Mike Wise’s life changed a little bit last week, when a Sacramento Superior Court jury found his client innocent of all charges in a high-profile murder case.
It’s not like it never happens, but when it does, it can sure light up a defense lawyer’s telephone, just like it did for Wise in the days after the jury acquitted his client, Larry Dean Jones Jr., in the barbershop murder trial.
Wise, 46, is now on a short list of 10 local defense lawyers who have beaten murder charges filed against their clients in more than 150 homicide cases that went to trial in Sacramento over the past five years, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis.
Only one other acquittal came in a similarly high-profile case, when Matthew Scoble, who is now a federal public defender, won a jury’s exoneration of Lang Vue in the shooting death of state correctional officer Steve Lo. Lang Vue’s cousin, Chu Vue, a former Sacramento sheriff’s deputy, and Chu Vue’s two brothers were convicted in the case.
“There’s been a lot of feedback,” Wise said in an interview a couple of days after the verdict. “I received a lot of kind words from colleagues on both sides of the aisle – defense lawyers and prosecutors – and family and friends,” not to mention potential new clients who were ringing him from the downtown county jail.
In the barbershop case, Wise’s client was one of four men on trial for the shooting death of a 30-year-old mother, Monique Roxanne Nelson, during a gunfight four years ago outside Fly Cuts & Styles on Stockton Boulevard. Two other defendants were convicted of first-degree murder and a third was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
Jones admitted to participating in the firefight, but the jury found that he acted in self-defense. Wise, a former Sacramento deputy district attorney, truly believed his client was innocent, which he said made the case all the more difficult for him as a lawyer.
“It’s terrifying to have an innocent client,” he said. “Now it’s on you as an advocate to do your job. I wasn’t able to sleep for the three months of the trial. I felt he had done nothing wrong, and I had to do as much as I could to get that in front of the jury.”
Wise is a former Contra Costa and Sacramento prosecutor who has been an attorney for 21 years. He works a busy criminal calendar that takes him up and down the Central Valley, with the bulk of his cases in Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties. He said 90 percent of his clients are privately retained, although he got paid through the Sacramento conflict defenders’ panel in the Jones case. He spoke Friday while driving back from Modesto, where he represented a man who was accused of stealing a horse trailer.
The son of a police offer who lives in the country, Wise describes himself as a conservative Republican, is a strong supporter of gun owners’ rights, and counts cops and DAs among his closest friends.
As a defense attorney, he sees his advocacy for the criminally accused as upholding a conservative principle – protecting the constitutional rights of all individuals, “no matter how horrible their conduct is.”
“It keeps the government at bay for everybody else,” Wise said. “Everybody in the system has a role to play. If they perform their job ethically and appropriately, the truth will eventually come out, and that is the goal of the system.”
Judges, prosecutors and Wise’s fellow defense lawyers say he is one of the hardest-working and most well-liked lawyers in the downtown county courthouse.
Judge Raoul M. Thorbourne credited Wise with helping to recently resolve a complex, million-dollar workers’ compensation fraud case where “everybody went away happy.”
“A lot of that had to do with Mike Wise, his effort, his perseverance, his reasonableness, his ability to get along with the DA,” Thorbourne said. “One thing about him, he advocates – he knows when to push – but he’s not too pushy, and he was able to work out a deal.”
Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet described her one-time colleague in the Sacramento prosecutor’s office as a personal friend who fights hard for his client but who “won’t lie” to try and make a case.
“Mike has shown himself to be a formidable adversary,” Bladet said. “I believe he genuinely cares about his clients and I know he puts in long hours on their behalf.”
Wise said the most important thing he tries to do in representing clients is to build a bond with them and get them to explain their behavior and fill in the gaps in the investigation beforehand so there are no surprises at trial.
Doing the work, critically evaluating the case, knowing it inside and out – those are all givens as factors in a defense lawyer’s success.
To win, Wise said, it’s up to the lawyer to personally persuade a jury.
“I think it’s important to be on your best behavior in front of the jury,” he said. “Jurors can sense if you’re being fraudulent or disingenuous. You need to be respectful and straightforward, not only in closing arguments, but in the way you present evidence. Jurors can’t stand when attorneys spend hours on an examination on things that can be resolved in 20 minutes.”
Wise’s defense in the barbershop case was fairly simple. This client didn’t shoot anybody and didn’t arrange for anyone else to shoot anybody, he argued. Jones was waiting for his friend to get a haircut, and he fired his handgun only when somebody fired a couple of rounds in his direction during the Dec. 14, 2010, shootout. Nelson, who was in the barbershop parking lot after getting Christmas photos taken with her 2-year-old son, was killed when she used her body as a shield to save the toddler’s life.
Wise’s key witness was Jones himself, and the jury found him to be credible.
As for the acquittal, “I was cautiously optimistic,” Wise said of the verdict. “I knew the evidence had come in very well. I was really happy with the way Mr. Jones had testified. But there’s always the feeling with juries, you don’t know what they’re going to do. Everybody is different. Everybody has their own filters, their own perceptions of the evidence. I was really happy when we picked the jury. They were intelligent, rational people, so I was pleasantly excited while we waited.”
The immediate impact of the verdict “probably brings comfort to some of my current clients, to know their attorney is capable of handling this kind of case,” Wise said. In days to come, “I anticipate it’s going to generate probably more of a reputation for me in the jail and in the community.”