Manhattan Beach attorney faces tough jury: engaged high school students
by Ryan McDonald
Manhattan Beach criminal defense attorney David Paquin visited the Da Vinci design academy last week, and found an audience of high schoolers with a fervent interest in criminal questions. They were compelled by “Serial,” the true-crime podcast that became a sensation when it raised serious questions about the case of Adnan Syed. Syed was convicted of murdering a woman in Baltimore in 1999, but serious questions raised by journalist Sarah Koenig engaged the broader public in the minutiae of a the criminal justice system that is usually hidden from view.
With a lawyer in their midst, students wanted to know: did Syed do it? Paquin urged the students to think about things a bit differently.
“I’ll tell you what. I don’t think he should have gone to jail, that’s for sure. Would I have gotten him off? Oh yes,” Paquin said to laughter and applause. (Syed is now awaiting retrial.)
Paquin, who has represented several South Bay residents over the years, was visiting the school in Hawthorne’s Hollyglen neighborhood to speak to students about the ins and outs of criminal defense. Though the job had its challenges, he said, it could also prove immensely gratifying.
“You’re literally the life preserver when they’re drowning,” he said. “And when you get them off, it is the best feeling in the world.”
Paquin acknowledged that many people hold criminal defense attorneys in low esteem. He addressed some of the more controversial aspects of his work, highlighting the important societal and constitutional function that criminal defense attorneys serve.
One student asked whether Paquin had ever defended anyone he knew to be guilty.
“All the time. Now if the guy comes in and says he did it, I can’t put him up on the stand and have him say the opposite; I can’t perpetrate a fraud. But I still have to defend him,” Paquin said.
This, and how one can ethically do this, is among the most common questions criminal defense attorneys hear. The answer, Paquin said, is in recognizing that zealous advocacy acts as a check on overreach by police and prosecutors.
Among the egregious examples Paquin has encountered in his 20 years of practice: a police officer obtaining a client’s consent to search his vehicle by sticking a loaded gun in the mouth of the client’s young daughter. The client had guns, drugs and money in the car, which the officers found after the man consented. The man was arrested on various charges and subsequently convicted. But four witnesses in a nearby apartment complex saw the officers threaten the client’s daughter and, on appeal, a judge tossed the conviction because the evidence had been illegally obtained.
These and other colorful stories proved exciting for the students. After turning through a variety of other famous cases — of the Los Angeles Police Department during the O.J. Simpson case, Paquin said, “They framed a guilty man” — several students revealed an interest in the legal profession. It was not entirely clear, however, if this enthusiasm survived Paquin’s description of law school.
“It sucked. You will never study harder, and you will live in the library,” he said.
Other questions were more practical. “How do you get out of jury duty?” one girl asked.
This was the only question more popular than, “How do you defend those people?” Paquin said. But he urged the students, many of whom would soon be turning 18, to look at serving on a jury as a privilege, not a burden.
“The answer is you don’t. Other than voting, it’s the only way to participate in our democracy,” he said.