We had the privilege of having Moshe and Shelly Cohen and their cute children for a Shabbos meal a few weeks ago. Somehow, the conversation turned to Moshe’s job as a public defender. It was fascinating to hear about his experiences in a world I know almost nothing about, and it was clear from listening to him how enthusiastic he is about his job and its challenges. Of course, as a writer who is always looking for interesting topics, I sent him an email right after Shabbos to ask if I could interview him and hear more about his job and what it entails. Moshe kindly agreed, and here is a summary of our conversation.
Devorah Schor: What is a public defender?
Moshe Cohen: It is a constitutional requirement that every person who is charged with a crime has someone to defend him. If he cannot afford to pay for a lawyer on his own, the state pays for a public defender.
DS: Is a public defender less effective than a regular lawyer?
MC: People think that a public defender is not as good as a lawyer you pay privately, but that is not true. If you needed brain surgery, who would you prefer to operate on you, a doctor who does an operation every five weeks or a doctor who is operating every day of the week? A public defender is busy all the time with cases and becomes very knowledgeable about all the ins and outs. He also has many resources that private attorneys and their clients cannot usually afford. For example, I have the ability to hire private investigators and DNA experts if I think it is necessary, and there is no charge to the client. One disadvantage is that the client does not get to choose the public defender who will defend him or her.
DS: I suppose the next question would apply to any lawyer, not just a public defender, but how can you put all your energy and commitment into defending a person you know is guilty of a terrible crime?
MC: I don’t look at it that way. My job is not to decide innocence or guilt. My job is to make sure that all of my clients are afforded their constitutionally-guaranteed rights, no matter whether they did or did not commit the crime. It is extremely important, as Jews, that we recognize how important those rights are. When those rights are only afforded to some people, it becomes a society that allows the government great power, and that power is almost always used to commit atrocities. It may be that, at the moment, they will go after the poor or the African-American community, but we must learn from our past that they will eventually commit those atrocities against our community.
The way I see it, rather than freeing a potentially guilty client because of a “technicality, these rules are protecting the citizens – all of the citizens, not just my clients –from a future Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler. Let me explain. If someone like Hitler becomes president, he cannot use the government’s police powers to break through our doors and search or houses or grab people off the streets and throw them in jail without due process. A Stalin-type leader can’t throw all his political opponents into a prison in Siberia simply by making a phone call to a judge. Society evolves, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. My job is to make sure that, when it comes to our rights that are constitutionally guaranteed, we don’t evolve to a time when a horrible dictator could decide to throw us all into gas chambers. You know, I always correct people who use that word “technicality,” and remind them that the U.S. Constitution is not a technicality. It’s the thin shield that protects us against tyranny.
DS: From listening to you describe some of your cases, it sounds like pleading guilty or not guilty has nothing to do with whether the person committed the crime or not.
MC: You are right. Guilty and not guilty pleas are really part of the negotiation process. If a person says he is not guilty of a certain crime, but I know that if he goes to trial he will probably be found guilty, then I might suggest that he plead guilty before the trial, so that I can negotiate a less harsh sentence for him. For example, in a case where there is no real evidence either way, and the court case is based on one side accusing the other, it may be obvious that the accuser will be more convincing to the jury than the accused. Sometimes he can plead guilty to a lesser offense in return for not having to stand trial for a more significant offense.
DS: Can you tell me about an interesting case in which you were able to help an accused person?
MC: Once I had a client who was licensed to carry a gun in another state. He had the gun in the trunk of his car and drove into Maryland, not realizing that in Maryland he was not permitted to have a gun with him. He was stopped by a police officer, the gun was found, and I became his public defender. The prosecutor was insistent that the only sentence he would agree to would be two years in jail. Even though my client pleaded guilty, I was able to convince the judge that the sentence was way out of proportion to the crime, and he was given probation without any jail sentence at all.
DS: Is there anything in the court system that you would like to change if you could?
MC: There are a lot of changes that I would like to see. For example, I think the law that makes it impossible to get rid of a conviction on your record forever is unjust. In most situations, if the person has a certain number of years with a clean record, that crime should be erased. Just as Yom Kippur can wipe clean a person’s slate, there should be some mechanism to wipe clean past convictions.
I think that for some crimes, like theft, a more sensible sentence would be requiring the person to pay the victim double the money that he took, rather than putting him in prison. If he doesn’t have the money, he should work for the city of county until it is paid off. This would be similar to the laws in the Torah using indentured servitude for a certain amount of time to pay back a thief’s debts. Also, prison sentences for drug use do not really make much sense. People are only hurting themselves when they do drugs, and putting them in jail, where they can make contacts with drug dealers and violent criminals, is not a sensible consequence.
DS: I know that you have a pet project that you would like to work on. Can you tell the WWW readers about it?
MC: I would like to work with both the African-American community and the Jewish community so that we could understand each other better and get along with each other. Although there is certainly a problem with crime in our neighborhoods, much of that comes from a few African-American youths. A great majority of African-American people do not commit crimes. In fact, their community suffers from the criminal acts much more than we do. I know that a lot of the friction between us comes from not understanding each other’s cultures. After all, we have a lot in common with each other. It was not so long ago that signs said, “No Blacks, No Jews, and No Dogs.” I would like to get Black people, both their leaders and their laymen, to come and speak to our community about black culture, and our leaders and laymen to speak to them about our culture. Maybe we could match up adults with children as mentors in both communities. Understanding each other will go very far in helping to eliminate hatred and crime. Ignorance of each other’s cultures is the number one cause of hatred and violence.
The views expressed by Moshe Cohen in this article are not necessarily the views of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.