David Feige

David Feige

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 9 1997 3:30 AM

David Feige

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       I didn't get much sleep last night. The pager went off a few times in the middle of the night, and I had to get up early to call in last night's activities. After that, I tried to get back to sleep. When it became clear that the day had started whether I liked it or not, I rolled out of bed. Inexplicably there was no hot water in my apartment, so I heated some water on the stove, sponged off in the basin, and pretended I was in France.
       Up at the office, the decaf hadn't quite done the trick, so I darted across the street to get a doughnut from Georgie's. As I was coming out, I saw David, my team leader, across the street in his second-floor office jumping up and down waving his arms like a man trying to flag down a passing ship. I waved to him and he pointed to his chest and held up three fingers. I went back in and got a half dozen for the team.
       After a brief meeting, Sylvia, our investigator, headed out to work on the rape case. We agreed to meet after she was done and go back out on the homicide.
       I love investigating. It is an absolutely critical part of defense work that is often overlooked in the crush of courtroom appearances. Because the discovery rules in criminal cases in New York favor the prosecution, assuring a trial by ambush (they turn over little besides the date and time of occurrence), investigation is doubly important. Contrary to what most people seem to think, getting to the witnesses is not about trying to change what anyone says; it's about knowing with as much specificity as possible what they are going to say. If a witness places a gun in your client's hand, there is not much you can do about it. You can, however, find out if it was black or silver, a revolver or a semiautomatic. If the witness's account of the details doesn't match the facts or other accounts, you may have reason to re-evaluate the potency of otherwise damning testimony.
       But more than how important it is to a case, I love investigating because I love being out on the streets, meeting people, explaining what I'm doing. Many people, including victims, just want to be listened to--they want to tell their stories to an understanding audience. So though I always make it clear what I am doing and for whom, I often encounter people who more than anything want a receptive ear. Other times it's just fun to try and figure out what happened and who saw it--walking down the street looking for people you think hang out in the area or heard or saw something. I start with the kids. I usually approach the one who looks toughest or has the most attitude. They are always resistant but frequently knowledgeable. Once I explain that I'm a lawyer from NDS trying to help out someone who is locked up, some of them help, many of them soften, and a few ask for my card.
       Unfortunately, before I can get back to the scene, both the murder case and the rape case are assigned docket numbers. I alert the families of each client and, figuring that I can get by in black jeans, put on a shirt and tie and head down to the courts.
       I speak to my clients in the pens behind the courtroom, chat with the families, and sit back to wait. Four hours later, around 9 p.m., the rape case is called. Although my client is 17 years old and has never been arrested in his life, the ADA asks for $200,000 bail. I argue for quite some time, and bail is set at $20,000.
       One of the co-defendants in the homicide case is sitting on the bench next to a guy who is covered in gore. It looks like his head was split open. The front of his shirt is drenched in blood. I have no idea what he was arrested for but I'd bet that they added a charge of resisting arrest just to be on the safe side. The co-defendant meanwhile still has not had his bandage changed and his wound is beginning to look like it could use some attention.
       Our case is called just after a tall, lanky man in plaid pants held together with a swath of masking tape pleads guilty to some minor offense. He blesses the judge as he leaves the courtroom on his way to freedom. I put my appearance on the record and we arraign the defendants. As expected, the People ask for "remand"--for holding the defendants without bail. I decide that the judge we are in front of is not going to seriously entertain a bail application, so I opt to reserve it for later--in state Supreme Court. The decision makes the arraignment rather anticlimactic. We'll fight again on Monday when everyone returns to court for grand-jury action.

David Feige is a criminal-defense lawyer at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, where he represents indigent defendants in serious felony cases.