Pro Bono Publico

The following is a true story as told by a New Jersey  attorney Gene Mitchell to the Editor of East Cost Stories. Only the name of the career criminal has been changed.

All lawyers are expected to put in a certain amount “pro bono publico” (for the public good) hours each year. This consists of providing free legal work for people who can’t afford it.

Although they never admit it openly, most lawyers hate doing pro bono work. It cuts directly into their income, and it brings them into contact with the type of people they usually try to avoid.

Gene is a corporate attorney specializing in tax work. A few years ago one of his firm’s big clients switched to another law firm,  temporarily making legal work sparse for the law firm Gene worked for.  The managing partner of the firm “suggested” that this would be a good time for Gene to volunteer to do some pro bono work. The partner had arranged for Gene to do some work as a public defender.

Gene was not at all happy about this. It meant that he had to work for free defending criminal cases until his law firm could find some more new tax clients.

Gene’s mood did not improve when he got the details of his first client. “Little Tony” Parker had been accused in the breaking and entering of a McDonald’s restaurant.  Gene took one look at the file and realized that Little Tony was not exactly a dream client.  He was 30 years old, but had a record of different types of thefts going back to when he was a kid. He had been in and out of various jails and prisons for short sentences, but added together it came up  to a significant part of his life.

He was called “Little Tony” since he was just under 5 feet tall and had a slight build. He was very sensitive about this, especially since his size tended to make him a prime target in whatever jail he happened to be in. He had been in numerous fights, and usually came out the loser.

Little Tony could be facing a long time in prison for his latest crime. Like many other States, New Jersey had passed statutes allowing judges to give extended sentences to “career criminals.”

On top of all of that, Little Tony’s latest endeavor was something the police were laughing at.  One week earlier, at 2am, he had broken into a closed  McDonald’s to try to rob the safe. He did not realize that this McDonald’s was still under construction, and would not have its Grand Opening for another week. There was no safe, no cash registers, no food. There was nothing to steal.

However, the restaurant did have its security cameras operating. They showed a clear view of Little Tony’s face as he frantically scurried around the restaurant searching for something to take. He finally gave up and left.

The next day, the construction workers showed up, saw the door had been forced open and they called the police.  The detectives immediately recognized Little Tony from the security tapes and drove directly to his apartment to arrest him.

Gene decided that the best defense was to try to get Little Tony off with as light a sentence as possible. In his favor  was the fact that Little Tony had not actually stolen anything, and had not vandalized anything in the store. The only thing he had broken was a very cheap lock on the door.  If this was a first-time offense, Tony would probably get a suspended sentence. However, with his past record, he could be looking at 5 years in prison.

Gene decided to really work hard on this just to show what a great lawyer he was, even when it was not a tax case. He had long conversations with Tony, and even had a friend who was a psychologist speak with Tony.

In the end, Gene wrote a beautiful brief for the Judge. He explained about Tony’s horrible childhood, and about how Tony had continually been abused in the various juvenile facilities and jails he had been sent to.  Gene submitted the psychologist’s report which emphatically stated that the best way to make Tony a productive member of society was through treatment rather than prison.

In the end Gene had a resounding success. He was not sure if it was because of his legal work or if the courts were just too swamped with violent crime to care about a broken lock on a restaurant under construction. The judge gave Little Tony a suspended sentence, and the only penalty was that he had to pay $350 for repairs to the door of the McDonalds.

Gene was ecstatic. For the first time he actually felt good about doing pro bono work.  He had made a real difference to a person’s life. It was much more satisfying than any of his tax cases.

Gene had a long and serious conversation with Little Tony. He gave Tony a speech explaining that Tony should look at this as a new beginning. This was a real chance for Tony to do something different with his life.  Gene walked Tony down the hall to the Court Clerk’s office. The Gene decided to really help. Gene gave $350 cash to Little Tony and said,

“Tony, this is a new start for you. To help you on your way, I am even going to give you the money to pay the fine. Take this money, and wait in that line there. Give the clerk the cash and these documents, and then this case is over for you.”

Little Tony was so moved he was almost in tears. He solemnly  shook Gene’s hand and told him how Gene was the fist person in his life who had ever given him a real break.

Gene left the court that day happier than he had been in a long time. A week later, Gene’s law firm got a new tax client and Gene was back at work in corporate law. Gene was buried in spredsheets when his phone rang.

“Mr. Mitchell, this is Detective Hanson. I was wondering if you could tell me the whereabouts of Tony Parker. He moved out of his apartment, and we don’t have any other address for him.”

Gene was surprised, “No. I have no idea where he is. What is the problem?”

“The judge issued a bench warrant for him. He never paid the fine on that McDonald’s break-in. The judge is really pissed off. Says he should have know better than to trust someone with that background.”

It turns out that Little Tony was a career thief after all. After he had so warmly shaken Gene’s hand, he had watched as gene left the court house. Then he had pocked the $350 Gene had given him, gotten out of line, and left without paying the fine.  Apparently he had then used the $350 to skip town.

That was the last criminal case Gene ever handled. He now happily works on spreadsheets and corporate law. When he is forced to to pro bono work, he helps people with tax problems. He never offers to give them any money for their back taxes.

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