Spotlight On: James B. Schlaff

Please tell us about your practice, including how long you have practiced criminal law.

 I have practiced since 1979, with most of my practice in the Wayne County Circuit Court, and, previously, in Recorder’s Court, but I also do traffic and drunk driving cases.  My office has been in the Penobscot Building, in Downtown Detroit, for about thirty years.

You recently won a not guilty verdict in a felony case; please tell us about it.

 It was an assault with intent to murder case tried before a jury in the Wayne County Circuit Court.  The parties knew each other.  Many of the things testified to by the complainant, who had some psychological history, were not corroborated by the forensic findings; for example, there was no blood and there were no shell-casings at the scene, and the allegations were not supported by the testimony of the responding police officers.  The medical records also did not corroborate key points in the complainant’s testimony.

What were the defense and prosecution theories?

 The prosecutor argued that there was a quarrel, where my client accused the complainant of stealing some narcotics, and during the quarrel the defendant shot the complainant.  The defense theory was that the victim suffered from mental illness and was just wrong about there being a quarrel with my client, and wrong about my client shooting him.  Although the victim sustained gunshot wounds, there was no competent or corroborative evidence that my client was the person responsible.

What significant trends – good or bad -- have you noticed in Michigan criminal law over the years?

 Appellate decisions are noticeably worse for criminal defendants.  Federal courts have increasingly been giving relief to Michigan defendants.  State court decisions often undermine federal decisions that are favorable to criminal defendants, and the state courts create exceptions that are favorable to the prosecution.  The exceptions then undermine the rule.

Do you have any advice for other criminal lawyers?

 Don’t assume you know the law in any particular case; there are always new developments, or new statutes changing definitions.  Do your research and be prepared for trial.

Do you have any specific advice for new lawyers?

 Find a good mentor, or a group of people you can speak to who can provide advice about specific courts, trials, and how to prepare your case.

by Neil J. Leithauser
Associate Editor