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Transcript for Trial Lawyer Talk, Episode 4, with Kim Savo

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Scott Glovsky: Welcome to Trial Lawyer Talk. This Scott Glovsky and I’m your host for this podcast, where we speak with the best trial lawyers in United States, and have them tell stories from their cases. At the heart, this really is a storytelling podcast. My goal is to have these simple great lawyers, share with us, interesting stories from their cases.

Today, in episode number four, we’re very lucky to have with us Kim Savo, from the Los Angeles Federal Public Defender’s Office. Before we get started with Kim, I want to take a brief moment to start to tie in some of the themes that will be very evident from these interviews. Today I’ll talk about caring, because it should be very evident from our discussions with Mike Marrinan, Michael Callahan, and Ron Estefan, that these are lawyers who care very deeply about their clients.

In law school we’re taught to be clinical and analytical, and logical, and not to get emotionally involved with our clients. As a trial lawyer, the truth is, if you want to be successful, it’s exactly the opposite. The lawyers have to care deeply about their clients, and that should be very evident in all the episodes of Trial Lawyer Talk. Thanks for joining us, let’s get started.

Welcome to Trial Lawyer Talk. I’m very fortunate today to have Kim Savo with us. Kim is a supervising Trial Deputy, at the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Los Angeles. Kim has some amazing things that we’re going learn today, and we’re most importantly going to learn about Kim. Kim was in the PhD program in English literature, at Berkeley, when she decided to make a turn in her trajectory, to become a public defender, and went to UCLA Law School, and study public interest law.

She’s now handles all kinds of criminal cases, federal cases, bank robbery, drug trafficking, complex crimes, RICO, etc. She’s represented clients in the United States Supreme Court, and is on faculty at Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyer College, and is also a published poet. So first, thanks Kim for being with us today.

Kim Savo: There is no place I’d rather be right now.

Scott Glovsky: I’d like to ask you if there’s been a case that profoundly changed who you are as a lawyer, as a person?

Kim Savo: Yeah, definitely. There are two that come to mind right away. I think I’ll tell the more hopeful story first. I had a client who grew up on the Lakota Sioux reservation, the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. When he was, I think, 19, he was convicted of a very serious burglary of a house, during which one of the residents of the house was very badly injured. The court in South Dakota sentenced him to 19 years in prison.

I encountered him because when he was serving his sentence, he was at the Victorville penitentiary here in California. He has a native name that is recognizable as a native name. He worked in the kitchen and there was a correctional officer who taunted him pretty regularly, called him Hiawatha, and some other pretty offensive stuff.

One day my client reached his maximum capacity for coping with that, and he hauled off and he punched the CO in the face. Didn’t break the skin, no serious injury, no broken facial bones, nothing like that, but he was prosecuted and he was facing an extraordinarily lengthy sentence. Because under the federal sentencing guidelines, he was considered a career offender, because that was considered another violent crime.

I just knew that I had to do something. So I went to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota with an investigator. I’ve travelled all over the world, into India, parts of Africa, South America, Central America. Southeast Asia, the Middle East. I have never been anywhere, where the poverty and the despair felt so heavy and intractable as the Rosebud.

We gathered records, and we found his mom living in a pile of empty malt liquor cans. We tracked down his younger brother too in jail in another part of South Dakota. We found an uncle who was an alcoholic in recovery, who was using native culture to heal himself. I learned this story about this child who was born to a 16 year old girl, who was already an alcoholic that had fetal alcohol syndrome, that was helicoptered to another hospital in the second week of life because he was failing to thrive.

I didn’t know that medical term at the time, but that term failing to thrive, failure to thrive, became for me the title of my client’s life story. When he was huffing gasoline with his relatives by the time he was seven, and there was never food. He was taken away from the mother and put in foster care, and in foster care someone sexually abused him, and then he was moved someplace else, and someplace else, they tie him to a tree. The kind of story that didn’t seem possible in this country to me.

I wrote my client’s story, and I told the court that if judge sentenced him to one additional day in custody it would be a manifest in justice. The court did not sentence him to the 15 years consecutive that the government was asking for, but did actually sentence him to five years consecutive to the 19 year sentence he had already received.

I stood at the lectern, in federal court, and wept in front of a full gallery, on a Monday afternoon. My client hugged me and thanked me, and said what really mattered was that I had given him his story, that telling his story had transformed him, that he knew something about himself.

Seven years later, we are in regular correspondence, and he has been drug and alcohol free for the past seven years, and he is getting certified to be a personal trainer. He inherited some land on the reservation, and is working with some people I’ve connected him with in South Dakota, to try and get some federal money for the tribe through the federal second chance act, to build a recreation center on the land that he inherited.

Because what he wants to do when he finally gets released is to go back and try and teach the young people who were him, a different way of coping with their lives. None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t told his story.

Scott Glovsky: How does that make you feel?

Kim Savo: It still makes me profoundly sad that he’s still in prison, and that I didn’t get what I wanted. But that I could touch someone in that way, by tell their story, it was an absolute turning point for me in my sense of what my job could be. It wasn’t just walking someone out the door, that it wasn’t just saving someone time in custody, that telling someone’s story could be transformative both for me and for them at a much more profound level.

Scott Glovsky: Did that also give you insight into how you try cases, or how you should try cases?

Kim Savo: I think it put together for me the lessons that I learned from the Trial Lawyers College in practice, because that case came very shortly after I had attended a three week college. It let me see, in real time, the truth of what I had learned there about not being afraid, not only to tell the story, but to show the feelings of that story.

Scott Glovsky: Well Kim, you mentioned Trial Lawyers College, and that’s a place that’s very dear to your heart and my heart. Will you share with our viewers what Trial Lawyer College is? Folks, Kim, as I mentioned earlier, is a phenomenal instructor, and I’m on staff as well at Trial Lawyers College. We teach lawyers around the country how to try cases. But Kim, tell a little bit about what Trial Lawyer College is.

Kim Savo: Gerry Spence had this vision that law schools made us bad human beings. You can’t be a trial lawyer and be out of touch with yourself as a human being, unable to connect with your clients and with jurors as human beings. He wanted to create a school that was about relearning how to connect with our humanity. So that we could take all of our legal acumen, and the necessary legal tool procedurally, and communicate to the jurors, the emotional core, the truth of our client’s stories.

His understanding in the early ’90s has since been really consistently affirmed by neuroscience, social science, psychology about how judgement and decision making occurs. Which was basically that jurors have a gut emotional instinct about a case.

It happens in voir dire, or it happens in opening, if you don’t get in voir dire, and if you don’t make sure that your emotional connection and your client’s story, if you don’t make sure that is the emotion the jurors connect with, you’re not going to prevail, because whatever emotional gut feeling they have, they’re going rationalize later.

Scott Glovsky: Was there another case that had a profound impact on you?

Kim Savo: Yeah. I had a client who was charged in what we call in my office fake stash house robberies. The ATF has a sting operation program, where they target individuals, ostensibly they target individuals whom they believe are already violent dangerous criminals who would already be willing, or on the verge of engaging in violent crime. In reality, they target all kinds of people who don’t fit that profile, and it’s the same set up every time.

They have an informant who approaches somebody and says, hey I’ve got this buddy who works for these Mexicans. He’s tried of how he’s being treated, and he doesn’t think he’s being paid fairly. They’ve got this stash house, and they get a shipment of 20+ kilos of coke every week. He wants some help to steal the drugs from the stash house.

In some instances, people are curious, or other people are more excited, but in the case of my client who was targeted, is someone who has lifelong history of paranoid schizophrenia, and has had a problem with crack addiction for many, many years, and has been in and out of prison most of his life. Like many of the people that are targeted, are people who have nothing, really have nothing.

Scott Glovsky: What do you mean when you say nothing?

Kim Savo: No, extreme poverty, terrible family circumstances. They’re approached with an easy opportunity to make a quick buck, in a way that appears to them to be the least harmful kind of crime, of stealing from another criminal. The way it unfolds is that the informant introduces the target to an undercover ATF agent, who then explains the situation in more detail.

Sets up the situation in such a way that the amount of imaginary drugs automatically triggers mandatory minimum prison sentences of at least 10 years. Encourages the people that have been targeted to bring guns to rob the stash house, which automatically adds an additional five years mandatory consecutive. It’s all audio and video recorded, and they plan the whole thing out, and then people show up at the location, where they’re supposed to meet, and they get arrested. None of it is real, the drugs never existed, and the cartel doesn’t… None of it, it’s all fake.

So my client was identified by this informant. One of the first things that the ATF agents did, which they always do, they ran a rap sheet for my client. On the very first page of the rap sheet, because it’s a nationally done rap sheet, there was an entry for the time he spent in a psychiatric hospital in Louisiana. So they want notice from jump, that guy was impaired.

Scott Glovsky: Mentally ill?

Kim Savo: Yeah. My client is about 6’3 or 6’4, built like a truck, just a huge man, black, very dark complected. On the surface, this guy looks like a comic book bad guy. As I got to know him, and got the medication he needed to control his schizophrenia, his seizure disorder, and diabetes, he came to a more even keel psychologically, and in terms of his health. The person I met was one of the gentlest, sweetest people, really I’ve ever known.

He told me this story about growing up in Louisiana. He lived in a pretty rural part of Louisiana, and it was predominantly African American, but there were some poor white folks as well. He told me the story about this little white girl, who they would meet out in the woods somewhere to play together, and that it was dangerous for him, and that she was doing something that was forbidden by playing with him.

