There are roughly 2,600 private attorneys in Massachusetts who accept court appointments to represent indigent defendants. Last year, some of the attorneys, known as bar advocates, refused appointments in protest of the $30 to $54 hourly rates the state paid for their services. The crisis prompted the state's Supreme Judicial Court to order the release of defendants who did not receive representation within seven days. Governor Mitt Romney has since signed legislation that raised bar advocates' pay by $7.50 an hour, a rate that still ranks as one of the lowest in the nation. Victoria Bonilla-Argudo, 47, a partner in the Boston law firm Bourbeau & Bonilla, is married with two children and lives in Milford. She has been a lawyer for 13 years and as a bar advocate has represented hundreds of clients, most of them accused of robbery, assault, and dealing drugs. This is her story.
Sometimes court is like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I'm the Black Knight in the scene where King Arthur and his companion, Patsy, are riding imaginary horses, clopping coconuts to imitate the sound of hoofs. They encounter the knight at a bridge, and he says, "None shall pass." A fight starts, and the Black Knight gets one arm chopped off, then the other. "Just a flesh wound," he insists. There is more fighting, and, one by one, his legs are cut off. Finally, there's nothing left but a stump of a knight. Arthur starts to cross the bridge, but the knight says, "Running away, eh? You yellow bastard. Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off!"
That's an appointed criminal-defense attorney. That's what we do.
It is about when you're in front of a judge thinking, "What next? What now?" You've got this person at your side, quaking. You're the only thing between the person and prison. Your defense is used up, you've done everything you can, but you look up at the judge and try to find some redeeming quality in your client, something to say on the chance it will prevent the judge from ruling the way you know he's thinking. You keep fighting, like the Black Knight.
I get angry when other attorneys or judges say a publicly appointed attorney doesn't do a good job because he or she is not making money. I work the same way - hard - whether it's an appointed or private case.
In a single day, there can be 30 or 40 arraignments in Boston Municipal Court. There are usually other bar advocates, and we divvy up the list: These 10 are yours, those 10 are mine, and so on. No matter how serious the cases, we split them arbitrarily. A division of the goods.
Then I meet them, my people, in the holding cells, where it stinks to high heaven, where everybody who was arrested on Friday hasn't seen a shower, and it's Monday. Their breath can blow you away. I put on my biggest smile and say something like "Hey, Michael Jackson, today's your lucky day! You're on my list." They look at me as if to say, "Oh, my God, what is happening? I have a crazy woman for an attorney." Sometimes the humor helps.
People are yelling, it's crowded, and there's no privacy. "Look, I can't talk about your case right now," I say. "We're going to the courtroom for arraignment. The charges will be read, and we're going to enter a not-guilty plea, OK? Tell me what good things I can say about you so the judge will release you from this hellhole." Then I start asking questions: "How far did you go in school? Are you employed? Do you have mental-health issues? Do you need detox?"
But they often don't get out on bail, and I leave frustrated, especially when it's a repeat offender. "If you're selling drugs, you're obviously not doing a good job, because you keep getting caught," I tell them. "Don't you think it's time to consider a new profession?"
Most of the people I represent are young - kids, really - trying to make a quick buck. They want a nice car or motorcycle, and the money they make legally barely covers rent, food, and a dumpy car. So they deal. I look at them and think, 21 years old, my daughter's age, how could you be in so much trouble?
I'm the only person they can talk to. Sometimes their own families won't acknowledge them. They put a block on their phones so they don't get collect calls from jail. My clients usually don't ask me to communicate with their families or friends. They just want to know what's going on with their cases: "What are you doing for me?" They call some of us "public pretenders."
On Sundays, I visit my clients at the county jail. It's like being between two worlds. But I get to go home afterward. I get to barbecue if I want to; they get a bologna sandwich for lunch. It's painful when they say things like "It looks like it's a nice day outside. Is it?"
"Yes," I tell them, "it is lovely. I'll enjoy it for you."
