Public Defender Pep Talk

Every now and then, regardless of your job, you need a jab in the ribs to remind you why you like your work and what you are supposed to be doing.

It’s no different for private investigators. If the self-employed are headstrong and independent, multiply the trait a few times more for private dicks. We are the lone wolves’ lone wolf, the Rambo’s Rambo, etc. So when I heard about a meeting of lawyers and investigators put on by the Alameda County Bar Association, I was a bit hesitant but the idea of meeting new business contacts compelled me to attend the function at the San Leandro Library.

The funny part was that the main talker, James McWilliams, a self-deprecating ex-public defender of more than 30 years, spent 20 minutes trying to get a DVD to play on the projector but the audio and video would not synch. (When you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.) What’s the point when you have a man like McWilliams to do a speech instead?

He talked about the “frailty of memory,” the importance of character witnesses, being ready with a subpoena before you even approach a witness and how investigators need to cross-examine witnesses in the field. (The Alameda County Bar administers what is one of the last court-appointed defender programs in California’s 58 counties. Say you have two co-defendants or multiple defendants. The Public Defender can’t represent both so court-appointed attorneys handle the defense for the poor. The court-appointed attorney then selects the private investigator to take the case, with a budget set by the Court Appointed Attorneys Program (CAAP).)

“Get those details that will become gold,” McWilliams implored. “The gold lies on the edges.” The trial battle is about assuming the moral high ground. He suggested that investigators take a statement back to the interview subject to go over the account with the witness and then have the witness sign the statement.

“You have to assume everything in the police report is bullshit with certain respects,” he said, though not intending this as a blanket-slam of police. What he was saying was that an investigator has to approach a case with a fresh view and to do the best to obtain first-hand, original information from a witness

His years of experience taught him that “every witness lies. We all do.” He gave an example of an investigator testifying about the number of stop signs along a specific route but then realizing he had omitted a traffic signal. He reminded us that we still have to provide information that might mitigate and how the client still has dignity.

Alameda County juries have changed over the years. “It used to be the blue-haired brigade,” he said. But juries are becoming more diverse and professional.

I looked around the room at about 40 or so licensed private investigators and lawyers, including attorneys David Cutler, Edward Holtz, Brian K. Ross, Kennedy Koblin and Roberto Jimenez. I thought we should have ended the meeding with a huddle around McWilliams and a rousing “go team!” And this is from a guy who does not often drink the Kool Aid.

Thanks to CAAP managing attorney Sue Kleebauer and others who put on this program. We should do it a couple times a year.