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Child Abuse First Offender Gets Six Years – Was She Properly Defended?

As a full time Baltimore Maryland Criminal Lawyer/Attorney I handle dozens of Child Abuse cases each year without ever achieving a result as bad as the one that I will discuss in detail in this blog. In this case I was hired only after the client had gone through most of the process with another attorney and was obviously dissatisfied with the result. In these situations I usually tactfully ask the client what if any research they did on their attorney to determine whether he was a criminal law specialist and therefore sufficiently experienced to handle the case. I usually get little more than a blank stare in response as I did in this case. I have blogged about this issue in the past and am continually amazed at the lack of effort some criminal defendants put into the search for a qualified criminal defense attorney. It seems that most people just go to whomever they are referred to or the first name in the phone book and never even bother to ask the attorney about his qualifications much less do any independent research into them.

First, the facts of the case.

The client is a 60 year old naturalized American citizen from the Caribbean. She has lived in this country for over 40 years and prior to this situation had never been charged, much less convicted, with anything more serious than a parking ticket in her life. She has always worked, paid her taxes and raised a family. In other words, she is a solid a citizen as any criminal defense attorney could hope to represent.

In 2007 she opened her home up to foster children as she had done many times throughout her life. She accepted two young boys and tried to raise them in a positive and loving environment. Unfortunately, one of the boys had extreme behavior problems. He would yell and scream and at times even become physically threatening to my client. On one such occasion in the summer of 2008, my client admittedly lost her temper. They were outside working in the garden and the boy misbehaved to the point where she became so frustrated that she overreacted and hit him repeatedly in the back with a garden hose. My client had no intention whatsoever of hurting the boy but the metal end of the hose left significant bruises on the boys’ back. These bruises were observed by other adults and ultimately child protective services and the police got involved.

The police investigated the matter and eventually arrested her. She was later indicted into the Circuit Court on two counts of second degree child abuse, each count carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years, and one count of second degree assault, carrying 10 years. She hired an attorney, apparently without doing any research on him to determine whether or not he was truly qualified to handle a serious felony criminal case such as this.

The attorney apparently decided early on that he would pursue a self defense strategy and stuck to that strategy throughout more than a year of delays and postponements. On its face, I find this strategy decision peculiar as I have never seen self defense asserted in any child abuse case in my career. Even more troubling is the fact that the prosecutor had made an offer to plead the case out to a suspended sentence with probation, and that offer was open right up until the final trial date. This offer was consistently rejected throughout the process. On the final trial date, as luck would have it, they drew one of the strictest judges in Baltimore County. This is particularly unfortunate given the fact that the case had been scheduled before several of the most lenient judges on earlier trial dates that were postponed by the defense.

The attorney then compounded the mistake of not accepting the probation offer by telling the client to select a judge trial instead of a jury trial thereby placing his client’s fate entirely in the hands of Baltimore County’s own “Hangin Judge”. Then, to seal the client’s fate, after the ASA had called all of her witnesses excepting the alleged victim, the client’s original attorney approached the ASA and entered anew into plea negotiations. It was ultimately agreed upon that in exchange for a guilty plea that the State would agree to request that the court sentence the defendant to a sentence within the guidelines of 1-6 years and that the Court would agree to bind itself to not exceed those guidelines. (It is unclear whether the attorney even requested that the original plea offer of a suspended sentence be reinstated which may very well have been on the table given that the victim had not yet testified and that the primary motivation of the ASA in agreeing to probation was that she did not want to further traumatize the child by making him testify).

The judge ordered a presentence investigation which came back recommending probation. But true to form, the judge sentenced the client to serve six years in the Division of Corrections. A truly shocking result for a 60 year old woman with a spotless record who was repeatedly offered a suspended sentence with probation by the ASA. I was hired a few days later to try to clean up the mess but I am not at all certain that I will be able to do so. I have filed a motion for a new trial citing the incredibly deficient legal representation that she received and asked for the sentence to be reviewed by a three judge panel; but the simple fact is that it will be far more difficult for me to reverse the damage that it would have been to prevent it from happening in the first place.

The tragedy of the situation, and I sincerely hope the lesson that others will learn from it, is that this result could in all liklihood have been avoided had the client simply done a few minutes of research into the background and qualifications of the attorney before hiring him. Had this client done just a few minutes of research on the Internet, she would have easily determined that this attorney was woefully under qualified to handle a serious felony case such as this one. Had she simply run his name through the web site Maryland Judiciary Case Search, she would have found that he had handled under 200 criminal cases throughout his 20 year career which comes out to less than one case per month. More specifically he has handled fewer than 30 felony cases in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County throughout that same period – In other words, he only handles one or two felony cases in Baltimore County per year. The search would also have revealed that this attorney spends far more time handling civil matters and in particular real estate and business cases. This attorney is certainly not a criminal law neophyte but he is hardly a specialist.

A similar search under my name would demonstrate that I handle over 200 criminal cases per year to include scores of felony cases in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. As I noted at the beginning of this blog it never ceases to amaze me how few people make the effort to research the background and experience of an attorney before hiring him to represent them in what is undoubtedly the most serious matter most have ever been involved in. This is particularly troubling given how readily available this information is in this era of the Internet.