Peter Dumas: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re taking this to trial!”

October 21, 2015

 

— Calvin Luther Martin, PhD

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Can you pick out which one is Peter Dumas?

Truth be told, he’s not in the photo, but he’s been in this muddy brawl many a time.

They say it’s not a brawl, but I don’t believe it.  They say they’re playing a game.  Called rugby.  But pictures don’t lie.  Rugby is just another name for brawling.  The rules are basically, “Get the damn ball to the other end of the field by any means possible!”  (Any means possible, except throwing.  You can throw the ball in football; you can’t in rugby.)
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I swear these guys eat roofing nails for snacks.  If they break bones, it’s considered part of the fun.  (Peter had his ribs broken.  Twice.  Like I said, just part of the fun.)
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Pete played this bone-crushing sport through college and then law school.  He was captain of the Pace Law School rugby team his final year.  They won a championship that year (incidentally, defeating Albany Law, when Craig Carriero was in his first year there, although Craig was not on the rugby team.)
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Craig and Pete are running against each other for District Attorney.  Here’s the deal, on November 3rd, you get to vote for either the guy with the busted finger or the one with the busted ribs.  (Craig, remember, was captain of the Hartwick football team and played out his senior year with a broken finger.)

Whatever else you can say about these two men, they’re competitive and they’re tough.
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Peter Dumas, Esq. Showered and looking seriously legal.

They’re both also smart and excellent tacticians.  (Interviewing each of them, in turn, was a pleasure.)

Pete’s a criminal defense lawyer, an ideal venue for his training in formal logic and drama — and a passion for rugby.

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill, small-town defense lawyer.  Pete sits on the board of directors of the NYS Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  The board has 20 members.  Pete’s the only director north of Albany.  All the rest are from NYC, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse — downstate, in other words.  (So, what’s he doing in Malone, NY, you wonder?  He wanted to come home.)

Let’s get something straight.  Calling him a “criminal defense lawyer” doesn’t mean he defends criminals — an unpardonable sin for which we should all be pissed off at him, right?  Nor does it mean he’s soft on crime.  Nor does it mean he’s an amoral bastard who can’t distinguish between good and evil.  (In fact, he gave me a long, thoughtful and learned discourse on good and evil.  He was a political science major in college.  This means he was exposed to plenty of good and evil as he studied the practice and science of government.  By the way, his B.A. is from SUNY Oswego and he has a Masters degree in Environmental Science from SUNY Plattsburgh.)

A criminal defense lawyer defends people accused of a crime.  That’s different from defending “criminals.”

Lest you think this is just “word games,” think of it this way.  Peter isn’t defending this guy when he takes him on as a client.  (Let’s say the guy’s a scumbag with a horrible criminal record and he was caught on 10 surveillance cameras doing something horrible, yet again.)
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Pete’s defending something you can’t see.  He’s defending the same thing this US Marshal is defending.
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Pete and the marshal are defending a principle — the principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty.

The key is “proof” — what’s considered acceptable proof (and who is doing the “considering”) and in what forum or venue this evidence gets presented.

The square-jawed marshal is giving the belligerent mob a lesson on the subject.  He’s informing them that the son-of-a-bitch they want to lynch may indeed be worthy of hanging from the nearest tree, but civilized society and the law of the land insist that, regardless of circumstantial evidence and public outrage, the guy’s gotta be given a trial before a jury of his peers and a judge.

(Just in case they’re not persuaded, the marshal is backing it up with a Winchester .303.)

A fair trial means the accused, no matter who he is and what he is said to have done, has a right to a competent, legal defense, just as the People (i.e., the pissed off townspeople) have a right to charge him with whatever heinous crime they say he was caught doing.

Without this legal principle, we risk mob justice.  Vigilantism.  Anarchy.  As with much of current-day Mexico and Central America being run by drug lords.
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Did you ever read the novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”?  Alabama in the 1930s.  A young black man, Tom Robinson, stands accused of raping a white woman.  The mob wants to lynch him.  A prominent white lawyer, Atticus Finch (memorably played by Gregory Peck in the movie), defends him.
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Finch knows that to leave Robinson without a courtroom defense is to risk anarchy and barbarism — burning crosses and men in white sheets who did horrible things to blacks (and Jews) at night.

