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Blue Jeans Lecture Offers Tales of Courtroom Drama

By Lori Atherton

To hear Prof. Eve Brensike Primus share her favorite stories of working as a trial attorney in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender is to get a glimpse of the "human drama" that often unfolds in the courtroom, particularly on the part of police officers, judges, lawyers, and witnesses. Prof. Brensike Primus fondly recalled some of her zany experiences as a public defender for a standing-room-only crowd during her recent Blue Jeans Lecture, sponsored by the Law School Student Senate.

"Sometimes, people admit to doing things illegally." Prof. Brensike Primus represented a client who claimed a police officer searched him for drugs without probable cause. When questioned during the trial as to why he searched her client, the officer blatantly responded, "That's a crime-ridden neighborhood. I search everyone; they're all criminals."

"Some officers justify the use of force." In another case, Prof. Brensike Primus's client claimed a police officer used excessive force when putting her in the back of a squad car. The woman's friend witnessed the incident and called 911 to report the assault to the sheriff's department, and the tape was played in the courtroom as evidence. Afterward, the officer in question approached Prof. Brensike Primus as she was walking out of the courtroom and threatened her, only to realize the judge was in earshot and heard the threat.

"Judges don't always know the law." In her first month on the job, while defending a woman who left her young child unattended in her apartment while she went to the pharmacy, Prof. Brensike Primus was forced to challenge the judge who seemingly had his own version of the hearsay rule. The two officers involved in the incident were subpoenaed, but only one was at the trial; the other was on vacation. The officer who took the stand was not the officer who searched the woman's apartment, but the judge asked him to report on what he was told by the other officer. Prof. Brensike Primus challenged the judge, stating that hearsay could not be used as evidence. The judge said the officer's testimony was an exception to the hearsay rule, and when she asked to see the hearsay clause he referenced, the judge refused to provide it.

"Some judges are easily distracted." During a case in which she represented a client who brandished a knife against another man outside a restaurant, Prof. Brensike Primus soon learned the people involved in the case were seemingly "sleeping with one another." During the trial, Prof. Brensike Primus noticed the judge "was meticulously writing during the testimony." The reason became all too clear when the judge later said to Prof. Brensike Primus, "Here, you'll need this," and handed her an inappropriate judicial doodle: a diagram of who was having relations with whom.

"Clients sometimes do stupid things." In another case, one of Prof. Brensike Primus's clients violated his probation by failing a drug test, his first misstep after being clean for two years. The judge said the man's sobriety "didn't count" because he had been in jail for the majority of that time. Prof. Brensike Primus's client told the judge that he was wrong in thinking one couldn't access drugs in jail. He reiterated his stance after the trial by mailing a letter to the judge detailing how easy it was for inmates to get drugs while locked up.

 

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