Juvenile Justice

The Writer – Chapter 4: by Dennis Danziger

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

EDITOR’S NOTE: The non-fiction story below is part of a four-part series that was written for WitnessLA in 2010 by author and LAUSD high school teacher, Dennis Danziger.

The series is called “The Writer.”

It explores what happens when a really great, really decent, really talented kid you know is accused of doing something terrible.

We decided to republish it when we became aware of a new and unexpected turn of events in the life of John Rodriguez, the subject of this series of stories.

Below you’ll find Chapter 4: A Christmas Wish for a Pro Bono Lawyer

(You can find the first three chapters here and here and here.)


The Writer

by

Dennis Danziger

Part 3: A Christmas Wish for A Pro Bono Lawyer

I grew up around lawyers, good ones, ethical ones, an uncle and three first cousins, the stars of our family. My father-in-law is a lawyer, a general practitioner, who for half a century has counseled sanity and compromise over all-out combat. My brother-in-law is a litigator turned law professor who can speak passionately about the law, literature and the Cleveland Browns with equal insight, subtlety and passion.

So, despite the frequent portraits drawn in film, television and literature of lawyers as thieves in Armani suits, I know most lawyers are tough, smart, and fight like hell for their clients. This is why I was disheartened when someone close to me needed his lawyer to come out swinging, but instead paid a pile of money to a criminal attorney who took a dive.

In my two decades teaching high school English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I’ve worked with kids of immense talent, but no one more talented as a writer than John Rodriguez, now 19. But John will spend this Christmas as he did last year. In fact, he’ll spend the next 20 Christmases in state prison unless he can find a lawyer who will step forward and fight the excessive sentence he received one year ago, after one year of waiting inside a cell to receive it.

Neither John nor his family has money for such a legal battle, though he does spend time in the prison library trying to learn how to challenge his sentence.

As I said, before he was sentenced, John did have a lawyer. I’ll call him Attorney Doolittle. He charged John’s single mother, a waitress at a local diner near LAX, a $25,000 retainer to defend her son. And he was paid in full.

The problem is, Mr. Doolittle did little lawyering, especially after the initial plea bargain discussion that started out with an offer of a sentence of 1 to 4 years suddenly ballooned to a life sentence. Instead of fighting for something more proportionate, Attorney Doolittle urged John to take the DA’s final offer, 22 years. Putting up a fight would have required Attorney Doolittle to mount a vigorous defense, and he knew there was no more money to collect. Of course, even if Attorney Doolittle had fought, he might have lost.

And Attorney Doolittle knows something about losing.

Just prior to defending John, due to an ethics violation, Attorney Doolittle lost his California law license for 30 days, his second such suspension. He said nothing to John or John’s mother about these black marks on his resume or about the fact that on the day of John’s arraignment in a Norwalk courthouse, he was barred from practicing law.

Knowing it was illegal for him to act on John’s behalf at the arraignment, Attorney Doolittle did so anyway.

That morning a concerned party, a lawyer who has spent his career defending the poor, attended court, and following the arraignment, met with the judge before whom he had argued many times. In chambers he presented documentation that proved Attorney Doolittle was practicing law on a suspended license; he hoped the judge would boot Doolittle off the case, return his fees, and that John’s mother could hire someone more competent, and more honest.

The judge did nothing. Evidently, like Attorney Doolittle, he didn’t think John mattered.

John was 17 years old at the time of his arrest for attempted murder.

Although John had never previously been charged with or convicted of a felony, he was nevertheless tried as an adult. His crime was a serious one.

According to John, he and his older brother decided to enjoy one last hurrah before his brother, who had enlisted in the army, reported for duty the coming Saturday. So the brothers headed to a bar for a few good-bye beers. Inside the bar, the brothers got into a scrap with two other patrons. Words, shoulder bumping, and drunken macho nonsense led the bouncer to boot all four of the guys into the parking lot. There his adversaries were joined by a group of their friends. John says this pack of guys, about a dozen, chased him and his brother across the parking and surrounded the Rodriguez Brothers’ car, trying to get inside to beat them.

There was a gun inside the car and John decided to grab it.

The bullet he fired—and according to him he fired it into the air—was meant to scare off the would-be attackers. But it instead it struck an innocent bystander in the shoulder, a young man standing by his car in the lot. After spending three nights in the hospital, the victim was released. He has physically recovered though a piece of the bullet could not be removed because it was lodged too close to his heart.

At least this is the way the episode went down as far as I know it from John’s mother. I have not been able to talk to John directly since his arrest.

It may be, of course, that my gifted writing student has concocted a piece of fiction to ease his conscience; it could even be that he has fired random shots from cars for years, and only this time was he caught. But John says that isn’t so, and that the videotape that shows him firing a shot—the videotape that is the heart of the DA’s evidence–does not capture what happened immediately prior to the shooting, does not reveal the mob of angry guys trying to beat him and his brother senseless. John admits to firing the gun, admits that the bullet he fired struck an innocent man. What frustrates him is that his side of the story, what led up to the shooting, was not caught on video.

I’ll never know the absolute truth.

What I do know is this: Everyone has a right to competent counsel and my gifted student, on the advice of what appears to have been incompetent counsel, took the plea offered. Twenty-two years.

I doubt Attorney Doolittle cares. After I wrote a letter to the court on behalf of John and asked if I could be of any further help, Attorney Doolittle did not return my calls. When I met Attorney Doolittle for the first and only time in a Norwalk Courthouse where John was to be arraigned. (That hearing was postponed.) He brushed me off when I asked a few questions, and hurried to his car and to a hearing in Van Nuys.

Months later he called and asked if I would testify at trial on John’s behalf. I agreed to, but never heard from him again. He did not bother to call or have his secretary call and tell me that John took a plea and there would be no trial.

I would guess that the vast majority of people reading this are thinking something along the lines of, “Tough luck. Do something stupid like firing a gun from a car, live with the consequences.”

I understand that.

But what I can’t understand or accept is why the DA asked for a life sentence for a juvenile, with no priors. (At least no felony priors. John had been charged with misdemeanor vandalism at 12, but nothing since.) His crime that was not pre-meditated. It was crime in which no one was killed.

Obviously I don’t fully comprehend the laws of this land.

Still, Attorney Doolittle is paid to know those laws. Instead he phoned it in, and did so when he was legally prohibited from practicing law at all. Even the judge went along with it. That’s what’s been haunting me. As is the vision of another wasted life.

So for Christmas this year I thought I’d ask for a lawyer to step up, to write to me, to offer to ask a few more questions. To look into the file which I have. I’d like someone to offer to read the People’s case against John Paul Rodriguez and to let me know if he or she thinks there’s any possibility for an appeal.

I hope I hear from you.


EDITOR’S NOTE: There was no successful appeal. Yet, through a quirk of luck, something else occurred that brought help to John Rodriguez.

But most of all, as it turned out, Rodriguez found ways to help himself.

The story will be continued on Monday when, in Part 5, we fast forward to 2017 to hear the story from John Rodriguez directly.

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In the meantime, you can find Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, and Chapter Three here.


Dennis Danziger teaches English in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He is a former sit-com writer, author of the novel, A Short History of a Tall Jew, and is the co-founder of POPStheclub, high school clubs that support students whose lives have been impacted by incarceration.

9 Comments

  • Boy, this Danziger is quite the BS artist. First he presents momma and John’s denials and out right lies in detail then quickly brushes off the fact that there’s a video tape showing the whole thing. Notice how John is always described in the best possible light while that guy with a bullet lodged next to his heart , who the hell is he? Heck he probably can’t even write his own name,obviously he doesn’t matter. Of course Danziger wraps it all up with that old slight of hand, blaming the system. That is ,if this whole thing isn’t just some fantasy movie script Danziger is trying to sell. Can’t wait to read the “feel good” ending of this thing, kinda writes itself doesn’t it?

  • Maj Kong, yet again, whining and being hypocritical. “brushes off the fact that there’s a video tape?” Isn’t this what you and your ilk always do when caught on video beating or shooting some black or brown kid? What you did with Rodney King? With such righteous indignation, you yell that the video does not tell the whole story, or catch what happened before or after the beating or shooting. Of course, that only applies when a few rednecks are caught beating the crap of a black man for speeding.

