Will the real Matt Murdock please stand up?
I have, in the past, detailed incidents where Matt Murdock, New York lawyer and secret identity of the super hero Daredevil, put the ick in legal ethics. I have, in fact, done more detailing than a guy prepping cars for the show room.
Then along came Daredevil v 4 #15.1 and its story “Worlds Collide.” It’s a story set so early in the career of Matt Murdock and Daredevil, that he and Foggy Nelson hadn’t even formed the law firm Nelson and Murdock yet. Matt was a first-year associate at the prestigious Manhattan law firm Hutchins & Wheeler. Was still wearing his original red and yellow costume. And, apparently, was so new to the practice of law that Matt hadn’t yet learned how easy it was to game the system.
On one of his first patrols as Daredevil found a gunshot victim lying dead in Central Park. He heard the elevated heartbeat of three men running away from the crime scene. He chased the closest of the three men, Luiz Sifeuntes, who threw the murder weapon away as he ran. Then Daredevil caught Sifuentes, tied him to a tree, and made an anonymous call to the police.
Sometime later, Hutchins & Wheeler took on Mr. Sifuentes’s case as part of its obligation to provide five thousand hours of pro bono work. Mr. Wheeler assigned the case to Matt.
When Matt talked with Sifuentes, his client said he was walking in the park and went to the crime scene after he heard gunshots. He saw the victim lying on the ground, saw the gun, and picked it up for no known reason other than the one we all know; that’s what innocent people in stories always do when they find dead bodies with recently-fired guns lying next to them. They pick up the furshlugginer gun and give the state what looks like an air-trite case against them. Seriously, this plot device has been used so often that I think complaining that it’s a cliché has become a cliché.
Matt realized he shouldn’t represent Sifuentes, as he was the person who captured Sifuentes in the first place, so he tried to get off the case. Which was the ethical thing to do, as Matt had reason to doubt his ability to be objective and represent his client zealously. But Wheeler wouldn’t let Matt quit. So Matt, who couldn’t reveal the true reason he wanted off the case – i.e. his secret identity – continued to represent his client as best he could. He filed a motion to dismiss the case during the pre-trial probable cause hearing. The grounds for the motion were that Sifuentes was captured by a vigilante who might not even testify so the state wouldn’t be able to make its case.
This was a very sound argument. As I’ve written in the past, when the heroes capture criminals but don’t stick around to supply evidence, the state has no witnesses who can testify as to the defendant’s guilt. Without Daredevil’s testimony, the state would, literally, have no witness who could put Sifuentes at the scene of the crime or in possession of the murder weapon. Judge Mandelbaum said she would take Matt’s argument under advisement and didn’t rule on it.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor, who realized there was a major weakness in her case, offered Matt the chance to plead his client to manslaughter in the second degree. Matt took the offer to his client, because, as he correctly stated, he had a legal obligation to present any plea offer to his client.
A lawyer does have the ethical obligation to present all plea offers to a client. Even ones the lawyer might think are a bad deal. The lawyer can tell the client that he feels the plea offer is a bad deal and advise the client to reject it. But the lawyer still has the legal obligation to present the offer to the client and let the client decide whether he wants to accept it.
Matt advised his client that the offer was a good deal, but only if he were guilty. Again a very ethical and proper way to act. The client decided to accept the offer, because he felt a guaranteed fifteen year sentence – with parole after ten years with good behavior – was better than risking a possible twenty-five year to life sentence should he risk a trial and be convicted of murder in the second degree.
That’s how Matt spent his days, representing Luiz Sifuentes. That’s also how he spent his nights, because at night Daredevil went looking for, and ultimately found the two men actually involved in the shooting.
The next morning, Judge Mandelbaum denied Matt’s motion. She ruled that when an arrest was made by a vigilante such as Daredevil the decision of whether to proceed with that case should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Each case must be examined on its own merits, rather than allow a blanket ruling that all defendants apprehended by masked super heroes should be dismissed. As Luis Sifuentes was found at the scene and his fingerprints were on the murder weapon, that was enough evidence to bind him over for trial. The trial could decide whether there was enough evidence to convict him, should the vigilante Daredevil not testify.
This was absolutely the correct decision. No court would ever make a blanket ruling that any defendant apprehended by masked a vigilante should be set free. Such blanket rulings would prevent courts from reaching the ultimate question: the defendants’ quilt or innocence. But there was another reason why Judge Mandelbaum was correct in her ruling.
Matt made his motion to dismiss during a probable cause hearing. All that is decided in such hearings is whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. The state only has to prove that there’s sufficient evidence to establish that it is more probable than not that the defendant committed the crime. The state does not have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So in a probable cause hearing, a police officer could testify that the department received an anonymous phone call of a shooting in Central Park and that when they arrived they found the defendant tied to a tree next to the victim and that the murder weapon, with the defendant’s fingerprints on it, was also found next to the victim. That degree of evidence might not be enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in trial, should Daredevil not testify. But it would have been enough for a probable cause hearing. So Judge Mandelbaum was correct in denying the motion in the probable cause hearing.
Matt then informed the court that Mr. Sifuentes was not going to proceed with his plea bargain, because the previous night two other men were apprehended in connection with the murder. Matt further said that he believed any fingerprints on the bullets in the murder weapon would match one of these two men, not Mr. Sifuentes’s and that both men said they did not know Luiz Sifuentes. So Matt made a new motion to dismiss, one based on the argument that Mr. Sifuentes was actually innocent of the charges leveled against him.
Yes, I know this case was early in Matt’s career. Maybe because he was younger and just starting out, Matt wasn’t as daring as he would become. Or as willing to stretch his legal ethics worse than Spanx on Rebel Wilson. But it was so refreshing to read a story where Matt acted ethically and properly. Any chance we could get more of them?
A week later, Matt was rewarded for his ethical actions. I don’t know what actually happened. The two murderers probably confessed and exonerated Luis Sifuentes. All I know is that Judge Mandelbaum dismissed all the charges against Sifuentes “with prejudice.”
What’s that mean, that the case against Luis Sifuentes was dismissed “with prejudice?” Why, it means I have something to write about next week.