The Wins Carry You Through

Some of my work involves representing indigent defendants for the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel for the 3rd Region of Florida. I am privileged and honored to have this position for this remarkable agency run by Gene Zenobi, a great lawyer and a great man.

Many people charged with a very serious crime do not have the funds necessary to hire a private defense attorney. My work for the Regional Counsel’s Office allows me to handle those serious cases.

While I am primarily known as a trial lawyer, I have for at least the last decade handled criminal appeals as well. As I tell lawyers that I work with, doing an appeal makes you a better trial lawyer, and doing a trial makes you a better appellate lawyer.

In the last few years, the United States Supreme Court has admirably moved the needle in the area of juvenile sentencing. In a landmark case in 2010 – Graham v. Florida – the court held that juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses cannot be sentenced to life in prison. The Florida Supreme Court followed the reasoning of Graham in 2015 in Henry v. State.

After the decision in Graham, some Florida judges engaged in the sad practice of re-sentencing juveniles who had their life sentences vacated under Graham, to lengthy terms of years that were not life in prison. In the case I handled, the trial judge re-sentenced my client for a series of robberies to 85 years in prison with one thirty-year sentence to be served consecutive to another thirty-year sentence consecutive to a ten-year sentence consecutive to a five-year sentence. It was, in my opinion, an intellectually dishonest sentence since my client could not reasonably be expected to outlive his sentence.

The reasoning in Graham was that juveniles do not have the capacity to make informed decisions. Juveniles often act in a rash and irrational ways. Their brains are not fully formed and they do not fully comprehend the repercussions of their actions. The Graham court also reasoned that juveniles are more susceptible to rehabilitation as they age.

In Henry, the Florida Supreme court applied the Graham decision in striking down a sentence similar to the case I handled. The court in Henry stated that a juvenile’s sentence must provide “a meaningful opportunity for release.”  In my case, the Third District Court of Appeals held that a sentence of 85 years does not provide a meaningful opportunity for release, much fewer sentences structured in the onerous way the trial court fashioned my client’s sentence.

Twenty years ago I watched helplessly as a woman I loved died of ovarian cancer. Her doctor was a wonderful oncologist. A young man full of fight and passion and skill. And yet, as I spent more time in his facilities watching people get chemotherapy, I realized that many if not most of his patients died. As a professional, I wondered how he did it? How could he keep fighting for patients that he knew in his professional experience would more than likely die?

My work at Regional Counsel frequently brings me into contact with people charged with the death penalty. My experience tells me that even if we succeed in avoiding the death penalty, the client will most likely spend the rest of his or her life in prison. For me (unlike the way many of my other colleague in this field view a death penalty waiver) I consider this a loss.  I don’t and can’t accept life in prison as a win. I refuse to accept such an outcome. I put one foot in front of the other and litigate the case to the best of my ability, and sometimes, like the decision I received today- I win.

I now have a better understanding of how that doctor did his work. The wins carry you through.

Here is the decision of the 3rd DCA. 

Thanks for reading.


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