July 2229, 1999
Power of Attorney
by Gwen Shaffer
photographs by Trevor Dixon
continued from here
ADAs are working in crisis mode, Abraham exclaimed soon after the mayor denied her request in February. Prosecutors are dealing with 40, 50, sometimes 60 cases a day. The load is impossible for one person to handle, she said.
It is standard for a case file to land on an ADAs desk just one day prior to the court date, allowing the prosecutor a ridiculously short time to prepare, she added. "It is exhausting, mindbending, frustrating you cant do justice like that."
When cases are "rushed" through the system, Abraham stressed in March, both defendants and victims are shortchanged. "The impact has been horrendous."
Her opinion has not altered since then.
"The system is on the verge of collapse in any given day," Abraham says now. "I give every credit in the world to the ADAs who keep this ship afloat."
Not only did Abraham lose the battle to hire nearly two dozen new ADAs, but it is getting tougher to hold on to the 224 lawyers already working in her office.
As Philadelphia law firms boost their salaries for new associates, the money is too tempting for many to turn down.
In order to compete with New York City, Philadelphia firms recently hiked first-year pay to about $80,000. Some of the larger firms in town are starting people as high as $85,000. Not bad for your average 25-year-old law school graduate with no real-world experience.
By contrast, new hires in the DAs office who are fresh out of school can expect to earn $35,844.
"Why dont we, as a city, say we want to make it more attractive for people to live and work in Philadelphia?" Abraham asks.
The DA asks prosecutors to stay on for a minimum of three years from their starting date. By far, the bulk of hires comply. But an increasing number of attorneys are jumping ship before their scheduled departure date.
And the offices image problem doesnt help, points out Seth Williams, who supervises the MC unit. "People think of DAs as hardened people who want to send criminals to jail forever. That is not true. All we want is due justice."
All types of lawyers are attracted to the DAs office, Williams says. "We have everything, from quiet to outspoken. But the one common thread is that they all think on their feet and can react quickly."
The entire time lawyers are in MC, "they feel as though they are underwater," Williams says. "But they are all overachievers, and very dedicated."
They have to be. The average ADA in the unit puts in 13 hours a day and comes in on Saturday. "We call it the Breakfast Club," Williams jokes.
On a daily basis, his 27 charges must staff 14 courtrooms; the "crash court" at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility; and lineups at the prison. Plus, each ADA needs at least one day a week out of court to catch up on paperwork and simply breathe.
Williams is convinced that a comparative study of other jurisdictions around the country would show that caseloads for Philadelphias ADAs are among the highest. (Unfortunately, no such statistic exists.)
"It would be great if I had 10 additional attorneys," Williams says, acknowledging that City Council refuses to fund the positions.
"Its political. They wont give us more money because theyd have to increase funding for the entire process."
If the DA is overloaded, that means judges, public defenders and prisons are all buried as well.
As Meyers picks herself up off the porch steps, she hears the wailing siren of an approaching police car.
Meyers and her assailant who identifies himself as David Ortiz both give statements to the officer, detailing disparate versions of what just happened.
All the while, a steady stream of blood trickles from Meyers torso. A subsequent trip to the emergency room patches her up with 10 stitches. Nothing can be done to remedy the painful bruises covering her entire right side.
Meyers recalls him looming over her as she lay on the ground. "I should knock you out," he grunts, "even though I dont like hitting girls."
Meyers immediately takes photos of her injuries, hoping they can be used as evidence in court. She speaks to the tenant living on the first floor of the apartment building, who witnessed the attack through her window. The neighbor agrees to testify on Meyers behalf during the trial.
A preliminary hearing is held a couple of weeks later, in mid-January.
The first surprise at the hearing is learning that the defendant lied about his last name. It is actually Alvez not Ortiz, as recorded in the police report and all pre-trial records.
"Mr. Alvez, do you change your name every time you get in trouble?" the judge questions.
"Yes," he answers.
The other fact that comes to light during the hearing is the reason for Alvezs visit: a television.
Alvez, 29, had rung Meyers buzzer looking for Melissa so he could retrieve his sisters TV set. Melissa had done Alvezs sister a favor by letting her crash at her place for a month. But after she moved out, her television stayed behind. Alvez wanted it back.
The judge concludes that Alvez deliberately tried to harm Meyers. The trial date is set for Monday, May 3.
Its common knowledge that you can double your salary by ditching the DAs office for the private sector. But money is only a fraction of the reason Michele Davidson deserted the office at the end of February and took a job with the Philadelphia law firm of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young.
"I contribute at least 25 percent of my decision to frustration," says the 29-year-old lawyer. After three years toiling in the child support unit at the DAs office, Davidson was fed up.
