Please tell us about your background and how long you have been a criminal defense lawyer.
I graduated from law school in 1994, and immediately began working as an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. In 2005, I left the prosecutor’s office to enter the world of private practice, and have been practicing criminal defense law since that time.
Please tell us where you practice, and tell us about your practice.
I am currently the managing partner at Nessel & Kessel Law. Our offices are located in the Penobscot Building in Detroit. While our firm handles a variety of specialties, our concentration remains in the area of criminal defense. My partner, Chris Kessel, is a former public defender, and being a former prosecutor, criminal law is obviously the area in which we maintain the greatest interest. However, I have found that criminal defense law naturally lends itself into other areas, such as family law, 1983 civil rights actions [42 U.S.C. §1983], forfeiture matters, and many other types of cases, so my practice has greatly expanded over the years.
Please tell about one of your interesting or unusual cases.
My biggest and most interesting cases are not actually criminal in nature, but began as a result of the archaic structure of the child custody laws and adoption code in Michigan, which resulted in people being turned into convicted felons for the crime of loving their children. Unlike practically every other state in the union, Michigan has no mechanism for gays and lesbians to form legal, two-parent households. I would see cases where a same-sex couple who had children together would have their relationship dissolve. The legal parent would sometimes then prohibit the non-legal parent from any contact with the children, which would lead to Personal Protection Orders and ultimately aggravated stalking cases. Seeing a perfectly law-abiding parent charged with a felony for nothing more than desperately wanting to see the child they had raised since birth, but who they could have no legal rights to, was more than I could bear. Those types of cases ultimately lead me to file cases in both state and federal court challenging Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage, the Michigan Adoption Code and the Michigan Child Custody Act.
What trends and significant issues have you seen in Michigan jurisprudence in recent years?
Sadly, I think those of us who practice criminal defense law cannot help noticing the significant diminishing of personal liberties by the appellate courts in Michigan, which seem to grow more and more conservative each year. In some communities, it seems as though the Bill of Rights is more of an abstract idea learned in grade school than a reality propelled by the force of law. As a young prosecutor, I never really appreciated the effect the violation of civil rights can have on an entire community of people. I am hopeful this trend will reverse itself in future years, but for now, many courts seem convinced that convictions at any cost trumps the rights of individuals to be safe and secure from police interference in their daily lives.
Do you have advice for other defense attorneys?
Always keep an open mind, and never presume to know anything until you have inspected the case from every angle. Also, I believe it’s critical to maintain a respectful relationship with everyone in the system: the judges, court clerks, deputies, prosecutors, and anyone else you may come into contact with during the course of your job. I believe firmly in the old adage “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Being a tenacious advocate for your client does not necessarily entail having to be combative and difficult to deal with. Being personable and amicable while maintaining your professionalism is beneficial to both your client and to your career in the long run.
by Neil Leithauser