By Raphael Helfand
Jimmy was in trouble. He sat in what he remembers as “pretty much a huge DMV,” waiting for his case to be processed. Behind him loomed Orleans Parish Central Lockup, a “gigantic cage” filled with menacing figures in orange jumpsuits.
He’d been picked up earlier that night for walking in the middle of the street downtown (and then walking away from the police when they asked him to stop, and then arguing drunkenly when they caught up with him). During the arrest, he’d felt incredulous and rebellious; he’d even managed to take a selfie while handcuffed in the back of the police cruiser. Now he was just plain scared, acutely aware of how scrawny and white he looked in the Hot Boys T-shirt (Lil Wayne’s old rap group) he’d worn to Bounce Night at Republic that evening.
He’d been waiting for about four hours when, around 6 a.m., everyone in processing was escorted into lockup. “There was about four women on the left side, and about 75-80 men on the right side… just milling about, sleeping on the floor,” he recalls. He started to legitimately fear for his safety when a few guys started messing with him, grabbing at his shirt and pestering him for a lighter and cigarettes. Luckily, they lost interest quickly.
As it turned out, most of the detainees Jimmy interacted with were genuinely friendly to him. “No one’s gonna hurt you,” said an older guy nearby, noticing his nervousness. “They all wanna get out as much as you do.”
As he got more comfortable, Jimmy started talking to some of the people around him. “Some of them had been there for more than six days, and they smelled like it,” he says. “If you can’t pay your bail, you stay in there and wait for your court date, which is sometimes a couple days and sometimes a week, so there were people who’d been in there a long time.”
While Jimmy was languishing in Central Lockup, his friend Steve (who had seen the arrest) was in communication with Fred King, Tulane’s on-call criminal defense attorney. “I called him in the middle of the night and left him a voicemail at like 3 or 4,” Steve says. King called back around 6:30, and Steve told him about Jimmy’s situation. “OK, don’t worry about it. Give me his name and at 9 a.m. I’ll call one of the judges,” Steve remembers King saying. “He’ll be out within the hour.”
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A quote from a student newspaper displayed on King’s website claims he is the only thing every Tulane student’s contact list has in common, and it isn’t far from the truth. At the beginning of every year, RAs give out his number to incoming freshmen, telling them to use it if they ever get in trouble with the law. His business card constantly circulates around campus, and his name is the stuff of legend among students. Tulane folklore holds that if you walk into a courtroom with Fred King by your side (or, even better, if King goes to court in your place), the judge will drop your charges on the spot.
In person, King has the demeanor of a cool grandpa—the kind who talks to you about his days as a Deadhead, not the kind who criticizes your table manners and gives you a nickel for your birthday. He wears fun ties, voices progressive views on marijuana decriminalization, and probably doesn’t believe extramarital sex and underage drinking are signs of the apocalypse (although honestly, I didn’t ask). In a way, he doesn’t even come across as lawyerly, although his bespectacled cross examination stare, his hearty country club laugh, and his robust handshake give his profession away in the end.
In fact, King fell into the law almost accidentally. He went to law school to get a student deferment from the Vietnam War, to which he felt a moral objection. “I was going to write for a living,” he recalls. “But in actual fact, I knew very few poets who were eating, and eating was one of my favorite pastimes.” Ultimately, he stuck with it because he enjoyed helping people.
King started practicing criminal defense in 1970, and soon developed a knack for winning cases. When the Tulane University Legal Assistance Program (TULAP) opened its doors in 1973, King was already coaching the school’s men’s soccer and rugby clubs—“probably enough to keep a lawyer going right there,” he jokes—so he was a natural choice to head the program’s criminal branch. He’s fond of talking about how he “probably [hasn’t] slept since 1972,” but he isn’t complaining. When your job is exculpating Tulane’s accused miscreants, business is steady, and—as King is quick to point out—always interesting. “I never again, as long as I live, will say I’ve seen everything, “ he says, “because I know the next time the phone rings…” You get the idea.
TULAP advertises itself as a “legal service program funded by the Tulane University Associated Student Body,” providing “free legal advice and low-cost representation to current Tulane University students, staff, and faculty.” The representation used to be free too, until a concerned Student Senator argued that the majority of law-abiding Tulane students shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of the few criminals in their midst. After his bill passed Student Government, TULAP began charging “nominal fees” for their services.
Still, the program’s fees remain exceptionally low—especially considering King’s platinum record for keeping Tulane students’ records unblemished. In Jimmy’s case, the fee was $500; not couch money, but far less than any other attorney would charge. And King made the process effortless: he went to court in Jimmy’s place and conducted their entire correspondence by phone and email.
King has shown a commitment to providing an aggressive, diligent, creative defense to every client he represents, exemplified by a tactic he uses to defend clients facing a Minor in Possession of Alcohol (MIP) charge. He contends that “absent a chemical analysis, the Prosecution cannot prove an alcoholic beverage was possessed by the accused.” When he first pitched this strategy to a judge, the conversation went something like this:
King: Look, judge. Conceivably… my client could be a teetotaler, and he didn’t want his friends to know that he doesn’t drink, so he could’ve gotten this Budweiser beer and put some iced tea in it.
Judge: Mr. King, I’ve dealt with a lot of beer cans in my life, but I’ve never seen anything other than beer come out of them.
The court didn’t buy it that time, but King has honed his argument since. Citing language from a Louisiana Supreme Court case as precedent, he now can now argue that the state cannot establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt without proof of the alcohol content of the beverage in the defendant’s possession. Today, his strategy has become common practice in New Orleans courtrooms.
In fact, King has used it twice to defend another Tulane student, Kate, who was cited for MIP by the same NOPD officer in consecutive years. According to Kate, the case was routine for King. “I think the courts expect him to come and say, like, it’s not true,” she says, “because they don’t check what’s in your drink, they don’t do anything… There’s no proof that you actually should’ve gotten the arrest, so he just goes in and is like, ‘this is not legit.’”
Like Jimmy, Kate never had to meet with King in person. Like Jimmy, she never had to go to court herself. And like Jimmy, her charges were dropped (both times). From what she remembers, her representation was even cheaper than Jimmy’s, coming out to $350 a pop.
As far as King’s cases go, Jimmy’s and Kate’s were relatively minor ones. “As a private attorney, I’ll do everything from capital murder to spitting on the sidewalk,” he says (referring his caseload and not his daily activities). Within TULAP, he doesn’t take on felony cases, but he’s available to represent Tulane students charged with felonies through his private practice, as long as there isn’t a conflict of interest with the school or another member of the Tulane community (this also applies to misdemeanors). Besides these conflicts, King almost never turns anyone away. “As a lawyer, if you’re my client, I shouldn’t care whether you’re Mother Teresa or Public Enemy Number One,” he says. “You’re still entitled to a defense.”
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In a perfect world, everyone charged with a crime would have access to a competent, hard-working criminal defender like Mr. King. In New Orleans, a city with high levels of poverty and unemployment, located in a state with the highest incarceration rates in the world, the need for low-cost, high-quality representation is especially dire. But unfortunately, programs like TULAP are often only available to populations that (for the most part) are able to pay more expensive litigation fees, and lawyers like Fred King are the exception, rather than the rule.
“Our Public Defender program has the most excellent lawyers,” King says. “The problem is they’re overworked, they’re completely underfunded”—so much so that they recently announced they will refuse to take on new felony cases, because they simply don’t have the time or the resources to represent their clients properly. The state’s annual contribution to the Public Defender’s office has been cut, from $6 million in 2010 to only $1.8 million in 2016. The balance of the office’s budget is funded by fines from traffic court and municipal court. As King points out, these courts deal with “very poor defendants who…may not be able to pay those fines and end up in jail.” In his eyes, this creates a “horrible catch 22 cycle”: as more poor defendants land in jail, less funding is available to keep other defendants out. It’s not quite a debtor’s prison, but it’s not far from it, either.
Another vicious cycle exists within the legal community itself. The worse the criminal defense system gets, the less appealing it becomes for talented young lawyers, who realize they could make much more money in other areas of the law. “It’s unfortunately not that desirable a field of practice… because there are not that many accused white collar criminals,” King says. This is especially true in New Orleans, where most of the accused are working class minorities, many of whom don’t have the resources to pay for their defense. Even those who do become criminal defenders often shy away from the Public Defender’s office if they can help it, given its reputation for low-paying, unrewarding work. So while groups like Tulane students get high-powered defense attorneys like Fred King in their corner, the general public is left with lawyers who are spread too thin to give their cases the attention they deserve.
The issue here is not that TULAP has created some sneaky scenario to keep Tulane’s student body out of trouble, or that Fred King is some swindling mastermind who’s carved out a niche helping the children of the rich and famous get away with murder. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Fred King is an excellent lawyer who takes pride in his profession and dedicates much of his spare time to pro bono work, and TULAP is an exemplary program that serves its community well. As a Tulane student, it’s nice to know that Fred King is there as a buffer between our student body and the courts, and it’s also comforting that he is committed to helping the less privileged, when he has the time.
But as King would readily admit, it’s going to take much more than a few lawyers doing charity work to fix this city’s broken system. He believes the first step is to better fund the Public Defender’s office. “The city’s got to give them the money to do it,” he says. “If not, justice is denied.”
Although he generally feels “pessimistic as far as the future of the criminal justice system here,” King has found reasons for optimism lately. “I’ve seen a whole crop of new, enthusiastic, very smart, very devoted attorneys out there,” he says, referring to a trend of young lawyers going into criminal defense, despite the challenges they know they will face. King has high hopes for these ambitious criminal defenders, but knows they have their work cut out for them. “You just have to get out there and get in the trenches and work your ass off,” he tells them. “Justice doesn’t come easily.”
Raphael Helfand is a junior at Tulane studying Psychology, Music, and English.