"I began to feel like I wasnt making a dent in the amount of work I was constantly asking for extensions," she recalls. "I got tired of struggling to keep my head above water."
Because the volume of work left Davidson and her colleagues with no choice but to cut corners, she became concerned that the knowledge shed polished at Penn law school would lose its luster.
"The skills you acquire in the DAs office are not the same skills you are going to need in a real world law firm," she says.
In the private sector, Davidson explains, the majority of cases are settled. And senior partners, not someone at the associate level like her, litigate the suits that actually go to trial. "Now I spend most of my time doing research."
There are some aspects of working for the Commonwealth that Davidson misses. For instance, the team mentality was more comfortable than the highly competitive atmosphere at her corporate firm, she says.
"At the DAs, we all have one client and we are all fighting the same bad guy. Here, it is certainly not warm and fuzzy."
But the stress, pathetic pay and lack of professional growth seemed to outweigh the positive aspects of being a prosecutor.
"Some days, I used to go home and really feel like I had spent my day doing a good thing getting [child support] money for kids," she says. "Other days, I left so frustrated because you cant do enough. When the latter outweighs the former, thats when it is time to leave."
While looking for a job in the private sector, Davidson says firms seemed less than dazzled by her experience in the DAs office. "They were more impressed that I went to Penn [law school] than with the fact that I was a DA."
At 8:30 a.m., Assistant DA Williams-Frank pushes her briefcase on wheels through the courtroom door. Her ID badge dangles from a silver chain around her neck as she moves. On this day, Williams-Frank is assigned to West Detectives court, at 55th and Pine Streets.
The courtroom has no windows and smells strangely of popcorn, mingled with the cigarette smoke seeping under the door from the hallway. Witnesses, defendants and crime victims are already scattered among the hard wooden pews.
Williams-Frank has 40 cases on her case list today a comparatively light load.
The ADA pushes her wire-rimmed glasses up on her nose. Before sitting down, she transfers dozens of files from the briefcase to her table, along with a hardbound book as thick as the Philadelphia Yellow Pages with the words "Crimes Code" stenciled along its spine.
Williams-Frank immediately begins calling out names from a computer printout. One by one, her "clients" descend upon the table. She spends only a minute or so conferring on each case. When the judge reads out the case numbers a bit later, Williams-Frank informs him that the Commonwealth is ready to proceed with some, and requests a "continuance" for others. Continued cases are pushed back to a later date.
Out of 40 cases, nine are ready to be argued this day. And each one varies dramatically from the rest.
First, there is the case of the Dollar Rent-A-Car customer who decided the companys 28-day rental policy didnt apply to him. He borrowed a car in November and kept it until March when it was impounded.
Next, Williams-Frank brings a case on behalf of a man who was robbed at gunpoint while getting out of his car on the corner of 45th and Spruce. Then there is the teenager who was shot five times in his backside by an "acquaintance," landing him in the hospital for four months while his intestinal injuries healed. After that, Williams-Frank prosecutes a young man who mugged a woman at 45th and Locust as she carried groceries home from the supermarket.
By early afternoon, Williams-Frank has argued cases ranging from auto theft to aggravated assault.
And her day has just begun.
After packing up, the attorney heads back to 15th and Arch in her Jetta. A fresh computer printout with 50 new cases to be heard in court tomorrow stares out at her when she plops down at the desk.
But Williams-Frank cannot yet even think about touching base with these victims less than 24 hours away from their trials. Nor is she ready to subpoena police officers and civilian witnesses.
First, she must deal with "returns." That means getting todays files ready for their next listing. For instance, if an arraignment was held that day, Williams-Frank makes notes for the attorney assigned to handle the trial. Each phase is passed on to a different ADA.
"That kind of bugs me because Id like to see cases through," she says.
Generally, ADAs stay in MC for one year before getting promoted to the juvenile unit. By their third year, most of these attorneys are working in the felony waiver program.
Ultimately, Williams-Frank would like to be a prosecutor in the sexual assault unit. "I want to work with victims of rape and sexual abuse, but everybody has to put in time in MC."
When Williams-Frank talks about her past seven months in the DAs office, the exuberance in her voice makes it clear she loves her job.
"I know its going to sound cheesy, but I love helping people."
Being in court on a daily basis is also "a big draw" for Williams-Frank.
"I have a friend who works in a large Center City firm. She is happy because the money is good not because she enjoys what shes doing," she says. "And she is never in court."
However, accepting the responsibility of arguing cases before a judge can be intimidating, Williams-Frank says. "This was scary at first."
Today, she has no regrets. Each new case is an adventure.
"Everyone in my unit works long hours," she points out. "Some days I feel overwhelmed, but I derive comfort from knowing 26 co-workers are experiencing the same thing."
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