Norm Pattis ()

A criminal trial, a former law school professor once said, is nuclear war at 30 paces. That struck even me as harsh. I don’t care to be incinerated myself in the conflagration. But the point is well-taken—everything matters in the trial of a criminal case, even the appearance of the defendant.

So I found myself the other day demanding that my client be given the right to shave before jury selection. The battle was more difficult that in should have been.

My client is, of course, presumed innocent, but the charge is serious—murder—and his bond is high. He’s been a pre-trial detainee since he was charged almost one year ago. Hence, he’s been a guest of the Department of Correction, housed, as are all so-called “high bond” detainees, at the state’s maximum-security prison in Somers.

It rankles that men presumed innocent are detained right next to the fellows on death row, but I’ve learned to pick my fights.

The trial judge graciously agreed to reduce the bond just as jury selection began to a sum that would permit the client’s transfer to a facility closer to the courthouse during trial. That spares the young man being awoken well before the crack of dawn to be bounced around the state before arriving at the courthouse some five or six hours later.

I gave the client a heads-up to pack his belongs the night before the bond was to be modified. Of course, the Department of Correction did not permit him to take any of his belongings with him on his last day at Northern. Once the transfer order was issued, guards would box his material and it would be forwarded to the new facility.

Experience teaches that this moving of material from one prison to another can take days, even as a long as a week. I’ve had clients report that sometimes their stuff is lost altogether. So I brought shaving gear, toothpaste and a toothbrush to court. This, of course, created security issues. The material was confiscated at the entrance to the courthouse.

My client arrived unshaven. He had requested a disposal razor to shave at the new facility. Denied. He was given a toothbrush, however.

First impressions matter, so I drew the line. No shave, no jury selection, I argued in a chambers conference with the judge and prosecution. The judge brokered a compromise with the head marshal. I could purchase an electric razor, but could not have the disposable razor I had brought to the building given to the client. The court staff worried about the precedent we would be setting permitting a prisoner to have a razor while in custody.

So off I trundled to CVS to purchase an electric razor. I was whisked through security on my return to court. A marshal then gave the razor to my client, who used it to shave.

I marked the receipt for the item as a court exhibit and made a motion to have the Department of Correction show cause as to why it ought not to be required to reimburse me for the cost of the razor. Motion denied, so I moved for reconsideration. The judge has yet to decide.

It’s a small point, to be sure. The sum of money is not significant. But principles matter, even small ones. If defendants have the right to appear in civilian clothing when a jury enters the room, don’t they also have the right to appear clean-shaven?

Yes, the Department of Correction has a difficult job. But delivering pre-trial detainees to court on time, clean-shaven, shouldn’t be regarded as a Herculean task.•