Many want to know about me, who I am, and they'll ask around to find out. Word of mouth counts for a lot in prison. When I leave, I tell myself, "Well, time to go have some fun now." It would be too difficult otherwise.
The most a counsel can bill the state for is 10 hours a day. But something involved, like a murder case, becomes all-consuming, which means we have to request more time and money from the Committee for Public Counsel Services [a 15-member state panel that appoints bar advocates to 240,000 cases annually and salaried state public defenders to 9,000 cases annually]. We can charge for time spent preparing, interviewing people, and meeting clients. But we can bill for only one hour of in-court waiting time, up to a maximum of three hours if we have three or more clients. It doesn't matter if we sit there all day. Sometimes I arrive at 9 o'clock, wait until lunch, and get told to come back at 2. It's a waste.
At the federal level, the pay is $90 an hour, but up until recently, the maximum was $5,200 a case. Nothing gets done for that amount in federal court. The typical dealer I see in those cases has been under investigation for about two years. That means there's a lot of evidence, and I have to go through every single piece. A case can have 30,000 or 40,000 pages of documents, boxes and boxes. An experienced private attorney might charge $200 to $400 an hour for that kind of work. You could hire a kid fresh out of law school and pay $50 or $100 an hour. But my people can't come close to affording even that. To be paid more, we have to write a detailed explanation to the judge. It doesn't always work.
The $37.50-an-hour we now get paid in district court seems like a lot to most people, because they don't make that much. But someone employed by a company and earning $40,000 a year probably also receives benefits like vacation time and health insurance. Bar advocates don't get any of that, and many of them rely heavily on appointed work for their income, because it can take years to build a private client base, especially in Boston. You have to first become known by other attorneys, judges, and prosecutors. There is a lot of competition.
And at $37.50 for the current fiscal year, the most a bar advocate can bill annually is $69,375, because the law limits us to 1,850 hours [about 46 40-hour workweeks]. From that, they need to rent office space, and the cheapest I've seen in the city is about $800 a month, so that's $9,600 gone. Then it's $18 to $20 an hour for legal secretarial help. Lawyers need cards, paper, pens, and phones, and they have to take endless collect calls from jail.
Sometimes young attorneys who accept appointments need to work as waiters or waitresses at night. If the state cannot afford to adequately pay them, it should offer something else in exchange, such as health care. I understand why some have refused cases, because I've thought of doing it myself. I get so frustrated. I know many fabulous attorneys who are doing this work. They make the system run smoothly, and that has value, that deserves more appreciation.
A criminal-defense attorney has the duty to be the voice of the individuals he or she represents. They ensure that there's due process. If a client says, "I don't want a public attorney," I say, "Fine, go tell the judge you don't want me. I don't have time for you, either. Bye-bye. But if you want me to stay, you will get excellent representation. Better than most. And you should be grateful that there are all these attorneys willing to be appointed who would be locked up themselves before they would screw you over."
Appointed cases consume most of my time these days. When I was starting out, I did some personal-injury work, but I didn't like the clients. They would have a fender bender and come in looking for money. I'd think, you've got to be kidding me! You want what? I wound up shooing away business. I wanted serious cases: someone rolling into my office in a wheelchair. The people involved in minor accidents needed a chiropractor or a masseuse; they didn't need me.
I often get asked, "How can you represent someone accused of a horrible crime?" The answer is I can. I must. It's probably the most exciting work anyone can do; the stakes are so high. I have to provide critical guidance. Do you want a trial? Do you want to plea?
Being able to make a person understand the true consequences of his actions isn't always easy. Like the 17-year-old boy I represented who was charged with eight counts of rape and indecent assault and battery: At first, he didn't understand he could receive a life sentence. I tried to treat him as a mother would, but at the same time I had to be firm: "These are the charges, this is what could happen to you, and we need to do a lot of talking."
