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Defense lawyer can't protect clients from themselves

Tampa lawyer Marc Makholm defends people accused of DUI and drug-related crimes. Many are addicts.


Tampa lawyer Marc Makholm defends people accused of DUI and drug-related crimes. Many are addicts.

Marc Makholm looked at the young man in jail scrubs, sitting at the front of the courtroom with a defiant look in his eyes.

He wasn't Makholm's client. But he reminded him of someone.

"It's always a pleasure seeing you here, Mr. Makholm," Pinellas County Judge Dee Anna Farnell said.

Makholm cleared his throat as he gathered his files. He looked up.

"I just want to mention that I just lost one of my clients last month," Makholm said. "He died from an overdose. It was my 13th that I lost."

The courtroom went quiet. Makholm's eyes watered. Then he tucked his files under one arm, put his head down, hurried past the stares of defendants and out the door.

Makholm, 39, has a business to run. He's a Tampa lawyer who defends people accused of DUI and drug-related crimes. Many are addicts, and death is sometimes a symptom of addiction.

It's still tough to accept when one dies, Makholm said. Especially when he's the one who kept him or her out of jail or rehab.

Makholm doesn't keep a list, just the number. He feels bad that he has forgotten some of their faces and stories over time.

He does remember the name of the first client who passed away while he was still on the case but asked the St. Petersburg Times not to publish his deceased clients' names out of respect for their families. That first client who died got his third DUI, then overdosed on prescription drugs as Makholm was working on his defense. It was 2002, six years after Makholm began practicing. It affected him deeply, he said.

He had no way of knowing this would become a regular thing.

The second was a drug dealer who overdosed. The third was charged with DUI, a man Makholm said suffered from depression and abused pills. He had a heart attack while on probation.

Over the next few years, 10 more died on Makholm's watch. The latest happened in February, when a man in his 30s died from a prescription drug overdose.

Makholm mailed a letter to the man informing him of an upcoming court date, and the man's grandmother called with the sad news. Then she mailed Makholm a death notice, a photo with the man holding his young daughter.

Even after dealing with this a dozen times already, the loss weighed heavy on Makholm, who is also a father.

"I got him a great deal, too," Makholm said.

• • •

Makholm always wanted to be a lawyer. His father and his older sister are lawyers.

Graduating in 1996, Makholm spent four years as a prosecutor before doing what he really wanted to do: defend people. In 2000, he joined a law firm that specialized in DUI and drug-related criminal charges.

A couple of years later, Makholm's first client died. It wasn't unheard of in his line of work. In fact, the law firm he worked for, owned by lawyer Barry Taracks, used to keep track of the number of client deaths. Taracks thought it was "well over 20" for the entire firm over 18 years.

"I think Marc just continued keeping track of his number," Taracks said. He thought 13 sounded like a lot, and understood Makholm's struggle to deal with it.

"Our position to defend the client might clash with what's in the best interest of the client morally," Taracks said. "That might be pleading guilty and committing to drug treatment, but people never want to admit they have a problem.

"You always wonder later if there was more you could do."

There really isn't, said University of Florida Law School professor Bob Dekle, who teaches legal skills.

"Sometimes you see a client going down the wrong path and you want to grab him by the neck and shake him," said Dekle, who practiced criminal law for 33 years. "But it's not your job. You can make suggestions, but you cannot make them straighten up and do right."

Dekle said he could recall dealing with only a couple of client suicides during his 33 years. Makholm seems to be in rare company.

But he still likes what he does. He still feels like he's helping.

"I enjoy defending people," he said. "I know I'm good at it and I know I care."

Maybe too much sometimes.

Makholm doesn't know why he felt compelled to announce the number of his dead clients that day in the courtroom. He felt embarrassed that he had to fight back tears in front of his colleagues.

All he knows is he looked at the young guy sitting in Farnell's courtroom and was reminded of the client he lost just a week earlier.

The young man intended to opt for a criminal trial to avoid drug court and a drug treatment program.

As Makholm walked out of the courtroom, he hoped the young man would change his mind.

He did.

Emily Nipps can be reached at or (727) 893-8452.

Defense lawyer can't protect clients from themselves 05/15/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 20, 2010 3:26pm]
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