Meet our team member Carla:
Originally from Puerto Rico, Carla became a criminal defense lawyer there and continues to advocate for her clients back home while based in our offices in NYC.
Carla is taking us back with her to court in Puerto Rico, to tell the story of her first ever criminal defense trial as lead counsel…
Location: Carolina Judicial Court - Court of First Instance
In Puerto Rico, there are three levels of courts: Court of First Instance, Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court. All of the state court proceedings are conducted in Spanish. In every courtroom, you will find the bailiff (usually they shadow the judge if the judge for some reason gets reassigned to a different courtroom) and two secretaries (the one who transcribes the proceedings and another one that handles the exhibits if a hearing or trial is taking place).
You’ll see benches for the public, two desks for the parties, jury on the side (only in criminal courtrooms; there is no jury for civil matters in PR), podium in the middle, Judge on bench.
When the attorneys enter the courtroom, they MUST identify themselves with the bailiff, who has the calendar for the day. If the attorney running late, you must call the courtroom and inform them. If you don’t, you will be entering a hostile room.
While the cases get called, attorneys wait on the desk they belong to. It gets interesting when there are 30 cases on the calendar and the attorneys sit and stand beside the desk like a pack of sardines.
Once our case gets called, parties introduce themselves to the Judge and it’s a custom you address everyone in the courtroom: “Good morning your honor (or good morning judge), court officials and to the public present today, attorney Carla Gonzalez on behalf of the defendant, who is present in court and is standing to my right.”
We have some very picky judges who will stop all proceedings if you’re not standing where you’re supposed to.
This is a story of when jealousy gets real ugly. Girl (Carla’s client) meets guy and they date for a few months. After breaking up, he began seeing his ex-girlfriend, the “victim” in this case. So, there was blood in the water between the two from the very start.
C - client/girl (single mother of 3) , B - boyfriend, V - ex-girlfriend/victim
C and her friend were heading out for the night, barhopping in local club, Piñones. Her car has some issues with the battery, so in order to get her car to operate, she typically has to peel a few cables with a box-cutter and mess around with them. She tossed the box-cutter in her pocket, in case she needed to jump-start her car again.
At the bar, live music was playing in a crowded and dark room. C made out the band playing and discovered that it was B, a few friends, and V.
To avoid a fight or argument, she grabs her friend and heads out. V. then follows C. out, with her friends close behind her. She walks up and punches C. in the face. She gets on top of C and continues to punch her, while surrounding friends kicked. This all happened at night on a dark street.
C’s first instinct was to defend herself by pulling out her box-cutter. She started swinging, unable to see, and cut V. on the neck (close to the carotid artery), on her face, chest, and shoulders.
C. was charged with attempted murder, unlawful possession and use of a weapon.
The trial lasted a full 9 days. It was a bench trial, meaning there was no jury, just the judge.
Here's how the trial went...
We advanced the theory of self defense on behalf of our client. Our client was viciously attacked and provoked first outside of the bar, leaving her no other choice but to defend herself with what the client had available. We decided to have her testify in court. We also had the owner of the bar testify, who said that there was no issue or provocation prior to the fight. Another witness testified that our client was actually walking away just before the fight began.
The cop that arrived on scene also testified and mid-trial, we found out that the officer was withholding vital information. On the scene that night, she only interviewed two people: V. and her mother. Note that there were at least 50 people that saw the fight!
V. testified that she did in fact attack our client first. The prosecutor’s additional witnesses gave inconsistent and even contradictory testimony. That was not surprising given that many of them were V.’s friends who also participated in the attack.
We rested our case and confidence was high. In closing we reminded the judge about the inconsistent and biased testimony. The fact that out of 50 potential witnesses, law enforcement spoke to only two people on the scene within minutes of the incident. The prosecution utterly FAILED to refute the justification defense that was put forward so credibly by the client. Victory, we thought, was imminent!
Sounds like a simple decision, right? Think again.
Despite all of the testimony, the Judge found our client guilty of aggravated assault and unlawful use of a weapon; 6 years in prison (mandatory) for the weapon and 8 years for the assault (probation).
Now, this is when the law in America & Puerto Rico differs. In PR, when you're found guilty under the "Weapons Law", the time served is mandatory prison time without the possibility of parole.
So now the client is sitting in a jail cell, with no possibility of parole, all because she was attacked by her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend and tried to defend herself.
As of right now, a very persuasive appeal was submitted to the appellate court. We’ll keep you all posted when we get an update!