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A Day in the Life: Assistant District Attorney, Nashville, Tennessee

8:00 a.m.: I stop by my office on the way to court. I’m usually in court about three days a week, but I always stop by the office first to pick up files and see if I have any important phone messages having to do with the day’s cases—say, from a police officer or a witness.

8:30 a.m.: I arrive at the county criminal courthouse, ready for the 9 a.m. docket. The court handles primarily felony cases, and I personally am responsible for between 80 and 100 active cases at a given time, several of which are on today's docket. About 40 to 50 percent of my cases are violent crimes—rape, robbery, homicide. Another 30 to 40 percent are narcotics cases.

9:00 a.m.: The day’s docket gets underway. The judge convenes the session, and he calls up one case at a time. I have several cases in front of this judge today. Because I am assigned to one particular courtroom in felony court, I appear before the same judge week after week, and have gotten to know his routine well. I can anticipate how he might respond to particular evidentiary issues, and what kind of sentences he will impose. Knowing so much about the judge helps you to plan cases, and to decide what kind of motions and plea bargains are worth undertaking.

When the judge calls up one of my cases, the defense attorney and I describe for the judge the status of the case. If there are pending motions, the judge may rule on them. These rulings can alter the outcome of the case. For example, the defense attorney may have filed a motion to suppress evidence in a narcotics case. If the judge decides to allow the disputed evidence, you may be able to push for a tough plea bargain or decide to go to trial. If the judge suppresses the evidence, you may have to settle for a lighter plea.

11:30 a.m.: The docket continues. I’m still in court, working my way through the day’s docket. During the course of the day, I will meet with defense counsel on various cases to discuss possible plea agreements. In an attempted homicide case, I might make an offer to request a 12-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. The defense counsel might ask for time to discuss the offer with her client, and I might need time to discuss it with the victim's family. So when the case is called, the defense attorney and I ask the judge to “continue,” or postpone, the case for three weeks.

Working with victims and their families is often a very satisfying part of the job. I help them get through what might be the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. I might meet them within just a few days of the crime, and keep them informed and reassured for weeks and months thereafter. If things go well for you, you give them the satisfaction of knowing that justice has been served.

12:30 p.m.: I scarf down a sandwich. My judge has a habit of working through lunch. During a break in the day's docket, or while someone else’s case is being discussed, I sneak to the back of the courtroom and eat a sandwich I packed in my briefcase.

The judge calls up one of my robbery cases just as I finish eating. The defense counsel has rejected my plea offer because her client has refused it, so the judge sets a trial date for two weeks from now. I generally argue about one trial a month—a huge responsibility. I started out working in misdemeanor court, arguing bench trials within just a couple of weeks of graduating law school. A year later, I was arguing a jury trial in felony court—a steep learning curve indeed.

2:30 p.m.: I’ve finally finished with the day’s docket. Now I tie up other business. I drive to a private home to visit the parents of a murder victim. I have some difficult news to tell them: Because investigators were unable to find any witnesses for the murder, I will have to settle for a light sentence in the plea deal. Working with victims can often be rewarding, but sometimes, I have to disappoint the victim or their family, and this can be extremely difficult.

3:30 p.m.: After a difficult conversation with the family, I drop by the property and evidence room at the police department to appraise evidence in a homicide case. I want to take a good look at the appearance of the clothing that was recovered from the victim, to make sure it supports my theory of the case. After looking at the evidence, I call the state’s bureau of investigations to check on the results of a DNA analysis and a ballistics analysis that the defense counsel in the case has requested.

4:20 p.m.: I drive to the workplace of a witness in a rape case, to make sure he is still willing to testify. I talk to the witness briefly. Although he appears nervous, he is still willing to offer strong testimony placing the defendant at the scene of the crime. I’m reassured. When I meet the defendant’s counsel tomorrow morning to discuss plea options, I can drive a hard bargain, knowing this witness is helping to buttress my case.

5:00 p.m.: I head home. I usually finish work by 5:00 or 5:30, with the exception of days when I’m in trial. Trials—which occur about once a month—usually take two to five full days, and meanwhile, all my “regular” work has to get done during evenings or weekends. Today, there’s no trial, and I get to head home.