Spotlight On: Robert S. Whims

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

I have been practicing criminal law for just over 25 years, 10 years as a prosecutor in southern California and the rest doing defense work and some civil litigation.   I am a native Michigander and talked my California bride into moving back to northern Michigan soon after we were married in 1996.  Except for a 3 year stint to take care of her parents out west, we have lived in Michigan ever since.

 We live on a farm and raise cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, some crops, milk, eggs and, when I find time, we make biodiesel.  We have also been blessed with children.  To illustrate how our lives have changed with our move from California back to northern Michigan, I offer this humbling and hopefully humorous observation: the other day when we took our barn garbage out, in the container were 2 dead chickens, one dead possum, and the guts of a deer that I and my four oldest sons had skinned in 15 below zero weather.  Welcome to Mayberry.  Kidding aside, we are very grateful to live and practice here in Traverse City.

Please tell us about an interesting or unusual case or two.

I am working on two that are set for trial in the next 5 weeks, and both are pretty consuming.    One is a CSC where my client is looking at multiple life sentences, the other a double homicide, but in the context of a traffic collision.

What are the prosecution and defense theories?

In the CSC case it is a she-said, he-said.  I was able to prevent the Prosecution’s attempt to call an expert regarding late reporting, and we are going to trial next week.  At issue will be the lack of credibility of the complainant, and my client’s excellent character evidence about these types of matters, including from his own step children.

For the traffic homicide they allege my client was going too fast for conditions and crossed his semi-trailer over the center line and killing two men.  I have witnesses that saw parts of the crash that should partially refute those theories.

Are experts needed?

We have retained an accident reconstruction expert for the traffic homicide matter.  He will rebut the sheriff’s ‘guess’ about what happened.  There are some facts they don’t know about as well, and that will undercut the prosecution’s theory.  I don’t think they’ve done their homework, but the jury will let us know who is correct about that.

Have you seen any trends -- good or bad -- in the criminal law in recent years?

I am saddened by the one-sided nature of the appellate opinions I see in our state.  Many are obviously authored by people that never tried cases or have little or no real-life experiences in the streets.   The perceived lack of fairness and loss of citizens’ liberty is very disappointing and will be virtually impossible to get back.

What advice do you have for other defense attorneys?

Keep fighting, keep your integrity and civility, and be brave in the face of adversity.  Trying cases is a lot like a civilized street fight.  They will remember you and be less likely to start trouble if they still have the black eye you gave them the last time you were there.  The only caveat is to fight like a gentleman (gentlewoman).

Any special advice for new lawyers?

Try cases.  Try truck loads of cases.  Try as many as  your clients will let you even if they won’t be able to pay you.  It will serve you well no matter what you do in the law the rest of your career.  You will be a better advocate, better at gathering evidence, better at assessing the value or weaknesses of a case, better even at drafting documents if that ends up to be your practice.   Try cases.

 Mr. Whims’ web-page at Smith & Johnson, P.C.:

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor