Friday, August 13, 2010

Reflecting on the US Juvenile Justice Delegation: A Public Defender's View from the Chinese Juvenile Courthouse

After the US Juvenile Justice Delegation to China, Dui Hua invited Ms. Patricia Lee, a delegation member and the managing attorney for the Juvenile Division of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, to share some observations from the program. Dui Hua would like to thank Ms. Lee for her piece (below) about “mock trial” proceedings conducted by Chinese and American participants in Qingdao, Shandong Province.


     In May 2010, as the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Delegation took their seats in the Qingdao Juvenile Court gallery for the mock trial presentation of the Chinese People’s Supreme Court, the Court Police Officer, dressed neatly in starched uniform, loudly and clearly called the Court to order and announced the ground rules for the audience:

                              1. There will be no shouting, nor applause.
                              2. No one is permitted to be under the influence.
                              3. There will be no smoking, nor spitting.
                              4. There will be no recording, videos, or photography of the proceedings.
                              5. There will be no entry into the trial area.
                              6. No phones are permitted.

     Being the only defense attorney present in the gallery and knowing that we were just at the start of our exchange, I carefully heeded these rules.

     I gazed and marveled at the new shiny circular court room table where all of the players, including the defendant and his father, were quietly sitting. It was clear who was running the show. The three collegiate judges sitting at the front of the circular table began the colloquy with the head judge sternly reading the charges to the juvenile defendant. To the right of the judges sat the two prosecutors, and next to them was the 17-year-old boy defendant, Hu, head hung low in shame, and the boy’s father. Completing the circle of justice, almost two feet away, was the stoic defense attorney, sitting as quietly as the defendant.

     Upon the commencement of the proceedings, the young defendant quickly admitted his guilt in the theft of a motorbike, and expressed his remorse. Unlike US juvenile law procedure, the prosecutor produced evidence of the crime after the boy’s admission, including a photo of the stolen motorbike. In a Perry Mason moment, the prosecutor dramatically exhibited the actual screwdriver used as the boy’s tool of choice to perpetrate the theft. It came as no surprise to this defense attorney that even in China, more than half a world away from America, the methods and tools to “hot-wire” vehicles are universal among teenagers. As the judge continued her fact-gathering evidentiary hearing, she would ask the defense attorney if he had any comments on behalf of his client, to which he would respond, “No.” After the third request for defense comments, I became increasingly agitated and almost violated Rule No. 5 above, by jumping into the trial area to speak up for the visibly depressed boy. In the end, the defense attorney spoke and indicated his support of the recommended sentence to return the boy home with his father.

     Fast forward to the US delegation mock trial presentation. We conducted our hearing based on a true case in our San Francisco juvenile courts. As the public defender, I was appointed to represent our 11-year-old girl client, who had allegedly committed an assault on the pregnant mother of a student at the girl’s middle school. As often occurs when representing very young children charged with delinquent offenses, I declared a doubt as to the competency of my client in her ability to understand the legal proceedings or her ability to assist me in her defense. As I sat closely to my young client, who was visibly disturbed and physically agitated, I would speak to her quietly and embrace her to offer comfort to calm her down during the hearing.

     After hotly contested exchanges between the prosecutor and myself, our Superior Court Deputy Judge Lillian Sing and Assistant Deputy Judge Julie Tang struggled valiantly to control the back-and-forth legal arguments and objections between the district attorney and the public defender. At the close of the contested hearing, Judge Sing and Judge Tang issued opposing rulings to demonstrate the different outcomes available under California juvenile law.

    After the presentation, the packed courtroom of Chinese spectators rushed up and congratulated the American participants, claiming that it was “just like television,” and that they had found it entertaining as well as educational. As we explained to our Chinese counterparts, this is what occurs daily in the adversarial proceedings in juvenile courts throughout America.

     The role of the juvenile defender in China and the US are uniquely different. In the United States, the juvenile defender’s duty is to represent the client’s expressed interest. The defender acts as the voice of the client at every stage of the juvenile proceedings and not in the client’s best interests as determined by counsel, client’s parents or guardians, probation officer, or the judge. Counsel allows the client to be the primary decision maker to the greatest extent possible. The role of the defender is a check against the power of the state and law enforcement to protect against abuses and to ensure that the client receives due process and equal justice.

     Throughout our exchange, it became clear to me that China’s primary focus in its development of juvenile jurisprudence is in the best interests of the child through education and rehabilitation. China’s pilot juvenile courts embracing the roundtable format allows the parties to be seated at the same level of the minor defendant to provide a more comfortable setting for the minor. This format also affords the judge, the prosecutor, and even the defense attorney the opportunity to lecture and educate the minor for his delinquent behaviors. The role of the defense attorney is collaborative with the other judicial stakeholders.

     As prominently displayed in one of China’s juvenile courtroom was the slogan, “If our youth are wise, our country is wise, and if our youth are strong our country is strong.” As I left China, this sentiment will remain with me as a juvenile defender and advocate. It is a guiding principle that will serve both China and the United States well as we develop and strengthen our juvenile justice systems.