In that moment of him telling me that story, I thought about when I first started my job and my dad’s fears about my safety with my clients. Anyway, I learned a lot about him, I spent a lot of time with him just getting to know him, and learning his story. There are lots of people who do my job who think that none of that is relevant to defending this guy and this case.

But when it came to have to make a sentencing argument, I was able to show who this person was that could not be found on a rap sheet. I remember standing next to him at the lectern, he just towers over me, he’s so huge compared to me, and I’m such a little guy, I’m like 5’ tall barely with my shoes on. I think Gerry might say 100 pounds soaking wet. I just told what I knew was true, and I knew it was true because I spent time with him and I learned his story, and it was effective. The judge gave him an extraordinary break.

After pronouncing sentence, I turned to my client and I stood up on my toes, and I kissed him on the cheek. I remember seeing, over my shoulder in the front row, in the gallery, there was another lawyer, I think it was a lawyer, an older white woman. She just had her lips pursed in this sour disapproving way.

I felt like I was the inheritor of that little girl in the woods. Casting my lot with the downtrodden, and speaking the stories of people for whom other people don’t want to speak, and who have trouble speaking for themselves. It was again, so powerful for me to know that listening and learning someone’s story, and telling someone’s story, not only could be effective, in terms of the sentencing.

But that it could be again, so transformative for me, and transformative for that person, who said he never felt like anyone had ever treated him like a human being before. That’s pretty profoundly sad thing to say, that you never felt like someone treated you like a human being before. So for me it was just another example of how storytelling and being real is what matters in what I do.

Scott Glovsky: In dealing with such tragedy in your clients every day, I hear a lot of pain in your voice.

Kim Savo: Yeah, sure.

Scott Glovsky: How do you deal with that?

Kim Savo: I’m getting better at it. I wasn’t always so good at taking care of myself in the earlier part of my career, I drank a lot. I was full of rage all the time, especially at prosecutors and judge, probation officers, cops, which is not to say I don’t get angry now. I get plenty angry, but I don’t think I turn it inward so much, and I try to do things to take care of myself, and recognize that I do not uplift my clients, or alleviate their suffering, by also suffering.

I think there’s a real misconception certainly among public defenders. That in order to be genuine and down with the people, you also must suffer. It’s not that I don’t suffer, or don’t’ have suffering in my own life, or that it isn’t painful to experience these things with clients. But I make time for creativity in my life, for singing, for dancing, for my kid, because I don’t think I can do much for my clients if I’m a shell of a person at the end of the day.

Scott Glovsky: What do you think the public misunderstands about public defenders, because the average person on the street associates criminal defense lawyer, and especially public defenders with not being real, authentic, or caring, in fact probably being liar. What does the public misunderstand about criminal defense lawyers and public defenders?

Kim Savo: Probably the single most often asked question by people who don’t understand anything about what we do is, how can you represent those people. I think the “those people” part is the key. The “those people” part presumes that those people and me, and those people and the public are not all the same people.

That it is not a comic book world, and that there are not good people and bad people, that good people do some bad things. Good people break the law, not all laws that get broken make you a bad person in my view. That we pretend at least, when we talk about democracy and what makes this country great, and why we go to war and despise organizations like the Islamic state.

It’s because we stand for something different. We don’t just chop off your head, if you have broken one of our rules. That means that people’s stories have to be told, in order for justice to be done. Because otherwise we’re no better than places that are prepared to just cut off your head, without knowing much more, other than a rule has been broken.

I think that people misperceive that if I align myself with someone whose committed a crime, then that means I condone the crime, or that I think the crime is always excusable. I think there’s a difference between understanding why people do the things that they do, and put themselves in a situation that they put themselves in, and concluding that people are beyond redemption.

Especially in a place like California. If you think about the history of the west in this country, which is where people fled from their mistakes, their crimes, and their past lives to start over again, and become someone different, and redeem themselves. I don’t know, I think we have a special connection, we should, with the possibility of not only second chances, but third chances, and fourth chances, and the possibility of writing your stories.

Scott Glovsky: Thank you for joining us today for Trial Lawyer Talk. If you like the show, I really appreciate if you could give us a good review on iTunes, and I’d love to get your feedback. You can reach me at scottglovsky.wpengine.com. That’s S-C-O-T-T-G-L-O-V-S-K-Y. com, and I would love to hear your feedback.

You can also check out the book that I published called Fighting Health Insurance Denials: A Primer for Lawyers, that’s on Amazon. I put the book together based on 20 years of suing health insurance companies for denying medical care to people. It provides a general outline of how to fight health insurance denials. Have a great week and we’ll talk to you in the next episode.

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