Finch is defending a principle, and only incidentally defending Mr. Robinson.
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In 1858 in a courthouse in Beardstown, Illinois, a tall, ungainly-looking attorney (age 49, just a year older than Pete Dumas) stood up to defend a man against a charge of murder.  As murders go, it was gruesome.  The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of a man who swore he witnessed the murder at “a distance of 150 feet, but could clearly see the act by the light of the full moon.”

The attorney checked an almanac.  It turned out the moon that night was nowhere near full, and indeed was so obscure that no such details could possibly have been observed.
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The attorney, Abraham Lincoln, won the case.  The defendant walked.

Lincoln did what any good defense attorney would do.  It’s what Peter does.

Now Peter wants to switch sides.  Make no mistake, he still intends to defend that principle (“innocent till proven guilty”), though now he wants to do it as a prosecutor.  He thinks his 16 years of defending that principle from the defendant’s position has given him an advantage in defending the principle from the plaintiff’s side.  The plaintiff, in this case, being the State of New York.

Which takes us back to the game of rugby.  It’s a good metaphor for what lawyers do.

Imagine a man named Gilbert.  He’s been accused of a crime.  Arrested.  Arraigned.  Mug shot.  Released on bail.  Awaiting trial.
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Here’s another photo of Gilbert.  This one shows what Gilbert looks like to both the prosecutor and defense lawyer.
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He’s become a large, oval ball.  For years, Attorney Dumas and his team have been getting into a legal “scrum” (defined, below) with the opposing team — the Franklin County District Attorney — and struggling to carry that ball, by any legal means possible, to a goal post called “acquittal.”  A verdict of “not guilty.”  (The green ball, below, is “Gilbert.”)
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It’s a game of strategy.  Tactics.  (Peter’s team in white, DA’s team in red.)
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Now Peter wants to switch teams.  His argument runs as follows.  “I know all the moves of the guys in the white jerseys,” he tells me.  “A lot of it is psychology and strategy.”  (I paraphrase him.)

He notes that the DA’s team (red jerseys) has developed the habit of cutting deals with defense attorneys (white jerseys), to avoid going to trial.  Trials are costly, they can be time-consuming, and they require work.

Trials are like a “scrum.”

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Peter thinks there’s another reason the DA avoids going to trial.  He suspects the DA worries that a conscientious defense lawyer will get an acquittal.

Rather than risk losing the case, the DA will negotiate a court sentence “down.”  (The irony is that the DA is negotiating “down” Peter’s clients, a legal strategy that Peter, as defense attorney, of course supports.)

If Peter becomes DA, the tables are turned.  If he becomes DA, Pete’s going to be playing for the other team — the red jerseys, remember.  In fact, he will be their captain.  And he intends to put a stop to negotiating sentences down.  He’s going to take cases to trial.

Since he knows, firsthand, how defense lawyers operate, he suspects he can win lots of these trials.
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He wants to send a strong, clear message to scofflaws (like the guy with the long rap sheet in the photo, above) that, yes they will get due process (a fair trial and the presumption of innocence till proven guilty, etc.), but he’s going to hammer them in court.

If elected, Peter’s game plan will be:  “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re taking this case to trial!”1
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On November 3rd, vote for the one with the busted finger or the one with the busted ribs.  Frankly, either one would make a fine DA.  (And, frankly, they say these very words about each other.)

 

Footnotes

1.  Noting that the great majority of his clients have been charged with a crime in Franklin County at one time or another, I asked Peter what he would do if he found himself obliged to prosecute any of these individuals.  He assured me that NYS law allows him to prosecute former clients so long as he has no “open cases” with them.

Given that he teaches Continuing Legal Education courses through the NYS Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (where, once again, he’s on the board of directors) and given that the association’s members switch sides on occasion and become prosecutors — I suspect he’s correct; he can prosecute them.