David Feige

David Feige

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 6 1997 3:30 AM

David Feige

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       Robert was sentenced today to seven and a half years to life. He wore a nice black shirt and a restrained camel-colored blazer to court, and shook his head respectfully when asked if he had anything to say before sentence was imposed. I think he would have made a good impression on a jury. Since he decided to take the plea, I've spent a lot of time wondering whether I did the right thing.
       Robert admitted to selling just over two ounces of cocaine to an undercover police officer just around the corner from my office on 125th Street. In New York state, selling two ounces or more is a class A-1 felony--like murder--punishable by a minimum of 15 years to life. People doing "life bids" seldom get parole their first time up, so Robert, who is 27, may be doing close to 10 years. We were about to pick a jury when he and his three co-defendants decided to get out of the case. I pushed them to do it.
       The morning they copped out--after the hearings, after we had arranged ourselves at the table, and after I bought a new pair of trial shoes--that morning, I really believed we could win. I was ready to try the case, eager, in fact, to do it. I was past the gut-numbing fear, the feeling that I was an imposter who was not competent to stand in front of a jury and try a case with the rest of my client's life in the balance. Past the part where I stride around my studio apartment practicing opening statements on friends over the phone. I had my trial bag. My case was organized and coherent. I was ready.
       I think that having trial experience means being able to step back and tell a client to plead, even when you're in that gung-ho state of mind. As much as I wanted to go forward, it didn't seem like the right thing to do. We had a tough judge who could easily have sentenced Robert to the full count of 25 years to life if we lost, and although the entire case hinged on the word of an undercover police officer, 18 years is a lot to risk on a Manhattan jury not used to the realities of the streets and unlikely to question police-officer testimony. I don't know. Robert wanted to take his shot. In the three weeks between the plea and today's sentencing, I've wondered about it every day.
       It is not the first time I've taken a life sentence, nor will it be the last. But I am always struck by the stoic reserve of my clients as they turn away from their weeping mothers, away from the nearly empty courtroom, away from the judge, and away from me. Usually I see them again in a cell downstairs to make sure all the loose ends are tied up, but sometimes the last time I see them is as they are walked toward the door at the back of the courtroom that leads to the cells and, via a long series of barred corridors and mesh-covered bus windows, to prison.
       There are only certain places where a lawyer gets to see an incarcerated client. Holding cells behind the courtrooms, visiting rooms at the jails, sometimes the large holding pens at the courthouse. Beyond these is an entire world of iron bars and petty regulations I have little access to or comprehension of. But even this limited exposure changes me and most of the people I work with. As clichéd as it sounds, it's unsettling to walk away, back into my own terribly different life.
       I have to go hear a reading at the Mark Hotel, the kind of swank Upper East Side place I usually avoid. I know I am going to have that sensation of dislocation that sometimes comes over me after a case I've been involved with ends, I move on, and my clients go to prison. I know I am going to look around at the faces of the people--mostly white and well-to-do--have a drink, and wonder at the growing void between the halves of my life.

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