Spotlight On: Rhonda B. Ives

Please tell us about your background and how long you have been a criminal defense lawyer, and where you practice.

 I grew up in Eaton Rapids Michigan, as an only child on my parent’s horse farm.  I left to go to college first at CMU, then transferred to MSU where I graduated in 1990, with the standard B.S. degree.  I was not academically inclined during college and wanted to pursue a career in ballet dancing or anything that could land me on Broadway, but I was not talented enough to find my way into a big company, though I did dance in the Lansing ballet company for a number of years.  Perhaps my lack of vocal talent was an obstacle, or perhaps it just was not my calling in life. 

 In 1994, after living in Florida for a year,  I decided to go to law school and graduated in January of 1998 from Thomas Cooley Law School.  I started my own solo practice on June 1, 1998 in Lansing, Michigan, and have been flying solo ever since.  I was not interested in being a criminal defense attorney when in law school, and it was not until I hung my shingle and received my first court-appointed case that made me realize that everyone deserves to have one person on their side in the worst of times.  I opened a 2nd office in Coldwater, Michigan, in 2000, and then I finally moved to Coldwater in 2001 (Branch County) and closed the Lansing office.  My decision to move to Coldwater was not necessarily my dream, but somehow the idea of small town living still appealed to me even though I had my sights on big city lights.  I have remained in Coldwater since 2001, and enjoy living here; I have saturated myself in community activities, having served on local boards for Domestic Violence, Literacy, and community service groups.

 I have been dedicated to criminal defense since my first court appointment, but, more importantly, it has been the associations of defense attorneys that I have met through attendance at CDAM conferences which has given me the most energy to stay in the fight.  At these conferences, I have learned and heard from my follow defenders about the fight for justice for people wrongfully accused, met innocent people who were wrongfully accused and have been exonerated, and I have heard trial story after trial story, and, when I don’t think I have the energy, I am invigorated by all I see, hear and learn.
Please tell us about your practice.

 I have a general practice that focuses primarily on Criminal Defense and Family Law cases.   I have one full time legal assistant and one part time assistant.  I am in a small town, but have handled cases throughout Michigan, primarily in the southern counties of Calhoun, Eaton, Ingham, Hillsdale, Branch, and  St. Joseph.

Please tell us about one of your interesting or unusual cases.  Were any experts needed?

 I worked on an Open Murder case in 2008 where the Defendant had allegedly stabbed her estranged boyfriend.  It was a horrid history of abuse, but the unique piece of the case was that the abuse occurred years earlier in Harlingen, Texas.   It was a case that we tried to use Battered Women’s Syndrome defense.  However, the  trial court did not allow the testimony due to the “space” in time from the alleged abuse and the event of the stabbing.  The facts were clear that the defendant and the decedent went to a wedding together when an altercation occurred.  The decedent struck out at the defendant, hitting her in the face, and called her names. The defendant had gone into shock, grabbed the cake knife from inside the house and, though no one saw the exact moment of how the knife went into the decedent’s chest, he was clearly stabbed.  This case struck many levels for me because as I learned about the case, I saw myself in my own struggles to overcome hardships.  What was more alarming to me though, was the amount of abuse someone will take when they are impoverished, or when they have no choice or resources to stop the abuse.  In most criminal cases I have dealt with, the wrongdoer is accused of Domestic Violence and safeguards are in play so that further escalation of bitter feelings don’t cause more harm.   However, in impoverished circles with little resources such as the one this defendant came from, there is no way out.  She took physical abuse as a daily way of life as there were no options.  The financial dependence on the abuser or the mere threat of further harm brings out a survival instinct that, I think, if you have not lived it, you cannot relate.  After spending hours of discovering the defendant’s background, I could not help but feel that for her the only way out of the next round of abuse, perhaps deadly abuse, was the outcome that ensued.  This defendant is now released from prison and on parole.  I felt and continue to feel that the client did have reasonable self-defense, but now she is finally free from further atrocious harm and free from prison.

What has been most inspirational part of your career?

 In 2011, I had the opportunity to attend Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyer’s College.  Just when I thought I was starting to get burnt out from the practice of law (14 years into it), I went out on a limb and applied for Trial College and, to my surprise, was accepted.  The 4-week commitment was challenging to say the least.  However, the end result gave me a better sense of what I want in life, what I can accomplish, and enforced my drive to represent defendants to the best of my ability (as well as a bunch of other things including an appreciation for Yellowstone Park).

Do you have advice for other defense attorneys?

 Care about the people you represent.  We all have a life here on this planet; we have family and friends, but many times, the accused does not have what we have.  We have the ability to make their life a little better, maybe even a lot better than before they met us.  Their cases are not easy, their stories perhaps not appealing, but we are their voice.   Ask yourself, when you have an extra hour, when was the last time you just called to check in on a past client? Reach out and let him or her know you hope they are doing well.  The universe returns the karma that you send out.

What do you do when you are not representing clients or defending the constitution?

 I enjoy working on animal welfare issue and causes, participating in community action events that help people who are less fortunate, ballroom dancing for exercise, gourmet cooking to blow off steam, and tropical beaches for serenity.

 Ms. Ives is a member of the Branch County Bar Association, the Calhoun County Bar Association, and the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan (CDAM), she is an Executive Board Member of CDAM, and is admitted to practice in the state courts in Michigan and the U.S. District Court, Western District of Michigan.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor