Spotlight On: Lee A. Somerville, May 2016

Please tell us about your background, where you practice, your areas of practice, and how long you have been involved with criminal defense.

I cannot believe it, but I’ve been practicing for 29 years.  Prior to law school, I received a BFA from Wayne State University and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Prior to getting the MFA, I considered going to law school if I could not get into the program I wanted.  My late uncle, William McFadden, made the practice of law seem like a creative field, capturing my interest as an artist.

After law school (U of M, but not a football person) I went with a mid to small sized firm in Lansing, and was exposed to many areas of the law.  I was not interested in criminal law, but really liked employee benefits.

Once I decided to go solo, I figured that I was more likely to be hired to do a will, a divorce, or a drunk driving defense, as opposed to writing cafeteria plans.  My first criminal cases were in Oakland County in the early 1990s.  With that introduction, I decided that these people really need us!  I closed my office in 2005 and stopped taking any retained clients.  Now my criminal practice is limited to MAACS appeals.  I also do juvenile trials and appeals, all appointed.  My first appeal came from a termination of parental rights case in Ingham County.  I got a call that I had been appointed to do the appeal and that someone would be bringing the transcripts down to my office in Oakland County the next weekend.  I tried to explain that I did not know how to do an appeal, but it was a “done deal,” so I learned quickly!

Please tell us about an interesting case in which you were involved.

The case I am working on is always the most interesting.  When I review the work later, it’s often really not, but while I am working, I am interested.  This phenomena was captured in a story another attorney told me a long time ago about how he convinced himself he could win a trial during his closing argument, completely putting out of his mind that there was a video and a confession.  Doing all court appointed work, I do not select my clients or my cases, so I deal with what I get.  I do have an interesting issue that has been remanded to the trial court on a Batson challenge [Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79; 106 S. Ct. 1712; 90 L. Ed. 2d 69 (1985)].  The COA has retained jurisdiction, so I cannot predict the outcome.  Trial counsel made a Batson challenge, the prosecutor gave a reason, and the trial court denied the challenge.  Based on the record, the challenge made no sense: two African American jurors were dismissed by the prosecutor because they made a face when a juror, who was dismissed for cause, was explaining that he would believe every word out of a police officer’s mouth.

What were the theories of the parties?

In writing the brief, my assumption was that the prosecutor did not want an excessive number of African American jurors on the jury.  Apparently the reason offered was a concern that these two jurors did not like police.  Since we will have hearings coming up, I think I’ve said enough.  (Trial counsel, if you are reading this, please respond to my email!)

What trends have you noticed in Michigan criminal jurisprudence?

There seems to be a trend, and I do not know that it is limited to Michigan, eroding basic rights of indigent defendants, perhaps in the interest of expedience.  So many errors are found to be “harmless.”  If a client is sitting in prison based on a flawed trial, I would say there was harm!  However, in my other area—abuse and neglect appeals—courts seem to be finally recognizing basic rights and requiring compliance before imposition of the “civil death penalty,” more and more.

Do you have any advice for new lawyers?

Pick an area that interests you.  Sure, you need to pay the bills, but you do not have to be bored stiff doing it!

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor