Tony, age 26 with no criminal record, came to me just over a year after being charged  in Greenville with a fatal hit-and-run: leaving the scene of an accident with death. That’s a mandatory one to twenty-five years in prison—unless you can convince a judge to keep you out.

He already had a lawyer, who charged him a low fee. But over a year into the case, Tony feared the lawyer hadn’t done much to defend him. Sadly, he was right.

Here’s how I took over and helped Tony.

The Charge

On June 13, 2016, around 6:20 A.M., Tony drove down I-85 around Greenville to go home from his shift as a robot programmer. As he later admitted to authorities, he was exhausted and drove “zoned out,” like a zombie. He even got coffee to try to keep himself awake.

As he exited the interstate, a motorcycle hit the back passenger side of his car. For reasons Tony still tries to understand, Tony didn’t stop after the accident. He never accelerated to escape detection. He just kept driving, under the illusion it was just a flat tire he’d noticed a few miles back.

The motorcyclist got knocked off his bike. Luckily, in the car behind Tony was a nurse headed to work at the hospital. She pulled over to try to help the motorcyclist until the ambulance came. Sadly, all efforts were in vain, and a few hours later he died at the hospital from head trauma.

In a strange twist, Tony tried to help law enforcement. He pulled over not long after the accident to look at what he thought was the flat tire. When he discovered the damage to the side of his car, he called the local police and told them where he was. When they hadn’t arrived an hour later, he actually called them back and helped them find him.

The police couldn’t figure out what caused the damage, so they called the highway patrol—who investigated Tony’s crash—to see if there were any hit-and-run incidents reported recently. Unfortunately, Tony couldn’t give a precise accident location, since he thought it was the flat tire he noticed miles before the accident. Based on that, the highway patrol dispatcher found nothing. Police didn’t just release Tony at that point—they drove him home so his car could get fixed.

A few days later, Tony got pulled over on the interstate by the highway patrol, who had identified a car like his as a potential match to the one involved in the fatal accident. Tony willingly went with troopers to their local headquarters for questioning. They taped the questioning.

I’ll never forget Tony’s reaction when they all put it together he’d been involved in the accident. He collapsed into uncontrollable sobbing. It was like hearing his soul cave in. Which it did. More on that later.

What I Inherited

When you take over a file from another lawyer, one thing you do is get that lawyer’s file to see what’s been done. For this case, I was heartsick to realize that after about a year of representing Tony, this lawyer had done hardly anything.

He’d committed two cardinal sins. First, he didn’t press the state for all its discovery—the evidence of the case. He’d gotten some. Maybe 30 pages.

Second, he didn’t share the information with his client. Tony had never seen the evidence his prior lawyer had. A young man facing the best years of his life in prison didn’t even know the evidence against him.

And it wasn’t even close to all the evidence. After I got involved and pressed the prosecutor for the rest of the state’s evidence, I got huge reams of evidence including reports, drawings, computer animations, and taped witness interviews. It wasn’t that the prosecutor or anyone tried to hide anything. Tony just didn’t have anyone staying on top of the case to make sure the prosecution supplied the information it was duty-bound to hand over when requested.

And then I saw the plea offer. Three years in prison. My heart sank—but not for long. I told Tony we had work to do. And we did it as a team.

We Work As a Team

I believe in the attorney-client relationship. There are just some things only clients can do for you, like there are things only I can do for clients.

We knew Tony had no real defense to leaving the scene. Our best defense was keeping him out of prison. That’s where I came in: to direct our efforts toward making that work. Both Tony and my assistant Camila did phenomenal work to ramp up our defense.

While I concentrated on analyzing evidence to present at Tony’s hearing, Tony did extremely important evidence-gathering of his own, which proved invaluable. He got an astounding number of support letters from friends and family who detailed how kind, compassionate, and caring he is, not to mention a driven, hardworking, gifted robot programmer with dreams of a college degree and a business of his own.

Lawyering isn’t limited to just legal help. Sometimes you give folks life advice, too. Tony mentioned to me he struggled with guilt and grief from the accident. I told him he should get counseling for it. That led to some of our most important evidence. Tony got a remarkable letter from his therapist. It figured prominently into our court presentation, as you’ll see later.

And I gathered some vital evidence on my own, outside the discovery process. I got Tony’s jail records, where he stayed for 35 days after his arrest. They spoke volumes about his immediate guilt and remorse for the accident.

In jail, Tony was suicidal.

We also gently reached out to the victim’s family, through their lawyer in the civil suit they filed for compensation for the wrongful death. Even though that settled, Tony still wanted to help the victim’s children. He sent them money for Christmas presents, with my letter making it clear we expected nothing in return.

Sentencing Negotiations—And Help From an Unexpected Source

It’s important for criminal defense attorneys to maintain relationships with prosecutors, even as we demand evidence from them and push them to reach outcomes clients feel good about. That’s what I did here.

Tony faced a tough career prosecutor. I had frank conversations with her about evidence and sentencing. She didn’t want to take prison off the table.

Help from an unexpected source lifted our spirits. The prosecutor told us the victim’s family didn’t want Tony to go to prison.

Now, the victim’s wishes don’t control the prosecutor—a fact that often surprises both criminal defendants and families that lose loved ones in traffic accidents. In our case, the prosecutor still couldn’t agree to a sentence with no prison. But finally, she did agree she wouldn’t ask for prison at sentencing. We could plead “straight up,”, meaning the judge could sentence Tony without a recommendation from the prosecutor. That’s important, because judges usually follow the prosecutor’s advice.

Under the circumstances, Tony and I felt that no recommendation at all was better than recommending three years in prison. At least probation without prison remained a possibility.

Realizing that was as good as it would get, and that we had no defense to risk the certainty of prison if we lost at trial, we scheduled the plea with a judge the prosecutor allowed me to select.

The Plea: Things (Almost) Fall Apart

For extremely serious charges with no probation offer, I don’t just show up at court and hope for the best. A couple weeks before the hearing, I sent the judge evidence Camila expertly prepared for me: the jail records of suicidal remorse, the therapist’s letter, and the very best support letters. This way, the judge would know more about who Tony was, besides a charge that made him look heartless. She’d know he had a heart—a big one. I copied the prosecutor with it, as legally required.

I spent hours compiling my presentation to the court. Tony and I met one afternoon for an extensive discussion on how he’d handle the plea. I let Tony know there would be lots of questions to answer from the judge, and it would be vital to present himself the way the judge should see him.

I arrived on the appointed day, as did Tony, in his brand-new suit, with a large contingent of family and friends. We were ready.

But then a problem developed. A big one. The judge was sick! We’d go before a different judge. My initial thought was to leave and come back another day, but the prosecutor threatened to force us into a trial we wouldn’t win if we didn’t plead that day. I kept my cool. I felt I could talk her out of that if I really needed to, and she did make a point Tony wholeheartedly agreed with: we’re all here, and this needs to end.

The prosecutor did go an extra mile for us—not as a “favor,” but to encourage us to stick around. She got the victim’s family to share their letter they planned to read at sentencing. It clearly asked for no prison.

Then we found out the judge who took over was actually a judge I felt would help Tony if I gave him enough reasons to. Tony agreed to it. I felt good about it, even though this judge didn’t have the benefit of the evidence I shared with the first one.

A different judge meant I had to shift gears in my presentation. In fact, I had to dramatically change the whole thing, because this judge demanded brevity. Just like that, I cut our presentation in half. If Tony looked at my notes when our case got called, he might’ve wondered if I was going to say anything based on all the red slashes!

The Presentation

When we finally got before the judge, I brought out the points I needed to, without breaking the judge’s patience. Here are the most important ones:

  • Addressing the victims. I assured them nothing I say is to minimize responsibility. We own that.
  • I pointed out the reason for criminalizing hit-and-run crashes didn’t apply here. If Tony had stopped, it would not have saved this poor man’s life. And he was actually in better hands than Tony’s at the scene, since the eyewitness who came right behind the accident was an RN.
  • I pointed out the top two causes of hit-and-run, in my experience, were absent here. Tony wasn’t trying to avoid a DUI or driving on a suspended license.
  • The therapist letter. This was a unique gift I couldn’t plan for. The therapist revealed he’d worked for 12 years in South Carolina’s prison system as a mental health counselor. He stated prison won’t benefit Tony because he takes full responsibility for the accident. Tony never minimized his responsibility. And he expressed remorse and sympathy for the victims. The therapist concluded by stating sending Tony to prison actually hurts society because it removes a useful, productive person from our ranks.

As for Tony, I told the judge:

  • He’s paid dearly, in a prison of his own creation, a life sentence that’ll haunt him forever. I quoted a letter from his Mom—who you tell everything to—that he struggles with his right to be the survivor.
  • He’s been punished before today. He was in jail 35 days after arrest. That cost him tech school where he’d started what he hoped to be a mechanical and electrical engineering degree from Clemson. He’d been on house arrest since his release from jail, nearly 600 days.
  • He’s loved by so many because he’s genuinely good. I told the court I’ve rarely seen such an outpouring of heartfelt support, asking his family and friends to stand in the courtroom, where they took up much of the gallery.
  • I told the story about nothing illustrating his compassion and selflessness more than driving all the way from Indiana to here just for his nephew’s Doughnuts With Dad day—so his nephew, who doesn’t know his father, would not be alone.

Tony and the Victim Do Their Part, Too

This hearing was highly emotionally charged. While the victim’s mom talked about her heartbreaking loss, Tony wept quietly. As promised, she asked for no prison, telling the judge it “would do no good.”

When his turn came to talk, Tony burst into tears, gushing he wished it had never happened and how he’d gone over and over it to figure out what he could do different to prevent the whole thing, telling them how sorry he was.

And yes, it was wrenching for me, too. I steeled myself against succumbing to my emotions. This hearing was about helping Tony, not my emotions.

The Sentence

We asked for probation. Then came the 30 worst seconds of the entire ordeal, where the only sound in the courtroom was the judge’s pen writing out Tony’s future.

The judge announced the sentence: 24 months probation, with no prison, plus restitution payments we agreed to make to the victim’s children.

Tony’s driver’s license is also revoked for a year, as required by law.

The Takeaways

Just hearing Tony avoided prison sent waves of relief through me, and all the more so for him and his family. Tony was so overwhelmed he actually wasn’t sure what the sentence was, until I told him right after the courtroom began to empty.

Tony definitely spent a lot more money on me than his prior lawyer. But I know he’s thankful. I think he’d tell you to think long and hard before hiring a low-priced defense attorney, because you might lose the service and attention your case demands.

It takes a lot of work to defend a serious case, but an outcome like this is more than worth it. I’m thankful I protected his future.

Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg personal injury lawyer. Rob also practices as a workers' compensation attorney.