Spotlight On: Desiree M. Ferguson

Please tell us about your background, your practice, and how long you have been involved in criminal defense.

I was born and bred and continue to reside in Detroit. I think that’s a very important driving force behind who I am and why I do what I do. I went to law school with the goal of providing access to the legal system for the underrepresented, the dispossessed. I was not initially interested in criminal defense; I thought I would be a champion of civil rights or international human rights. I majored in Spanish in undergrad, and my first law job was at Farmworker Legal Services, the summer between college and law school. During law school, I worked at the national legislative offices of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Consumers Union in Washington D.C., and the Urban Law Center in Detroit. I graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1982. I did large-impact and class action litigation at Michigan Legal Services, then I practiced for ten years at the UAW Legal Services Plan. But, over 20 years ago, I found my joy and my niche handling indigent criminal defense appeals at SADO. I see myself as a guardian of the constitution, as well as a voice for the voiceless. SADO is a wonderful place to work, because of the unsurpassed concentration of commitment and expertise. Plus, I have a view of Belle Isle from my office, perched atop the Penobscot Building in beautiful downtown Detroit.

Please tell us about an interesting case.

Years ago, I handled a case involving a migrant farmworker convicted of second degree murder for killing his roommate. His conviction rested on the testimony of a border patrol agent who claimed to speak Spanish, who had extracted a confession on videotape. According to the agent, the client ad-mitted to chasing the deceased and hitting him with a baseball bat. Trial counsel admitted that he had never watched the video, even though he was himself a native Spanish speaker. He was also, I might add, retained for a large sum, which the client’s family had procured by selling all their assets in Mexico. When I watched the tape, I was shocked to learn that the agent had completely botched his trans-lation, and, therefore, grossly misrepresented the client’s statement to the jury. Rather than ad-mitting to chasing the deceased and intentionally assaulting him, the client described a heated fight scene in which he was attacked with a machete and reached for the baseball bat in a desperate attempt to defend himself. Obviously, this knowledge would have significantly affected the outcome of the trial. After a Ginther-hearing [People v. Ginther, 390 Mich. 436 (1973)], I won reversal of the conviction, and the client accepted a plea to manslaughter with a much lower sentence.

Were experts needed?

I did hire an interpreter to translate and transcribe the entire interrogation, and testify about its contents.

What did you learn from the case?

While the lack of resources and adequate compensation do play a key role in undermining the ability of good and committed lawyers to be thorough, no amount of money can buy competent representation from one who is lazy, disinterested or lacks integrity.

What advice do you have for trial attorneys?

Be very vigilant about protecting the record for appeal. Make sure anything the jury sees or hears, such as video or audio taped material, is transcribed into the record. Have tapes transcribed before trial and introduce a stipulated transcript as a trial exhibit. Make sure descriptions, demeanor, estimations of distances, hand and facial gestures, are noted and described on the trial record. It is immensely frustrating to identify a really good appellate issue which simply cannot be raised because non verbal “testimony” was not memorialized in the transcript.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor