[previous chapter] [start from the beginning] At first Jeff hadn’t wanted a lawyer. He had this idea that he would be better served if he did the job himself. Unfortunately for him, while the principle generally applies in everyday life, that was not exactly a good idea in this case. A first-degree murder trial isn’t everyday life, far from it. It was explained to him that there might be problems with this idea, especially if he decided to appeal his verdict – which was a possibility he couldn’t dismiss out of hand, certainly not before the trial.
There’s an old joke in the justice system that the guy who defends himself has a fool for a lawyer, and it’s only funny because it’s true. Especially in murder cases. Given that it’s such a serious accusation and also because the consequences are so drastic if one is found guilty, it’s really important that the accused have proper representation. Just to make sure his or her rights have been properly defended.
Jeff eventually relented. He was determined to defend himself in his own way, but he wasn’t prepared to battle everybody every step of the way; that sounded like way too much work.
“OK, I see,” he told the legal officer who was visiting him that morning. “I’ll agree to get a lawyer if you guys insist so much on it. But I want it clear that I’m the one in charge of my defense strategy. You’re right that I don’t know enough about court procedures to navigate it all by myself, but I know where I want to go.”
“That’s fine, Mr. Toussignant, and let me be the first one to say you won’t regret changing your mind on this. We can help you find a lawyer that will suit your needs. Now unfortunately your income is not so low that you’re entitled to legal aid, but I’m pretty sure we can find you someone willing to take your case on a pro bono basis.”
“Pro bono, does that mean free?” Jeff had no illusions when it came to lawyers, but you never know, right?
“Pretty much, yes. Pro bono is a Latin phrase meaning ‘for the public good’ and it is common for lawyers, especially those with the bigger firms, to devote a certain percentage of their time to taking on cases without payment. You might just be lucky enough to attract the attention of one or more such lawyers, given what I understand about your preferred defense strategy – assuming I understood you properly.”
“Yes, I’m sure you did. I intend to plead not guilty and make the case that I defended myself against parents who did not love me and never treated me right. I have been working on my case over the last few months and I believe I am ready to make it in front of the world. I don’t need a lawyer to tell me how to make my case. I just need one, apparently, to help me deal with the nuts and bolts of how the courtroom works, how to address the judge and also how to counter-interrogate witnesses. And yes,” he added with a bit of a sly smile, “I expect my case will attract media attention. Certainly I’ve been seeking it.”
“Understood. We’ll see what we can do for you.”
It didn’t take long for Jeff to find the lawyer he wanted. Paul Smith had recently turned 34 years old. He had been hired about a year and a half ago by the firm Gervais, Rockport & Associates of Laval. Before that he’d interned and worked for a few years after articling with a bigger firm in downtown Montreal but realized that mergers and acquisitions really weren’t his thing. Working as a lawyer was hard enough without the added struggle of working on aspects of the law you didn’t care about. And since he wasn’t yet married with children, he thought that was a good time to take risks and try something new. He decided he would rather work as a criminal lawyer; he worked with legal aid for a while then found this job at Gervais where he was given a chance to work alongside solid lawyers who had earned a good reputation as defenders of the wrongly accused.
Paul didn’t believe in walking all over his honour to defend sleazeballs, but he did believe everybody was entitled to the best defence, and he wanted to dedicate himself to that pursuit. When the firm sent him to interview Jeff Toussignant, to see if this was a case they should agree to take pro bono, he was intrigued. Here was a guy who, despite not being particularly nice or anything, was not a confirmed asshole. He also did not look stupid.
“Listen,” Jeff said, by way of introduction, “I’m glad you agreed to take on this case pro bono. I don’t intend to make it a very time-intensive experience for you. In fact, and I’m not saying this to make you feel unwanted or anything, but you’re there mostly because they were bugging me about the need to get a lawyer. I’m sorry if that sounds heartless or harsh, but that’s the truth.”
“Right,” said Paul in return, “well, Jeff – I can call you Jeff, right? Since we’re not trying to be overly polite to each other…” he looked his client straight in the eye and held it for a few seconds, but Jeff didn’t flinch. “To be brutally honest with you, Jeff, I am taking your case because I’m intrigued by your story, and also because I gather you intend to make a bit of a splash in court with your testimony and something tells me this case might stand out. I’m fairly new in the criminal system and – I hope you won’t mind my being so honest – this is a good case for me to make a name for myself.”
Jeff laughed. “We’ll get along just fine, Paul. Now where do we start?”
Paul cleared his throat. “First of all, I will not ask you whether or not you are guilty. I find this colours my judgement. I will work from the assumption that you are not guilty. That way I’ll be in the right frame of mind to give you the best defense I can. Now I gather you intend to plead not guilty. Is that right?”
“Yes it is. I do not contest the fact that I hired the guys I hired to give my parents the drugs that killed them. It would be stupid to deny that, since the cops have already found the money transfer from my bank account to their company, which has been found to be something other than a simple ‘comfort care’ agency. No, you see, Paul, that part is easy for the prosecution to establish. But I will still plead not guilty to first-degree murder. What I did was not murder. It was self-defense.”
Paul Smith had heard a lot of weird talk in his life, but this was definitely among the most interesting ones.
“I see,” he said, taking off his glasses to clean them up. Saying “I see” and cleaning up his glasses was this particular lawyer’s way of buying time when he had nothing useful to say. The trick was to use that time wisely and come up with something good, pronto. It didn’t always work.
“Well,” he said, replacing his glasses slowly on his nose, “that certainly is unusual. But probably not unheard of. I’ll have to do a search to see what previous cases might apply to yours. Offhand I can’t think of any…”
“That doesn’t matter to me,” Jeff interjected. “I have a case.”
“I’m sure you do, and I hope you’ll let me have a look at what you wrote so I can better prepare myself for the trial and maybe even offer a few suggestions to you on the best ways to present your case.”
Jeff looked mighty dubious. He had read his manuscript over and over and over again; he was convinced it was perfect. And since he’d never liked the thought of listening to an editor’s advice before (might have explained his lack of professional success, that), he wasn’t about to start now.
“Either way, we need to do a search about this, since your defense is so unusual. We wouldn’t want to try something in court that a previous court slapped down hard. That’s not very useful. On the other hand, if there are aspects of your defense that have worked for other defendants in situations similar to yours, we might want to give those a try.”