    And, you always bitch and whine about these liberal slants – write your own stories, your own blog. Why don’t you take time to write about the kid with the bullet in the shoulder? I suspect, he’s probably just a little wetback to you who had it coming for hanging out at a place frequented by other wetbacks, right. Why are you so bitter? You haven’t got over that they made the LAPD hire spick, coloreds and broads? Get over it and move on. And, by moving on, I mean to Alabamy, where you’ll be at home. I want you to be happy.

    • Typical cf non sequitur attack. Pretty heavy on some ugly racist remarks though. I’m certainaly not stooping to that level, Celeste you good with this? I know you have been letting cf slide for awhile but this seems pretty gratuitous. Any reason for that?

  • the night began with a plan for a 17 yr old to break the law through getting served and consuming alcohol.

    actually, the plan included consuming a sufficient amount of alcohol to become intoxicated and then operating/or riding as passenger in a motor vehicle where a loaded firearm was kept at hand.

    furthermore, the destination was not simply any bar in the area – but, rather a bar where they knew it was more likely for a minor to get served alcohol.

    as such, this bar would have a high probability for attracting patrons whose character skewed toward less than respectable and whose behavior tended towards less than law-abiding.

  • What i don’t understand is why Danziger accepts anything the attorney said without obtaining verification?
    Every bit is most likely self-serving contrivance spoon fed to the ignorant and the gullible.
    Danziger wrote that he received a phone call from the attorney asking if he was willing to testify on John’s behalf at trial.
    But there is no reason, nor place for the testimony of a teacher who didn’t witness any aspect of the incident and who was not involved in any part.
    The teacher’s role in a sentencing phase following a conviction would almost certainly be limited to a written character reference submitted to the court.
    Obviously, the mother made a colossal blunder forking over her savings up-front to any defense attorney.
    But Danziger overlooks his own contribution to the failings of the defense.
    He partakes in the same unsubstantiated negative assumptions regarding the competence of the public defender which made the mother an easy mark for swindling.
    L.A. County public defenders are top-notch, but simply overburdened.
    Yet its not the place of the court to steer the defendant in choosing representation.
    Even though the attorney was on administrative suspension the day of the arraignment, it made no difference.
    The arraignment was a formality.
    The 30 day suspension was finished and the attorney was properly barred during pretrial phase and the voluntary pleading.
    If the defendant chooses to waste his savings on a charlatan, that is his right.
    But its also his right to request the court to release that attorney and substitute the public defender.
    Why didn’t Danziger explain that to John and make sure he understood it was his prerogative?
    Danziger wrote that he had not been able to speak directly to John since the arrest.
    Sending the books and exchanging letters is wonderful and very helpful and very appreciated.
    However, John was 18 yrs old when he plead guilty.
    He was an adult.
    What stopped Danziger from going over to Bauchet Street and getting in the visitors line with everyone else taking a couple hours in their day to speak directly for 15 minutes with somebody they care about at MCJ?

    addendum:
    the do-nothing attorney didn’t keep the entire $25,000 paid for defending John.
    Most likely some amount went to pay a commission or kick-back to the “friend” who persuaded the mother to hire him.

  • Allisonbee, you’re spot on regarding the PDs. They will fight to the death for their defendant. Truth doesn’t matter, they just want to win with all their being as do the DAs. Lots of questions in Danziger’s story. Thanks for illustrating some of them.

  • Allison, another vote for your analysis. Add the incident of the judge looking to the issue of the attorney being disbarred and ignoring it. Shurrrrrrrre! Not to mention the number of phones around CJ which would have allowed John to call his benefactor-teacher-friend to thank him for all the support and tell him the whole story.

    My nose started twitching when I read that our noble teacher got a grant to hire a “professional writer” to come in to the classroom once a week to teach the kids and the “professional writer” turned out to be his wife.

    I think the author is trying to promote a true-life movie script or something. And why stick to “true-life” when a few altered facts will make it a much better story.

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