He said, "I didn't do it," which is not what everyone tells me. Some admit their guilt right away: "Please," they ask, "can you help me out here?"
Maybe I'm a fool, but when someone tells me he's innocent, I take him at his word. I believe in the presumption of innocence, but I know that innocence is not enough. I tell clients, "This is the evidence, this is what the prosecution is going to introduce. How do we fight it?"
In the rape case, thank God for mothers who keep calendars. This one wrote down everything her son did like his schedules for hockey and music lessons and the date of a family vacation so we were able to prove he couldn't have committed the rapes. He had a supportive family, which is unusual, and they were all there for him in court. When the verdicts came in, we began crying. By the eighth "not guilty," there weren't any tears left.
A lot of people get caught in a situation in a moment in time. Some people who do horrible things are not horrible people. They can lack the capacity to make good decisions. Or a bright individual makes a stupid decision. They can't find a job, they can't pay their bills, they're basically reduced to the level of a street peddler. So they start asking for money. One day, they might get angry when they don't get it from you. They say, "Give me a dollar" and grab you in the process. That's all it takes to make them a violent offender.
I think about the victims, too. I treat them and their families with the utmost dignity, all the respect I can muster. That does not mean I won't question what they say on the stand, but I do it politely. It's never easy.
I've also represented people who live in their own worlds. Five or six years ago, a woman, about 37 years old, was brought into court because she had bitten someone. I went to the holding cell to introduce myself. She was dancing. Maybe she's just happy, I thought. She looked at me and said, "You told me you were going to take me to dinner. Why didn't you?"
"When did I say that?" I asked.
"I must have been really busy," I told her. "I totally forgot."
She was sent to the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center in Boston for evaluation. In the end, it was a matter of her being treated, staying on the proper medication, and getting into a group home. She was not a criminal.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I never faced disparity. My father was a neurologist, and we were an upper-middle-class family. I had a beautiful upbringing, like a princess. In Puerto Rico, the population is mostly mulatto, a mix of black and white and what was left of the Indians after the Spaniards were done with them. Differences among people were more about money and class than race. Even as long ago as the 1960s, you could go to a country club, and there would be people of all colors there. Discrimination based on skin color, that's something I learned when I came here.
In 1966, my father took us from Mayaguez, on the west coast of Puerto Rico, to Richmond, Virginia, where he was offered a residency at the VA medical center. I was 9 and didn't speak English, but if you wanted to play, you had to talk, so I learned. One day my father invited to dinner a black Puerto Rican nurse who was working at the hospital. The next morning, there was a note in our mailbox. It was not written as politely as this, but the message was: We tolerate you because you look white; we don't tolerate people of color.
My mother, who is a little spitfire with great big eyes, was terrified. We all were.
When my father's residency was finished, he wanted us to stay in the States so he could work off his loans, but my mother had made up her mind. "No," she said, "we will pay every single penny we owe, but we're leaving immediately."
Eventually, I returned to the United States, and in 1991 I graduated from Boston College Law School. That's when I met my current law partner, Michael Bourbeau. Like any law student new in the world, I was doing research, mostly property studies. I knew that wasn't going to be for me, although I didn't have to visit jail cells like I do now, and everybody smelled better. Some of the work involved housing cases, and I became interested in representing tenants, because they were the underdogs (though some can be the kiss of death for a landlord).
That led to more serious things. Michael did criminal-defense work, and I started making appearances on his behalf. I could have eventually made a lot of money working exclusively in private practice as a criminal-defense attorney, but I was going down a different path. I knew it then, and I live it now. My mother sometimes says, "Vicky, you have the taste for champagne, but with the money to buy beer."
For me, it seemed natural to gravitate toward defending indigents. And because I speak Spanish, it's easy for me to communicate with Spanish-speaking people in trouble. I tended then, as I do today, to represent a lot of Hispanics. The government and judges sometimes try to shift the burden of proof to the defendants, especially minority defendants who don't know the system. I'm supposed to do my job well, and I say the same thing to prosecutors and police do your job, and more likely than not you will get a conviction. But if you're cutting corners and doing something dirty on my watch, you will lose.
