Spotlight On: Alanna P. O'Rourke - May, 2015

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

I spent my childhood growing up around the world and lived in various countries in Africa, Asia and Europe.  Many of these countries were without due process or constitutional rights, including the presumption of innocence, to protect individuals.  These experiences enabled me to develop an appreciation of people from different cultures and strengthened my commitment to public service and civil justice. 

I moved to Detroit in 1992 and obtained a Bachelor of Arts in History from Wayne State University.  My interest in criminal defense and constitutional law was further developed when I researched and wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Whiskey Rebellion of Pennsylvania in 1794 and the first treason trials in the United States.

I began working as a civil and criminal trial paralegal in 1996.  By 1998, I was working as a trial and appellate paralegal in criminal defense and have never looked back.  In 2006, I made a decision to take my career further and enrolled in night school at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.  During law school, I focused on constitutional law, criminal law, research and writing classes and participated in pro bono clinics - a natural outcome of my personal and professional experiences.

I have been a criminal defense lawyer for four and a half years in Detroit mainly handling appointed and retained cases at the trial level in state court.  I further provide research and writing services to attorneys at the trial and appellate level in state and federal court.  I have recently been admitted as a MAACS roster attorney for indigent criminal appeals and am looking forward to developing my appellate practice.

Please tell us about one of your interesting or unusual cases, what the issues were and whether expert witnesses were needed.

I successfully represented a legal permanent resident who was accused of Attempted False Pretenses over $20,000.00, but less than $50,000.00 involving credit card fraud.  There were serious immigration consequences associated with the charges facing my client had he been convicted.  My client consistently maintained his innocence and refused all plea offers from the prosecution.  The case required meticulous organizational skills and attention to detail, as there were multiple fraudulent credit card charges over nearly a week, in numerous stores around the metro-Detroit area.

Identification was the main issue. However, most of the stores only retain video/digital recordings for 30 to 60 days.  The warrant was not issued until almost six months after the incident, and consequently, no recordings from the store were available to prove that my client had not made the purchases.  There were also problems obtaining information from the complainant organization and its affiliates, although I eventually managed to obtain favorable information, including a voice recording made by an unknown person - clearly not my client - about the credit card, and an internal memorandum noting that the signatures on the sales slips did not match my client’s signature.

My client and I decided that a voice recognition expert and a handwriting expert were unnecessary as there was a voice recording of my client contacting the credit card company regarding the fraudulent use of his card, and valid signatures from my client on sales slips that post-dated the incidents available for comparison.  I consulted with a memory perception/identification expert and consulted with an identification theft and fraud expert.  Neither witness presented in-court expert testimony, but I used information and strategies I learned from the experts in my examination and cross-examination of some of the witnesses.

What are some things criminal defense practitioners should watch for?

Make sure you stay in regular contact with your client and their family, if necessary, and communicate with them to obviate possible unreasonable expectations.  Obtain discovery from as many sources as possible that are applicable to your case; there are often unexplored avenues of favorable in-formation that are available to defense counsel.  Be aware of the new types of IAC claims that the appellate courts are recognizing and do your best to make sure you do not fall within those parameters.  Appointed trial and appellate counsel have the un-enviable position of battling inadequate funding and resources.  I am optimistic about the recent changes to the leadership of the indigent defense system and have high hopes for reform in the near future.

Do you have any specific advice for new attorneys?

Your reputation will follow you around throughout your entire legal career - make sure it is a good one!  You should develop and maintain effective, professional relationships with judges, opposing counsel, court personnel, clients and family.  Find at least one good mentor - or, ideally, several mentors (so that you can compare styles and techniques) - and spend as much time as you can in the courtroom observing your mentor and other attorneys.  The initial time you invest will make you a better lawyer in the end.

Try to second chair as many cases as you possibly can - there is no substitute for live, in-court experience, which cannot be taught in books.  I am a firm believer in continuing education and recommend attending as many seminars, courses, classes and CLE credits as you can every year so that you stay current on new developments in the law.  Finally, make sure you are managing your time and are effectively using the available resources.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor