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Crime / JusticeI am David Benowitz, a criminal defense attorney in Washington, DC and also a faculty member at Harvard Law School's Trial Advocacy Workshop. Ask Me Anything!

May 5th 2016 by David_Benowitz • 17 Questions • 2735 Points

After I graduated law school, I began my career as a public defender in Washington, DC. I worked as a public defender for a number of years before co-founding a private law firm, Price Benowitz LLP, in 2003. The firm originally began as a two attorney operation and has now expanded to approximately 30 attorneys.

I currently head the firm's White Collar Defense Practice Group and am barred to practice in DC, Maryland, and federal courts. I've handled a variety of interesting and complex criminal cases in my twenty year career.

Ask me about my experiences and I'll answer what I can.

Disclaimer: This AMA and its contents are not intended to be construed as legal advice in any way. If you are facing a criminal charge, please contact a lawyer in your area to discuss your case.

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EDIT: Thanks for all the questions, everyone. I have to run to a meeting, but may be able to come back and answer some more questions.

Q:

If you needed to hire a defense attorney, what should you look for?... Is there a checklist that you would recommend?

A:

I would look for someone who is an extremely hard worker, who specializes in criminal defense work, and is accessible. The last thing you want to do is hire someone to represent you in a criminal case who, for example, is the cousin of a friend who is primarily a real estate lawyer that sometimes takes on criminal cases.

It's sort of like picking a surgeon who is going to operate on you. You need to be very sure they have the experience and skill before you let them cut you.


Q:

The ABA just celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the Miranda decision - are there any recent (last 10-15 years) Supreme Court criminal decisions that come close to the massive effect of that ruling? If so, what case and how?

(I'm a young civil defense lawyer but criminal law still fascinates me)

A:

There are two cases that come immediately to mind. THe first is a Supreme Court case called Booker in which the Supreme Court decided that the mandatory nature of U.S. sentencing guidelines was unconstitutional. THat presented a sea change in federal sentencing law.

The second case is Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. That came out in 2009. The Supreme Court held that the prosecutor in a criminal case can't use sworn affidavits to substitute for witness testimony in a criminal case. That changed the way criminal cases, particularly drug cases or cases involving DNA evidence, are presented by the government. Before this case, the government would try to use sworn certificates to prove authenticity of drugs that had been seized. This case held that that procedure was unconstitutional, because it didn't allow for the defense to cross-examines who had taken the action that led to the creation of these affidavits.


Q:

Do you want to know if your client is guilty or innocent as you prepare their defense?

How do you structure fees for white collar crimes, is it just an hourly rate or do you take into account the net worth of the client?

A:

I structure fees in a number of different ways. Sometimes there are caps on fees that include an hourly rate, and sometimes there are retainers. To me, the net worth of a client is not as important as is their potential budget, because there are certain funds that are required for certain cases.


Q:

What is the most frequent charge against a client, and how much does the client pay to have a defense?

A:

In the white collar context, people are most often charged with various fraud offenses.

What a person pays is tied closely to the specific facts of the case, so it is difficult to say. There is no set formula for pay for a defense. I don't have a set fee for what I think it takes to represent a person effectively.


Q:

The whole point of the criminal justice system is that every person gets the best representation possible.

Gee, don't you think it would be better if the whole point of the criminal justice system, were... you know.... justice?

As it is justice is a hoped for byproduct of the current system that seems rigged and full of competing incentives that make justice a lot less likely.

A:

That's an interesting point. The theory behind our criminal justice system is that if both sides, operating on an even playing field, advocate strongly, then justice will result from that process. I agree that competing incentives can corrupt the system in some instances.


Q:

When new students enter law school, what percentage claim they want to practice criminal law? Due to so many TV shows and movies it is the type of lawyer that is the highest profile - I often wonder how/why people gravitate or end up in the other types of law? How easy a decision was this for you and when did you know for certain where you were going?

A:

The reason I wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer is because I was in the Big Brother program when I was in college. Through my interactions with my Little Brother and his family, I saw how terrifying and fraught with problems the criminal justice system is. Then, I did an internship right out of college as an investigator at the Pubic Defender's Service in DC where I investigated rape cases, homicides, etc. on behalf of indigent clients and that is what made me want to be a public defender. After I entered law school, I was totally focused on that goal.


Q:

What was the most bizarre scenario you've been in with a client?

A:

When I first started out as a public defender, I represented a 7 year old who had been accused of brandishing a weapon at school. He turned up to court in a Dora the Explorer backpack.


Q:

Has the recent decriminalization of marijuana in DC increased your caseload at all? Do you have an opinion on the decriminalization of Marijuana?

A:

The decriminalization of marijuana has not had an effect on my caseload in particular. But, I agree and believe that marijuana should be decriminalized, both because of its proven medicinal benefits and because it has been used to justify unconstitutional actions by law enforcement for several generations.


Q:

What's it like being a criminal defense attorney with a name only two letters off from a very high profile criminal?

A:

That was an issue in the mid 70s when I was a young child, but it hasn't really been an issue for the last 35 years. It made it interesting in the mid 70s, though.


Q:

Have you ever seen someone come to the profession later in life and if so did they manage to succeed?

A:

I know several people who entered the profession later in life and became very successful. One in particular, was a former social worker who worked in the poorer parts of New Orleans.


Q:

Great, thanks for the reply. It's something I'd like to seriously consider now but I'm 31, I've finished grad school, worked on aid projects overseas for a number of years and am now in a career in the same sector. It seems like a big jump for a guy who's going to be older than everyone else to say "Now I want to go into law" but it's encouraging to hear about success stories.

A:

I wouldn't consider 31 to be old in any sense, particularly to go into law school. I also think the median age of law students is increasing. Getting life experience before law school is also very helpful.


Q:

Most tricky case you've come across?

A:

The trickiest situation is one in which a police officer and a complainant who claimed she was carjacked, colluded to keep evidence out of a trial.


Q:

What is a bit of advice you would give to someone considering going to law school?

A:

To me, it doesn't make good sense to go to law school unless you want to actually practice law. There are some people who would say a legal education is a good education unto itself, but I disagree, particularly because of the cost and the time and energy involved in pursuing a law degree.

I highly encourage people to pursue internships before they decide to go to law school. For me, I did an internship with the Public Defender's Service in Washington, DC as an investigator when I was 23. That was what made me want to be a public defender.


Q:

How many times in your life have you had to say "....no- that was David Berkowitz" ?

A:

Only when I'm walking near Central Park.


Q:

Why do prosecutors engage in prosecutorial misconduct?

A:

My belief is that some prosecutors engage in it because they don't know any better, and haven't been trained properly. I believe there is a larger group of prosecutors that engage in that type of activity because they confuse their obligations to do justice with winning at all costs.


Q:

Did you ever feel unsafe or like you're life was in danger because of a particular case?

A:

One of my personal favorites is Presumed Innocent. It has the most realistic depiction of cross-examination, particularly of the medical examiner, that I've seen.


Q:

How would you have defended Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, in Marvel's Daredevil?

A:

A better question is how would I defend Wade Wilson in Deadpool. Short answer - justified homicide.