Spotlight On: Barbara A. Klimaszewski

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

I have been a criminal defense lawyer in Saginaw, Michigan, since 1978.  I also do family law, some civil rights work, and a few other general practice things.  Before that, I spent a couple of years at Legal Services of Eastern Michigan doing exclusively family law cases.  With some other women, I started the Underground Railroad battered women’s shelter in Saginaw, which was one of the first such shelters in Michigan. 

I grew up in Genesee County, and graduated from Oakland University with majors in Political Science and Russian language.  I come from a large, working class family.  I never really identified myself as a feminist until my first week at the University of Michigan law school.  That trial by fire solidified my left-wing credentials and made me a feminist for life. 

Please tell about one of your interesting or unusual cases.

I represented Susan LeFevre, the “fugitive mom” from California.  As a 19-year-old with no criminal history, she had pled guilty in 1975 to possession with intent to deliver heroin.  She had two separate cases where she was charged with delivery to a snitch.  This occurred during a turbulent period in Saginaw known locally as the “Mexican drug wars.”  Saginaw had become a major center of heroin distribution.  In reaction to this, the local judges had gotten together and set a policy of giving all heroin delivery defendants a 10-year sentence.  She was one of the early ones to get this treatment.  She walked away from DeHoCo [former Detroit House of Correction] after about a year, and stayed out until 2008, when she was arrested in California.  I knew about the policy just from hearing from some of the older lawyers.  We used it as the basis of a 6.500 motion. 

Meanwhile, Bill Swor represented her on the escape charge and got her probation.  He and I conducted a hearing on the 6.500 motion. 

Were experts needed?

We called lawyers as experts who were aware of the sentencing policy, including the elected prosecutor at the time.  We also had a complete breakdown of the sentences handed down over the relevant period, which we had collected from the county clerk. 

What were the theories of the parties?

The prosecutor argued that she was not entitled to relief because she had absented herself for over 30 years.  We argued that the original sentence was unconstitutional and a violation of the individual sentencing requirement under Michigan law. 

What was the resolution of the case?

After hearing our evidence (and hearing that the prosecutor intended to take any result that was in our favor to the Court of Appeals to keep her in prison longer), the court came up with a political solution.  He referred the case to the Parole Board under the policies in effect in 1975, after receiving assurances of the result.  A few months later, she was released and went home to California in an unappealable ruling. 

In a clear demonstration of no good deed going unpunished, the client ended up writing a book about her version of events, which included scathing criticism of her legal representation!

What advice do you have for other defense attorneys?

Know everything you can about your case.  The case I described was really won by showing the judge the sentencing numbers and an old letter from the sentencing judge that essentially admitted the sentencing policy.  A winning case is a balance between the tedious work of thorough preparation and using creativity to approach what you have found out.  Use voir dire to open minds and, most importantly, to listen to jurors.  Be brave, and try not to worry about what the judge will think.  Make a record, make a record, make a record.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor