shackled when brought up for pronouncement of the verdict, I guess to keep the potentially condemned from attempting to flee. While I was used to seeing the defendants wearing jumpsuits and in chains during routine case managements, but it was odd watching a young man shackled in his Sunday best, fidgeting, trying to look like a hardened thug though his eyes betrayed his real sentiment–which was his ardent hope that he would be released. I leaned over and whispered that it would be all right, although in all honesty, I had no way of knowing for sure.
As it is in every case, the clerk of court published the verdict, stating loudly that the “Jury finds the defendant…Not Guilty…of Armed Robbery and Attempted Murder.”
The previous warnings went unheeded, as a chorus of “Hallelujahs” erupted from behind me. My client, barely a man at 19 years of age, began weeping like a little boy as his family members rushed to his side to hold onto him, knowing that their ordeal would be over soon.
In between the sobs I told my client that he had received a tremendous blessing. Wiping his tears, he told me, as he had many times before, that he was going to enter the military and make something of himself. I had no reason to believe that he would not.
His mother and grandmother thanked me profusely, reminding me that I was “anointed by God” and that I would be the “next Johnnie Cochran,” compliments that made me light-headed considering my love for Cochran, whose legal career in Southern California was legendary for fighting racism and corruption within the criminal justice system long before the majority of the country learned of his identity during the OJ Simpson trial.
As the family parted ways, I began loading all of my documents into my brief box. The prosecutor, whose look of confidence had morphed into mild anger, kept shaking his head and repeating that he couldn’t believe that the jury had voted to acquit. Having been taught to be a gracious winner, I offered no advice or post trial commentary.
One of my longtime colleagues in the State Attorney’s Office, a prosecutor named Jackie Fulford who would later become a circuit judge, laughingly patted me on the back and told me that “my boy had gotten away with one.” While walking off and considering her words, my smile turned into a hearty laugh as I thought “true dat”– satisfied that my hard work had paid off.
The last laugh, however, would not be mine…
Barely three weeks after the victory, while walking into court for a routine case management, Jackie, sitting among several prosecutors, began smiling as she asked whether I had “heard the news about your boy?” Puzzled, I told her that I had not and she proceeded to inform me that my recently freed client had just been arrested on suspicion of nine separate armed robberies.
Nine. Separate. God Damned. Armed. Robberies?!?!?
I visited the kid at the jail to ascertain what happened. Denying any involvement, his plaintive response, while sobbing, was “I guess Mr. Hobbs you’re going to have to do it again.” “It,” I guessed, referred to the victory from the previous month…
A flood of emotions filled me–anger, sadness, dejection and finally, acceptance. I knew that a second victory, much less a string of nine, would be highly unlikely. I sat angry at the thought that all of the time that I had spent preparing, and all of the assurances that he had given about his future, were for naught. It donned upon me for the first time in my career that I had been played, conned by a man much younger than I but far savvier in the ways of a true hustler. I felt that I was the butt of some cruel damned joke and my thoughts lingered upon his family, whose belief that their loved one did not commit any of the nine robberies blinded them to the obvious, that they had very likely spent their last month with him outside the penal walls of confinement.
Driving away from the jail I had a sobering vision, a revelation that remains to this very moment; the practice of law, more often than not, is depressing beyond words.
When I embarked upon my legal career following graduation from the University of Florida College of Law, I did so with the exuberance and idealism of a man who understood how important the legal profession was in allowing people of color to fully participate in the fabric of the United States of America.
The practice of law–or the perception of it at least–was a hot commodity when I was a law student in the 1990s. From the very popular ABC series The Practice, to the campy Fox comedy Ally McBeal, America could not get enough of watching fictional characters take on cases. For those who preferred real life drama, there was CourtTV, a network founded in the wake of the yearlong OJ Simpson double murder trial that was designed to satisfy a public that missed its daily OJ fix.
Even prior to these shows, Perry Mason and the 1980’s hit series L.A. Law had provided a measure of glitz and glamour to the legal profession. In the process, the profession became a unique paradox, one part loved and another part loathed. Lawyers are loved by some for being gallant individuals that zealously fight for truth and justice. Lawyers are loathed by other individuals that believe that the profession is filled with truth subverting types that are singularly focused on deriving profit.
(My first major media case involved representing former Florida State University quarterback Adrian McPherson in his 2003 gambling/grand theft case)
To understand this paradox, particularly with respect to race and race relations, one must look at the evolution of the legal profession from this country’s inception.
Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father, was also a lawyer and author of the Declaration of Independence. It is curious to note that Jefferson, who would serve as the third president, is immortalized for writing that all men are “Endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights, among them, the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Ironically, this beautiful passage had little meaning to the nearly three million men and women of African descent that were in bondage at the time, including a fair number on his own plantation Monticello.
James Madison, another Founding Father and slaveholder, was also a lawyer. Revered as the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s handiwork is considered the bedrock of modern democracy. Curiously, few individuals, when discussing the intricacies of the “Original Intent” of that hallowed document understand that the very mentioning of “Original Intent” is offensive to those of African descent because it is apparent that the Founding Fathers viewed blacks as 3/5 of a whole human being.
Still, throughout our history, many of the most influential figures in American society were lawyers, men who were fraught with the vicissitudes that mark the failings of the human mind. For over three centuries, lawyers have been influential government and civic leaders as well as advocates, sometimes for change, and in certain instances, of chaos.
Lawyers were responsible for writing the laws that formed the basis of the Slave Codes before the Civil War, which were replaced by the equally sinister “Black Codes” during the era of Jim Crow.
Lawyers served as members of the United States Supreme Court that held that in 1857 that Dred Scott had no rights as a citizen to bring suit in any American court. In 1896 that same court, though composed of a new set of former lawyers, would render blacks as a permanent underclass by its Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that created the doctrine of “Separate but Equal.” And it would be lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston who would lead the charge to ultimately see the Plessy decision overturned by Brown vs. Boardof Education of Topeka case in 1954.
As to my sometimes wretched lot, in many respects, if America is embroiled in a war on crime, then criminal lawyers, both public defenders and privately retained, are the grunt soldiers. Similar to military grunts, criminal lawyers witness the horrors of human behavior on a daily basis and are expected to do so without complaining. While some may consider this dramatic when considering that criminal lawyers are often afforded the accoutrements of success–late-model cars, nice homes and expensive vacations, the truth is that these benefits rarely outweigh the detriment of observing aberrant behavior on a daily basis.
Suffice it to say that for the better part of my career, I have been a grunt. This is not how I intended to be, growing up revering men like Thurgood Marshall and Johnnie Cochran, men who fought for the rights of people like me to participate in every aspect of American society. Much like the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, who was doomed by the gods to forever roll a boulder up a steep hill, there is a sheer inanity to the never-ending game of cat and mouse that sees defendants commit crimes, law enforcement arrest them for it, and me, the grunt, attempting to work deals or defend when appropriate.
For defense lawyers who are only concerned with profit, than this career choice is wise because high recidivism rates, where clients go to jail in January, get out in June only to go back in October, are the norm in most states.
(Accoutrements of financial success come at a steep price)
But for me, nearly 20 years in the profession has led to the conclusion that the criminal justice system comprises the last front of the greater Civil Rights Movement, as crime and its corresponding punishment greatly depends upon the race of the perpetrator. In many respects, the millions of black and brown individuals rotting in America’s prison are nothing more than commodities in a highly profitable prison industrial complex.
And yet, while cognizant of systemic racism, as a grunt I am also keenly aware that many of those trapped in prison are there because they refuse to comply with the dictates of living in an orderly society.
I often find myself asking why should the public care about the dope peddlers that are causing legions of blacks to become walking zombies as they ingest their poison.
Why should the public care about a grandfather who has repeatedly molested his five-year-old grandchild? Why shouldn’t the judge sentence an 18-year-old to life without parole when, in the process of invading an elderly woman’s home, he placed a pistol in her mouth and told her to “suck on this, bitch?”
For 20 years now, I have struggled with these competing thoughts, striving to balance being an advocate with being a righteous individual. Much like the fictional adaptation of Oscar Schindler in “Schindler’s List,” I often find myself haunted about how many young black men and women I was unable to save.
(Last month, I watched the 25th anniversary re-release of “Schindler’s List at AMC)
And yet, unlike the Jewish workers who were being murdered because of their faith during the Holocaust, most of my clients that were unable to be saved find themselves in their dolorific doldrums due to personal failures stemming from deep societal issues that existed long before they were born.
Further, unlike the anonymous military grunt, in addition to its pecuniary advantages, a criminal practice certainly offers moments of fame and in some instances, infamy. The old news adage “if it bleeds it leads” certainly creates the prospect that even the most average criminal lawyer can receive a level of local notoriety for his services at some point during their career.
Still, more often than not, the grunt’s job is performed in almost drone like fashion. For these reasons, it is of little surprise that lawyers have higher incidents of suicide and alcoholism than other professions. In my 20 years, I have lost a dear colleague to suicide, had one client blow his head off with a shotgun blast the day before jury selection in his case, and I’ve known far too many lawyers who self-medicate their depression through alcohol abuse, drugs and the like. Ours can be a noble lot, but often an unhappy one as we descend into the darkness of the human heart day in and day out.
This is even doubly so for the black criminal lawyer, the “grunt’s grunt,” so to speak, an individual that has the dubious distinction of knowing that the overwhelming majority of those in the penal system look just like them. In Florida, blacks comprise approximately better than 60 percent of individuals incarcerated in prison. Conversely, blacks constitute fewer than six percent of practicing attorneys.
(My second major media case on CourtTv, the Kappa Hazing case, tried in tandem with my childhood friend and Morehouse College roommate, Attorney Richard Keith Alan II)
While there are no statistics to show how many black lawyers specialize in criminal law, I have practiced throughout the state and rarely find an abundance of black lawyers in criminal courtrooms. On more than one occasion across the state, I have been mistaken for a pastor, probably because of my impeccable style of dress and deep voice, by white lawyers, bailiffs or clerks wondering whether I am lost at the front of the courtroom.
But, for the black lawyer, rarely is there a lack of black companionship, as brothers and sisters are dragged into court shackled from head to toe to deal with the daily ritual of case management conferences, sessions in which lawyers gripe about opposing counsel, witness unavailability, the unreasonableness of plea offers and ultimately, a trial or resolution date.
For the black grunt, it can become disheartening as many of these brothers and sisters, lacking proper education, laugh and talk loudly to mask the shame that is deep within them. It is unnatural for a human being to be shackled while wearing clothes that hang off of their bodies like pajamas, so they often act out to hide their shame. As they shuffle into court, they do so smiling and blowing kisses at their children, who are glad to see daddy but not understanding why daddy cannot go home with them.
There is a higher degree of expectation for the black grunt as many black families, particularly the more fundamentalist Christians who take a literal interpretation of the admonition that “faith can move mountains.” While I, too, believe in that scripture, on more than one occasion, I have had difficulty explaining to a family that while faith may move mountains, that we still have to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” In this context, Caesar is the State of Florida, which has criminalized certain behavior; therefore, we must adhere to or face its punishment.
Few black families can face this grim reality. For this reason, practice for the black lawyer is often akin to the blues, as we are given a front row seat to a modern tragedy in which our people suffer as both victim and criminal.
The black grunt is wretched because black clients believe that as a “Brother,” he or she should understand the struggle that occurs from having grown up in a single parent home or growing up on welfare. To these clients, the limitations of their childhood should provide some measure of absolution from the criminal conduct.
The black grunt is wretched because he knows that some black criminal defendants’ will at times mortgage their homes to pay for the services of the high-end white lawyer, but if the result does not prove fruitful, try to nickel and dime the “brother” to help turn lemons into lemonade.
Ultimately, the black grunt is wretched because he knows that despite all of the talk of the “post-racial era,” that within the criminal justice system, race still matters. One needs to look no further than the gross inequity in sentencing for Genarlow Wilson, Marcus Dixon and the Jena Six boys; or the dubious verdicts in George Zimmerman’s and Michael Dunn’s trials for killing Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, or how white Fraternity Brothers can kill and get probation while black Fraternity Brothers can cause bruising and go to prison, to get a glimpse into what at times amounts to inequality in courtrooms throughout the country.
Curiously, unbeknownst to many, the defense lawyer is often the most impotent player in a criminal courtroom. Our system is designed in a manner in which true power rests with the prosecutors. They have the discretion to charge as they will, negotiate when they like, and sentence people to indeterminate periods of time. With the emergence of mandatory minimum sentencing, even judges are sometimes rendered mere spectators in criminal courtrooms across America.
During my career, I have witnessed the best and worst from prosecutors and judges. From some prosecutors, their sense of being jaded yields an almost impossibility to deal away even the most routine case, as they believe that locking everyone up is a path to career success. For some judges, some forget that they, too, were once lawyers as they seem to have a belief that the black robe has made them God—not just another public servant paid by the citizens to perform a service.
Thinking back on the last 20 years, I remember an idealistic young man who was excited to rush off, like the young Cavaliers in Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone with the Wind, to fight for the “Cause,” which for them was the preservation of Slavery and the southern way of life. For me, my “Cause” was to slay the dragons that impede equality for people of color as guaranteed by the Constitution.
Today, much like those same soldiers in Mitchell’s book, I find myself bruised and battered from the stress.
Even worse, the real wounds derive from knowing that the enemy is not just the system, but an entity that resides deep within the very people who I want so desperately to save.
No measure of courtroom arguing will ever change the fact that the prison industrial complex is a growth industry that is fueled by poor young men and women, mostly black, who are seemingly doomed to their fate from birth.
Lawyers may still be a useful part in slaying this dragon, but to do so requires that the majority of us endure a spiritual journey where we determine whether we can live as agents of change or sewers of discord. After 20 years, I must admit that at times, I am deeply skeptical that I am even still up to the task…