March 22, 2005 > Seeking the Truth
Seeking the Truth
A Local Criminal Attorney's Approach
by Linda Stone
Have you ever imagined what would have happened to you if had actually been caught for driving after that last drink? What if someone told the police that they saw you commit a crime, and you didn't? In either case, you might need a criminal defense attorney.
What started out as an alternative to unemployment for a young history major who didn't want to teach or work in a museum, became a journey into the criminal courtroom where the drama of life and death hangs in the balance. Attorney Todd Bequette chose the road paved not with artifacts, but people in trouble, and has never looked back.
For him it was an obvious choice. "You accumulate a good many interesting stories about the crimes that people commit and the crimes that people are accused of committing. It's the reason why they make movies about crime or criminal law rather than taxes or that type of thing," said Bequette who maintains offices in Fremont and Oakland.
While attending law school at Georgetown University, Bequette got involved with a criminal justice law clinic serving indigent clients. "That's what sort of piqued my interest in criminal law defense," he said. Fifteen years later he sill represents those who cannot afford to pay for counsel as a court appointed attorney in the Bay Area. About 20 percent of his practice is devoted to these cases that can be challenging in ways other than the fact that his client may be guilty.
Bequette knows that he will have to overcome his client's perception that he is working for the other side. "It is not always easy to convince a criminal defendant to trust you. A good many of the people I represent are minorities, from different walks of life, particularly people who can't afford an attorney," Bequette said. "It is often very challenging to convince them that I am an attorney who is here to help them- I'm the white guy, I've got a suit on, they're not paying me for it, no one has tried to help them before. It is very difficult to convince them that I am actually on their side, that our conversations are confidential and that I am not working in concert with the prosecution as part of some elaborate scheme to send them to jail. Believe it or not, those are attitudes that I experience with my court appointed clients, as I am sure that the public defenders fight through every day."
Unlike some may believe, a defense attorney cannot make up facts in order to help win a case. "A common misperception is that the defense attorney comes up with a defense or fabricates one out of whole cloth, when in fact we're limited to the evidence just as the prosecution," he said. "The only wild card is what is supplemented by what is provided by the defendant."
If his client is not forthcoming with information the outcome of the case may suffer. "When someone is not being straight...I see that as a failure first of all on my part, to convince them that I am on their side and they need to be honest with me because the results could be disastrous," said Bequette who represents clients on a variety of different crimes from DUI (driving under the influence) to murder.
Most of his privately retained cases consist of DUI's, domestic violence and dope cases. "Those crimes cut across all socioeconomic backgrounds. Spousal battery is a big problem in our society and those crimes are committed by educated people who should know better, as well as the uneducated for whom the crime is news to them," he said.
A mystery buff, Bequette is interested in the psychology of the criminal mind. "Crime can be committed by your stereotypical criminal, who is bad person, with a bad temper, has no money, is unemployed, and has had a bad childhood, and has every excuse in the world to commit a crime, but it also can be committed by people who have everything going for them. I've seen a lot of particularly heinous crimes committed by people, but for the segment of time in their life when they behaved badly, were by all other appearances easy to deal with, likable people."
A tactical advantage of having well-honed negotiation skills is crucial for a defense attorney. "Nine cases out of 10 settle. That's because nine cases out of 10 people who are arrested committed a crime. Consequently most of my job involves negotiation," Bequette said. "Some criminal defense attorneys have the philosophy that this is war and they make every argument they can, they don't pick their battles, everything is a struggle, everything is a fight and if they can, they're going to make the district attorney work every inch of the way. First of all that's not my personality and secondly, ultimately, I don't think it is an effective way to do business and to succeed."
Another obstacle Bequette faces is trying to convince prospective jurors that the person sitting at the defense table is not guilty. "You try to overcome it in jury selection by being very candid with the jury in attempting to elicit that information. To ask them whether they think that this guy on my left is guilty. People assume that if it's 'reached this point' he must have done something wrong; nothing could be further from the truth. I could be arrested tomorrow for a crime I didn't commit and the only avenue you have, unless the district attorney dismisses, the only avenue is to go to trial where you would be facing this same jury. Jurors who think that, even subconsciously, are wrong. And they're in danger of perpetrating an injustice. It is common mindset for people who sitting in court, who look for the first time at someone whose sitting at the defense table, well he must be guilty because it's come this far when in reality 'come this far' means nothing more than from the get-go that they have maintained their innocence. So to overcome that, I think, the best way is to have conversations like this with the jurors," Bequette said emphatically.
Most of the cases he handles are pled out, in other words, guilt is admitted and the discussion turns to sentencing. "Usually in the forefront of most defendants' mind is how long are they going to have to spend in custody, and all that's negotiable. Your average misdemeanor has a maximum sentence of six months in the county jail, so a sentence for a misdemeanor could be probation or could be six months," he said. "And hopefully, if the defendant committed the crime, you try to strike some sort of deal that will satisfy the district attorney's belief he should be punished, and the defendant's desire to be free from custody for as long as possible."
Bequette is not afraid to go to trial to advocate his client's position. "I think there are a good many criminal defense attorneys wherein that is not the case. Either they are afraid that the length of the jury trial will mess up their own vacation or they perhaps lack confidence in their abilities but I try more cases that just about any attorney around." Indeed, Bequette makes public his remarkable jury trial record and invites comparisons.
In the end, the passionate Bequette has remained true to his beginnings. An artifact is something characteristic of, or resulting from, a human institution or activity. He still is involved with human characteristics, flaws and all.
Law Office of Todd L. Bequette
Phone: (510) 742-9292