Lawyers Feel Duty to Make System Work

Albuquerque-JournalOutstanding criminal attorneys also enjoy challenge and rewards

Byline: Daniel J. Chacon Journal Staff Writer, Albuquerque Journal North 04/22/2001 Page: 1

No one is supposed to be listening to their conversation, but Dan Marlowe’s husky voice echoes like thunder through the wooden frame of his downtown office door.
Marlowe, a criminal defense lawyer in Santa Fe who has been practicing law for nearly three decades, is talking strategy with his client a young Eldorado man accused of molesting two boys he coached in soccer. Marlowe, 54 and a father of two who coaches soccer himself, believes his client is innocent, and he’s on a mission to prove it. Countless other defendants have relied on Marlowe to do the same for them; and more often than not, they leave a courtroom feeling emancipated. Marlowe often wins, and he gets a kick and a smile out of doing it, too. But Marlowe also is a man of principle. “In my business, people are entitled to the benefit of the doubt immediately,” he said. “I believe in the presumption of innocence. The fact is, (criminal defense lawyers) are defending everything everyone in this country holds dear, and that’s the Constitution.”

Convincing yourself

In a world with no shortage of attorneys there are 40 pages of attorney listings in the local Yellow Pages. Santa Fe is home to at least four lawyers who have built reputations of excelling in the art and science of criminal defense. Marlowe, one of the city’s most respected and sought-after defense attorneys who focuses strictly on criminal law, with his thunderous voice resembles a preacher reciting the Bible to his devoted congregation when he stands in front of a jury. He’s not alone.

In the courtroom, attorney Stephen Aarons, 46, tries to break down barriers and transform himself into a juror’s best friend. Recently, Aarons represented a Santa Fe woman whom police arrested on allegations that she killed her infant and then tried to hide the crime by sticking her baby’s decaying body in a bloodied toilet. Aarons argued the baby was born dead, and jurors acquitted the woman of first-degree murder.
If the practice of criminal defense was compared to boxing, Aarons would be the Mike Tyson of attorneys. Still, Aarons is soft-spoken and sympathetic. He is a husband and father who plays with his 5-year-old son, Ian, in their central Santa Fe townhouse on his days off. “You can’t be living in an ivory tower and be able to connect with jurors,” said Aarons, who drives a white, four-door Saturn with more than 100,000 miles on the odometer. “I think you gotta start out by convincing yourself,” he said. “Then, ‘How can I really show that to a jury?’ If we don’t pass the common-sense test, then we’re not going to succeed.”

Doug Couleur, 43, is much more forceful with a jury even with a judge. He’s the type of lawyer who doesn’t waste time.
Don’t ask Couleur, a physically fit Chicago native who started out in Santa Fe as a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office under the leadership of Chet Walter, for a wordy, colorful analogy that relates to his work. He won’t provide one. His comments are brief and to the point. “I like being the underdog, the black sheep,” said Couleur, whose clientele includes a large pool of people from rural northern New Mexico and police officers accused of wrongdoing. “Of course, there are no guarantees in this business, for either side.” Couleur, who also practices in federal court, said he represents a broad range of people. One of Couleur’s latest clients is a 29-year-old Capshaw Middle School teacher charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after one of her teen-age students was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving without a driver’s license. According to police she rode as his lone passenger late at night in her car. Couleur said the first cases he tried as a prosecutor taught him the responsibilities of a defense attorney. “As a prosecutor, you have an awesome power, and you need to exercise it with restraint and discretion, with the ultimate overriding philosophy that a prosecutor’s role is to seek justice, not to seek convictions,” he said.

Val Whitley, a Spanish-speaking 47-year-old graduate of the University of New Mexico’s Law School, tried to start off his law career in 1989 locking up the type of clients he now defends. “(Then-District Attorney) Chet Walter wouldn’t hire me,” Whitley said. The Public Defender’s Office quickly hired Whitley, and then he went into private practice five years ago.
The youngest among the four big-gun defense attorneys, Whitley might appear to be the most friendly and compassionate and the one you least want to cross. He is a vocal critic of the District Attorney’s Office, the treatment of inmates by Cornell Companies at the Santa Fe County Detention Center and reporters with poisonous pens.
Whitley is passionate about his beliefs, and defending the accused is his strongest conviction.

“Most of the people I deal with are ordinary people who get into a little bit of trouble,” Whitley said. Criminal defense lawyers “seem to catch the wrath of a lot of people. (But) I think people look to us for their last line of help.” Marlowe, whose father, Benjamin Fazio Marlowe, was a well-known criminal defense lawyer in Oakland, Calif., agrees. “A lot of people hire you to do the worrying for them,” Marlowe said. “They’re just people that are getting accused of crimes. Sometimes they’re guilty; sometimes they’re not. People who are charged with crimes, there’s a lot of them out there who are innocent.” And they pay the price emotionally and financially to prove it.

Foot soldiers

While none of the four attorneys interviewed would discuss their fees specifically, all of them said their services are worth the cost. Their fees are not set in stone either, they said. All four do pro bono work under contract with the Public Defender’s Office. Some of them, like Aarons, said they charge a flat fee in the neighborhood of $5,000. Marlowe said a defendant charged with first-degree murder might have to spend up to $65,000 if the case goes to trial (find cases at

Marlowe, Aarons, Couleur and Whitley said they aren’t in the business of representing alleged criminals to get rich. Most of my clients are unable to afford an attorney,” Aarons said. “I’m not doing this for the money. If I were, I’d be an estate lawyer. I don’t really focus on the business of law.” None of them do.

Being a lawyer is exciting and rewarding. It’s a challenge. Not only that, they like to argue. And they like to win. They also like helping people. But most of all, they believe they have a duty to make sure the criminal justice system works. “The stakes are high,” Couleur said. “Somebody’s liberty is at stake. I can never put it out of my mind that this person’s liberty is at stake.” While their work can be overwhelming at times, each of the four attorneys said they have learned to cope with the stress, whether it be through family or exercise.
“I’ve seen the gamut of humanity, a broader gamut than you would see in most work places,” Aarons said. “The way I deal with it is I recognize that all I really am is a foot soldier,” he added. “I trust God in a lot of this stuff. He put me into this job. I’m just this foot soldier doing my best.”

PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE: Defense attorney Dan Marlowe, shown here with client Steve Ulibarri in 1999, says he is a strong believer in the presumption of innocence. Ulibarri made an Alford plea meaning there was no admission of guilt in 1999 to involuntary manslaughter in a fatal shooting.
BREAKS DOWN BARRIERS: Defense attorney Stephen Aarons believes to make a successful argument he must first convince himself then figure out how to convince a jury. His client shown in this 1997 photo, Arthur “Bozo” Lopez, right, was convicted of murder in the stabbing death of a teacher.
RELISHES BEING UNDERDOG: Defense attorney Douglas Couleur likes the role of the underdog. He’s shown here in 1999 with client Dolores Vigil, a former Espanola municipal judge who pleaded no contest to tampering with public records.
BEGAN AS PUBLIC DEFENDER: Defense attorney Val Whitley, shown here with client Manuela Arreola, wanted to begin his career as a prosecutor but instead took a job with the local Public Defender’s Office.

Albuquerque Journal, 22 April 2001, page 1
Copyright Albuquerque Journal. Reprinted with permission.