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Criminal Charges and Depression

I was in court the other day waiting for a hearing, and I saw a heart breaking scene. A woman who looked to be in her late twenties was the defendant in a criminal case and she had brought her daughter to court with her. I would bet her daughter was about four.

She didn’t have anyone with her to watch her daughter, so she brought her up to counsel table for her hearing. When she got to counsel’s table, the judge asked her where her lawyer was. She said she didn’t have one. As it turned out, she had already plead guilty to felony theft. She was coming back for her sentencing hearing.

The judge asked her why she didn’t have a lawyer. From looking at the docket for her case and his notes, he told her that he could see that they had continued the trial date twice for her. Each time the judge inquired about her eligibility for a public defender, and concluded that she was eligible. Each time he told her to go to the public defender’s office. He also told her to go get a public defender after her plea hearing.

The judge was clearly frustrated. The woman rambled a little bit about how she didn’t commit the crime (!), then told the judge that she didn’t know, but she thought she might be depressed, and that she knew she was supposed to go to the public defender but she just couldn’t make herself do it.

It was an incredibly sad, and all too familiar, moment. I find that too many of my clients are overwhelmed by the charges pending against them and can’t really function to work on their case. It’s hard to watch that happen, both as a person and as a lawyer. I’ve seen it hurt people badly. The criminal justice system is not forgiving of people who don’t act in their own defense.

I find that when my rapport with my client is strong I can get through some of that depression to help the client focus on the case a little. When the rapport isn’t strong, well, it’s just a lot harder. I’d be very eager to hear from any readers about how they handle depression in their clients; it’s a problem that I don’t think gets enough attention in the criminal defense bar.

Perhaps the only solution is the one that came to the woman I saw in court that day. A lawyer in the courtroom, moved by the scene that she was watching, stood up and asked the judge if she could talk to the woman for a minute in the hallway. She didn’t know if she would get paid (she may, in fact, have known that she wouldn’t), but she was willing to help.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.

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4 responses to “Criminal Charges and Depression”

  1. Matt Brown says:

    Great post. It’s so easy for defense attorneys to get pissed at their clients for not doing things that seem easy. We often forget how difficult it is for clients facing charges and how seriously that can affect pre-existing mental health conditions or create new ones on its own. Thanks for bringing it up.

  2. Jeff Gamso says:

    And it’s not just mental health issues – though those are real. Let’s get back to the little girl standing by her mother. What do we do with her? What are we doing to her? How does Mom deal with that?

  3. Dan Stiller says:

    It’s unfortunate that so many local courts hear “Gideon’s trumpet” but then place the onus on the defendant to obtain appointed counsel (i.e., “you can go to the public defender’s office to apply for appointed counsel”).

  4. Monday law blog round-up - On the Record says:

    […] How do you handle a depressed client? […]

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