There are times when good comes from all the bad I see. Like the story of the Mexican gentleman, about 44 years old, who was paid to drive marijuana from Phoenix to Boston. It wasn't a lot of drugs, but he was sentenced to 15 1/2 years in federal prison. Since 1998, he had been fighting to correct the sentence. Somehow, on his own, he managed to reopen the case. Authorities brought him back to Boston about a year ago, and I was assigned to his case as a federal court-appointed attorney. I reviewed the paperwork, and he was right: The sentence was wrong. We eventually got it reduced to eight years, which he is serving in Phoenix. Then he'll be deported. After the case was resolved, he wrote me a letter in Spanish from jail:
"Today the [federal] agents came for me. . . . I take with me a very, very nice memory of you. I am a person without studies, a bit shy, and that's maybe why it was hard for me to make myself understood by you. But the criminals, or whatever you wish to call us, we throw the ball and hide the hand, meaning we do things that are not acceptable and that we don't want to accept that we've done.
"And even though you may not believe it, I am thankful to God [for] having met you, and [for] knowing that there are still people out there in this world that will help others. . . . I am going to Phoenix and from there to Mexico, to my beautiful Mexico. The only thing that is left is that I am very happy with the work you did for me, and if there is ever a way I can repay, it will be with my heart in my hand."
Not all cases end that way, and I get really sad when I think I've screwed up. I start second-guessing myself. It happens instinctively. "Damn, why did I say that in court? I could have phrased it some other way."
Other times, it is out of my control. My partner and I once defended someone accused of beating another man to death; drugs were involved. The accused had a partial-alibi defense, meaning there were lapses in time that were not accounted for. As the trial went on, he degenerated, emotionally and physically.
Usually, a client sits straight in his chair and is alert, writes notes, participates in his defense, and doesn't miss a beat. In this case, he became sadder each day, more unkempt. I had no idea whether he committed the crime; I was there to advise him on how I thought the evidence would play out. But there wasn't much to work with, and as I watched this young man, maybe 21 years old, shut down, there was nothing I could do. He knew what was coming. When the verdict was read, it was the most horrible feeling. It was draining. After a case like that, it takes a while to get your bearings back. If I ever become so jaded that I can look at a client and think, "Another idiot, get him out of here," then it will be time to move on. There are attorneys who do.
But most of the time, I still feel the way I did during my first criminal case as lead attorney, in 1996. A 15-year-old boy charged with stabbing another teenager was facing 20 years in prison. The courtroom had dark wood and high ceilings, the kind of space that makes you feel like polishing your shoes before walking in. It was special, not like the dingy, plastic courtrooms we have today. I can still remember the jury walking in after deliberating. One juror looked at us and smiled. I thought, "This is going to be all right, I know it."
Afterward, I grabbed the hands of my client and his mother and led them out. As soon as the double doors with glass closed behind us, I let out a loud "Yes!" Everyone inside the courtroom was laughing, but I didn't care. Even today, I cannot help but bond, I cannot help but get emotionally involved.
People believe it can't happen to them, that they won't ever need me or one of my colleagues. Maybe so, but to them I say, go to the Holocaust memorial in Boston. At the last stone there is the verse by Martin Niemoller that says, "They came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew," and ends, "Then they came for me and by that time there was no one left to speak up."
Every time the government seizes a piece of someone's liberty, we get closer to that moment. Every time it gains a little more in privacy issues, we lose. Everyone, even judges and prosecutors, must remember that. I'm the person whose job it is to say, "Wait a minute, your honor. Before you put this person in jail, you need a body like me to stand here and defend his rights."
And we do. We all do.
Mark Pothier, a member of the Globe staff, wrote this article using notes and transcripts from a series of interviews with Victoria Bonilla-Argudo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.