the cut on tuesdays

 Rebecca Traister Talks to Tiffany Cabán

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Getty

The Cut on Tuesdays

A weekly podcast from the Cut and Gimlet Media, with host Molly Fischer.

On this week’s show, Rebecca Traister talks to Tiffany Cabán, the 31-year-old public defender who’s made an outsider run for district attorney of Queens. Last month’s Democratic primary ended with a margin of 16 votes. Now, she and Melinda Katz are locked in an ongoing recount and legal battle.

Tiffany took time out from all that to talk to Rebecca Traister about why she got into this race — and she told Rebecca about a client she still thinks about.

TIFFANY: I represented a client who, when he was a very young man — like when he was in late teens, early 20s — he picked up his first two violent felonies. He had been out of trouble for a really long time. Was in his mid 40s, picked up a new case. It was a gun possession case. And [I’m] not condoning gun possession at all — he was accused of possessing the gun. There weren’t any accusations of him pulling it out or using it or anything like that. 

In New York, there’s what amounts to a three strikes law for violent felonies. And those strikes never expire. So even though the first two happened a long time ago, the gun possession charge still counted as a third strike. He now faced the possibility of life in prison.

TIFFANY: When we were preparing for trial, one of the things that you do is you listen to your client’s Rikers calls, because something could be said that the DA may use against them. So we listened, and I listened to all of his Rikers calls — and we’re talking about, like, over a hundred calls. And almost every single phone call started with him talking to his 3-year-old son. He loved that kid, and that little boy loved his dad — and it was just so clear that he was not only present in his life, but he was a good father. Obviously he had made mistakes, but good father. 

We knew that this was a dead case. The defense that we presented was temporary lawful possession — which, if you are in the public defense world, you know that that’s a hail-Mary defense. It’s what we had. So we knew that we were likely to lose. And when that verdict came down and he was found guilty, I remember going home and just really being shook and just emotionally losing it, because all I could think was, That little boy is not going to have his father in his life.

And what does that mean for him growing up? Because, one, it makes it that much more likely that he ends up in contact with the justice system.

After the verdict came down, you do a thing: Everybody goes up to the judge, and the judge tells the prosecutor, tells the defense attorney, you did a good job and all those things. And the DA turns to me and my co-counsel and says, You know, I think you’re right. A life sentence is not the just thing here. And so before I broke down, like with sadness around this, what I’m feeling is rage — because I’m like, Well, you are in the position of power. You could have made this guy an offer.

For more from Tiffany Cabán — and to hear Rebecca Traister explain why this race matters way beyond Queens — click above, and subscribe wherever you listen.

Rebecca Traister Talks to Tiffany Cabán