Out of court

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

In Memory of the Sweetest Client I Ever Had

My friend and former client, Leon, just passed away. He had been sick and suffering from endstage lung cancer for the last few months. Yet he always could laugh. Just recently we were watching the basketball playoffs together at the nursing home, and despite his pain, we made jokes about the awful looking food sitting on his tray that he had no appetite for.

I met him in January 1984 when I was a public defender. He was charged with assault after he was attacked and defended himself a bit too well. The victim was a bully and had been harassing Leon all night at a CD tavern. When Leon finally went outside, more to leave than to fight, the bully came at him punching. In the scrum, he grabbed Leon's ankles and tried to take him down. Leon pulled a steak knife from his sock and began stabbing the aggressor in the back while the bully gripped his ankles. When they were pulled apart, the victim collapsed.

About a month later, the victim died, and Leon was charged with murder in the second degree. We raised self defense at trial but the jury disagreed and convicted him. Some of the jurors, who grew to like Leon, came to his sentencing but he was still sent to prison for 20 years to life. On the appeal my buddy Mike Filipovic did the bulk of the work and we won Leon a new trial. That's because the self defense instructions the judge read to the jury were improper. During the two years of the appeal, while in prison, Leon sobered up and luckily missed the raging crack epidemic that hit the inner city.

Before his new trial we convinced the judge to release him pending trial, since he had such a perfect prison record and had no record of violence before the 1984 case. This time Mike helped me with the second trial and we were up against a persuasive prosecutor, Ray McFarland (who has since become a friend and fellow defense attorney.) Despite our best effort at that second trial, the jury once again would not let Leon off.

But we weren't done. Back in those days, judges had more discretion at sentencing. And our trial judge, the Honorable Robert Elston, was a stickler for rules and the law. However, he was also an independent thinker. Somehow we convinced him that Leon had rehabilitated himself in prison, was no longer drinking and not a threat to society. Amazingly, he put Leon on probation for murder.

And Leon did not disappoint us. After a number of uneventful years on probation, his case was closed. Over the next 20 years or so I would see Leon every so often. He would come to my office and we'd go to lunch or I'd 'loan' him some money. Once he hauled some trash away from my house for me. He got married and divorced and always seemed to have a lot of friends, especially among the ladies. About 5 years ago he moved back to Texas where he was from so he could be near his sister and other family. For reasons I never understood, that did not work out so he moved back to Seattle.

His last two years or so were rough. I would go see him at the hospital or his public housing apartment down on Holly Park. I would try to bring him his favorite 'pulled pork' sandwich and we'd eat lunch together. Church ladies, in-home careworkers, and others always seemed to be hovering over Leon's bed. He'd flirt with them all and everyone loved Leon. He was a guy who reached out to people. He seemed so full of love--it's hard to believe he could ever harm a fly let alone kill another human being.

In the end, Leon's beauty is that he proved how a man can better himself. I will never forget him.

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