By Sajid Khan
In the interim, I went back to the jail to visit Mr. Sanchez to see if I could persuade him to wear “regular” clothes at trial. Before that conversation, though, we discussed the offer (that Mr. Sanchez continued to reject), the judge’s motions in limine rulings, the trial process and the potential outcomes. I then got around to asking Mr. Sanchez if he’d reconsider his decision on the clothes; he quickly said, “Yeah, I’ll wear them, I just didn’t feel like it that day.” Problem, for the time being, solved. Before I left, Mr. Sanchez told me that he had been reviewing my aforementioned flowchart in his cell and asked that I write out an outline of our discussions that afternoon including bullet points on the judge’s evidentiary rulings, the steps of trial and why “dressing out” was so important. He promised to review the outline before trial.
We came back a few days later for jury selection. Mr. Sanchez wore the collared dress shirt, black slacks and wingtip loafers I left for him. He looked and felt good, telling me the clothes fit and that he had taken his medication. I armed him with a notepad and a pen so he could take notes during the selection process and give me input. He and I stood together as the jurors would file in and out of the courtroom. As the jurors told us about their backgrounds and stories, Mr. Sanchez wrote notes and would whisper to me about jurors he liked. One young man, who had been the victim of an assault, particularly intrigued Mr. Sanchez. My turn came to “voir dire” the jury. I stood up and asked them questions about their experiences, directed their attention to Mr. Sanchez and asked if they could presume him innocent despite his arrest, being charged and brought to trial. Eventually, my questioning reached the young man who Mr. Sanchez badly wanted on his jury. The young man remarked that he couldn’t be a fair and impartial juror given his experience; hearing this, my client, stewing in frustration behind me, yelled out at the juror, startling me and everyone in the courtroom. The judge ordered the jury to disregard my client’s comments and I rushed to his side in an attempt to calm him. But the damage was done. Many of the jurors expressed fear and discomfort given Mr. Sanchez’s behavior and one juror noted that “if that’s how he acts here, he’s probably done it before…” We had lost the jury and my client’s agitation only grew. The court, shortly thereafter, recessed for the day.
We came back the following court session and the judge granted a motion to dismiss the jury panel, permitting us to start over with a new jury group who had not been tainted by Mr. Sanchez’s outburst. The judge made clear to Mr. Sanchez, though, that if he had another explosion, he would be removed from the courtroom and forced to observe the trial via a video or audio feed. After court adjourned for the morning, I ducked into the holding cell area to talk to Mr. Sanchez. He had gotten the message, he said. He had seen how his behavior put himself in danger of not sitting through his own trial and put himself at a higher risk of being convicted. He wouldn’t have another outburst, he insisted. More significantly, he gave me insight into what prompted the eruption in front of the jury. Mr. Sanchez told me that standing up as the jury came in and out of the courtroom made him uncomfortable; all the eyes on him spurred anxiety. He didn’t like the attention I shone upon him during jury selection when I repeatedly referred to him by name and directed the jury’s eyes in his direction. He said he could use some coffee to help curb the agitation and assist him in staying level and calm. The shoes, without lifts to keep his body aligned, were uncomfortable and added to his irritation.
I went out and bought some insoles and lifts for Mr. Sanchez’s shoe to compensate for his uneven legs. He tried various combinations and settled on a medley of one sole and two lifts to level him out; he felt better. The district attorney kindly agreed to remain seated when the jury shuffled in and out of the courtroom so as to not bring attention to Mr. Sanchez and I remaining seated. During my voir dire, opening statements and closing arguments, I focused my attention on the jury and didn’t point at or direct the jury’s attention to my client as I usually would. I asked for and received permission from the courtroom deputies to bring a cup of coffee to Mr. Sanchez during breaks. The subtle but significant remedies made all the difference. During our second round of jury selection and into trial, Mr. Sanchez was relaxed, calm and under control. In fact, instead of flaring up at a juror, Mr. Sanchez, after hearing about the various accomplishments and backgrounds of the jury panel members, remarked, “These are good people, they’ve done so much.”
Once we picked a jury, trial commenced. As opening statements were about to start, Mr. Sanchez whispered to me, “this is embarrassing.” He felt ashamed for being on trial, for having resources and the jury’s time expended because of him, because of this “bum fight.” I assured him that there was nothing to be embarrassed about, that this was his right to stand up against what believed was a false accusation. He felt even more embarrassed when the prosecutor introduced photographs of Mr. Sanchez from the incident date into evidence, pictures that showed him in his homeless, disheveled, unshaven, unkempt state. Mr. Sanchez asked if I could prevent them from being shown and even politely asked the prosecutor to refrain from using the photos. She forged forward and showed the jury the pictures on an overhead projector. Mr. Sanchez grew agitated. I whispered to him, “keep your eyes and head down, it’ll be done before you know it.” The pictures were off the screen seconds later and Mr. Sanchez looked up, relieved.
Mr. Sanchez fought his impulses and anxieties throughout the trial. He grappled with himself and remained on his best behavior, not self-sabotaging his efforts toward exoneration. He whispered to me and wrote notes when his frustrations surfaced. He sipped his cup of coffee. He kept his eyes down.
The jury, after just a few hours of deliberations, found Mr. Sanchez not guilty of the felony assault charge but guilty of a lesser misdemeanor charge that carried a 6 month maximum sentence. No felony, no strike, no lengthy prison sentence. As the jury exited the room, Mr. Sanchez frantically asked me, “Can I thank them?” I told him sure, so he stood up with me, the first time during the trial, and he, in his booming voice, was finally heard: “Thank you everyone! That was a fair result.” I told Mr. Sanchez that I’d go out to the hallway to talk to the jury; before I left, he said, “tell them I love them.” I returned to Mr. Sanchez’s side; he firmly shook my hand, thanking me profusely. He expressed gratitude and wished he could pay me. I told him that the experience with him was priceless, that I was grateful for his trust and to represent him, that he was someone I’d never forget.
Despite being acquitted of the felony charge levied against him, Mr. Sanchez remained in jail after the verdict because he had other pending cases against him. When Mr. Sanchez walked back into the holding cell, though, he did so with a smile; finally some good news for a sweet man worn down by life. Mr. Sanchez was still in jail, but in those moments, he was free, vindicated.
Editor’s Note: Sajid A. Khan is a Public Defender in San Jose, CA. He has a BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley and a law degree from UC Hastings. When not advocating for justice, Sajid enjoys playing basketball, football and baseball, and is a huge fan of Cal football and A’s baseball. He lives in San Jose, Ca with his wife and son. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @thesajidakhan. The views expressed here are his own.