To the Bootheel

Robert Rachlin on defending low-income clients in Missouri and Arkansas

Published in 2017 New England Super Lawyers — November 2017

My first case in Missouri in the late ’80s involved an African-American man who had been charged with the murder of a white man in the area of Missouri known as the Bootheel. There was a public defender down there who was defending this fellow, and apparently he felt he needed some help. 

I got involved through an old friend, Maurice Geiger, who was an expert in the area of court planning and had a lifelong dedication to helping underprivileged people. We were having dinner in Burlington. At that time he was the head of a group called the Rural Justice Center. Much of what they did was consult with courts, not only in Vermont, but in places where the court systems were not as well-developed as they are here. 

[The public defender in Missouri] knew Maurice, and he suggested that I get involved. As fools rush in where angels fear to tread, I said yes. 

The crime occurred in Pemiscot County, and the venue [had been] changed to New Madrid County, which adjoins it. I had been told that no black man had ever been acquitted by a jury of a crime against a white person [there]. I’m sorry to say that we did not break that record. However, we obviously cast enough doubt in the mind of at least the presiding judge that he directed the jury to impose a sentence of life imprisonment—to the evident dismay of the jury, who I think were eager to—to use the Missouri jargon—drop the pill on him. I’ve stayed in touch over the years, though there isn’t really a whole heck of a lot I can do for him.

I was contacted through the same channels for a case in Benton County, Arkansas, involving a woman who had been regularly beaten by her husband. His modus operandi would be to go out, get drunk, come back home and often pass out. When he woke up, he would beat up his wife. On one of these occasions, he fell asleep, and she took a shotgun and killed him. 

The question then arose about the so-called battered-woman defense—really a proxy for self-defense. The difference is that it usually occurs under circumstances in which the woman was not being immediately threatened, but in which she had a reasonable basis to believe she was going to be lethally threatened. It’s had a very spotty record throughout the U.S. Juries tend not to be persuaded by it, and I’d been told it had never been brought as a defense in Arkansas. She decided to plead guilty, but there was to be a hearing on the issue of sentencing. That’s when I got involved; I enlisted the help of a psychiatrist from the University of Arkansas. 

Working with local counsel, we presented to the judge the battered-woman defense. It was clear she was going to be sentenced, but I think she received a sentence that was more favorable than had that defense not been presented. She was let out after a few years.

Those are the [cases] that stick out in my mind. As officers of the court, we have a duty to expand the range of the justice system. I think it was President Carter who said the American people are over-lawyered and under-represented. 

The legal profession, for its part, is expected to provide services ethically, honestly and broadly; in return for which society grants the legal profession relative autonomy. We regulate ourselves and we have a basic monopoly on implementation of legal services. When we fail to meet our part of the social contract—and I think that, to a large extent, the public perceives us as having failed—then society is perfectly justified in abrogating its part. 

I’ve had the privilege of being part of a profession that’s autonomous and self-regulating. And, in return for that, I feel we owe something. 

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