"Defender of Paradise" by Scott Ciment
|Posted on June 9th, 2015 by Admin istrator|
Defender of Paradise
By Scott Ciment
The Republic of Palau is an independent nation that rests in a tropical corner of the Pacific between the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. When I arrived there to run their national Office of the Public Defender, I naturally thought that my life as a criminal defense attorney in New York City would suddenly be more relaxing, without the stress of back to back felony jury trials, high case loads and complicated defense strategies. I was wrong.
At my going away party, my defense lawyer friends in Manhattan joked about asking for “bail of one hundred bananas” and representing people accused of “felony assault with a coconut.” When I arrived in Koror, the capital city, I was met by one of the deputy public defenders and rode in the back of his pick up truck to my new office. There was a large stack of files on the desk, and as I went through them I was horrified to see that in addition to forty or so active felony cases, I had three murder trials set to go over the next two months.
I quickly arranged a meeting with the Chief Justice and the Attorney General and told them about my dilemma. I received a short continuance and got ready to meet my client. He was accused of killing a man by throwing a rock at his head. It was an amazing shot: from about forty feet away, the rock had to travel over a magnolia tree and between two wooden sheds. I soon learned that all the residents of Palau had terrific aim with rocks.
My client of course had no intent to kill. He was angry because the victim had just given him the worst insult a man could hurl at another man in Palau: “You live in a house that your wife built.” They also threw a beer bottle and a vodka bottle as they taunted him at six a.m. on a quiet Sunday morning. I quickly set out to develop a manslaughter defense so I could save my client from the 25 year sentence he was facing before I arrived. In Palau, manslaughter carried a five year term and with their liberal parole policy, he would be out in three.
It turned out that the victim, after a lifetime of eating roast pig, spam and drinking cases of Budweiser every day had a 75% enlarged heart. Looking at him funny would give him a heart attack. There was my defense: the defendant only had an intent to injure or scare off a guy who was taunting him and there was no way for him to know that the victim was so fragile.
Unfortunately, there was not a forensic medical examiner on the island. The official cause of death was made by a “doctor” who had received six months of medical training in Fiji. Her “official” expert opinion? He died because he got hit in the head by a rock:
“But Doctor, his head only received a contusion and a little lost blood. Isn’t that correct?”
“O-oi” (Palauan for “yes”)
“So, a healthy man without an enlarged heart would not have been killed or even seriously injured by the blow inflicted by my client, isn’t that so.”
“Doctor, wouldn’t you agree with me that he actually died from a heart attack and not from the head injury.”
“He died because he got hit in the head with a rock.”
“But his head was fine. Just a couple of bruises and scrapes, correct?”
“He died because he got hit in the head with a rock.”
I was getting nowhere with her, and realized that I would have to shift my strategy on the fly. The jury, which consisted of three high-ranking members of Palauan society, knew my client from his track and field days, and one of them was even his high school principle. I set out to demonize the three men who had confronted him that Sunday morning and argued to the principle, the legislator and the priest who made up the jury that no man should be convicted of murder when faced with three menacing, drunken and out of control hoodlums when all my client wanted to do was scare them off.
The verdict? Manslaughter. And, because my client was such a good rock thrower, he also happened to be an amazing baseball pitcher. So good that even though he was incarcerated, they let him pitch for the national baseball squad when Palau had teams come in from Taiwan, Guam or Yap. He’s out now and runs a bakery and liquor store.
Being the Chief Public Defender of Palau was the most amazing job anyone could ask for. The diving and sport fishing was world class, and once I figured that out, I got a boat that I shared with a few friends and often went out on the sea right after work. I went camping on tropical islands and learned to eat fresh caught sashimi with tapioca and guava.
When I returned to California to resume my law practice, I realized that the art of criminal defense is the same anywhere you defend people: be intelligent, creative and flexible about defense strategies, speak to your clients with dignity and respect, and above all, fight like a tiger shark to win.
Scott Ciment is a partner at Black & Ciment, LLP and practices criminal defense law throughout Southern California.
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