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Friday, September 28, 2007

My Week - In and Out of Courtrooms

The interpreters are striking for higher pay - have to continue two cases. While waiting in court I talk to an acquaintance.
I tell him about my final capital case. He shrugs. He’s done 18 and has 6 on death row. He’s just been divorced, has joint custody of his 2 kids - alternating weeks with his ex so can’t afford to stop doing them.

Sitting in court all morning waiting, I am forced to watch a preliminary hearing.

A man with a thick middle eastern accent testifies that he owns a “smoke shop” on Ventura Blvd in Sherm’ Oaks. A man came into his shop and asked “to look at bongs, I mean tobacco pipes.” The owner showed the man several and the man took one and ran out of the shop. He chased the thief down the street. The thief got into a car and it drove away. He identified the public defender’s client as the thief.

On cross-examination, the witness admitted that when he first came to court he saw the defendant and said that he didn’t think that was the man. When asked by the PD why he now was sure of his identification, the witness said, “the police officer told me he confessed.”

My client is a 20 year old girl, about 5 feet tall if that. She’s in the basement lock-up, her tiny body swimming in the jail blue jumpsuit. She met her boyfriend (call him Rory) at Birmingham Hi when she was 17. He wooed her with heroin and a friend (call him Doc) who had a plan.

Together they ripped off Starbucks and Jamba Juice places of their tip jars and other stuff to buy dope and gas for her car.

The cops were waiting at one place and when they came out, they jammed her car. She panicked and backed into a police car and bruised a policewoman’s leg as she jumped out of the way.

She confessed, apologized and said she didn’t mean to do it - she hit reverse instead of park.

She’s charged with 2 counts of assault with a deadly weapon on police officers and 8 or 9 counts of burglary. The DA offer if she pleads guilty is 5 years, 4 months. She begins to cry when I tell her this.

The probation officer recommends a year in jail and 5 years probation. I may be able to persuade a DA to come off a prison sentence IF the cops aren’t still pissed and if I find a DA who still has some warm blood in her veins.

The Spector trial, as expected, results in a hung jury. David Letterman: “... weird celebrity emerges from house with blood on his hands & says, ‘I think I killed someone,” equals ‘reasonable doubt’ in L.A. This is news?”

I call DA’s on 3 of my cases, leave messages. One returns my call. I move files from one side of my desk to another, make copies of things for my investigator. At 3:30 he calls, still in Lancaster on another case. We reschedule for Friday. I’ve got to go to Van Nuys and then to San Fernando, but I’ll be back by noon - I hope.

It’s misty in L.A. The traffic is unaccountably light. There are no accidents on the freeway. My Van Nuys case goes smoothly and so does my San Fernando case. I am gone by 11. Is it the end of the world?

At 11, I get a call from a court clerk. Judge refused to appoint an investigator on one of my cases because my declaration didn't give details to prove my client is indigent (and couldn't afford to hire one).

I respond that he is in custody unable to make bail and I am appointed because he couldn't afford a lawyer. The judge says to put it in a declaration and resubmit.

I smile. Oddly, I feel better now that something stupid has happened to wrap up the week. I call my investigator and cancel our appointment.

Max comes over instead. We kick around some new ideas about reincarnation and pets and parenting.

Overall, not a bad week. I've managed to delay 17 decisions (14 case related, 3 personal), made 2 choices that seemed to turn out okay, and survived.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Celebrity Crime Conspiracy?

Nicole, Paris, Britney, the return of OJ. Sometimes it seems that celebrities get into trouble simply to fill our airwaves and computers with amusing stories. Maybe not. Conspiracy theorists might unearth secrets...

Suppose there was more than coincidence to the never ending string of celebrity crimes and trials. What if Britney, Paris, OJ et al have contracted with mysterious and powerful corporate media (a la "Network”) who finance their foibles for entertainment value, keeping them in the news, bolstering fading careers and paying for their legal fees etc while keeping them as media stars, promising reality shows, book deals, guest appearances, cameos, product endorsements, all owned and controlled by the conglomerates who profit from the tie-ins.

Not only do I think it is feasible, I think it may be true. If not yet, let's suggest it.We'll make millions.

Celebrity crimes have always been entertaining to us.

Back in 1994, I watched in horror and amusement as my profession became the world’s most popular spectator sport. The OJ Show dominated media and water coolers for many months.

The spectacle was labeled “The Trial Of The Century” by a hysterical media. Of course, that is nonsense, except as it provided unprecedented ratings and thus profits to the cable networks, which depend on such events to fill unending 24 hour “news” programs with talking heads and looped footage of perp walks.

Although trials have always been news, the emergence of mass media in the 20th Century made them big business and mass entertainment. Historically, trials were considered “news” because of the social significance attached. Reporting of such crimes has always been biased.

In the ancient world, the trial of Socrates for crimes against the Greek Demos was reported by his students, Plato and Xenophon. The Salem witch trials continue to fascinate historians and poets, including Arthur Miller (“The Crucible”), who saw a parallel with the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950's. In the late 19th Century, the libel trial of Oscar Wilde and the Dreyfuss trials in France were cultural landmarks as well as scandals.

America has had its share of highly publicized socially important criminal cases. In 1770, American patriot John Adams defended the most unpopular clients imaginable: British soldiers accused of the “Boston Massacre.” He won acquittals for 6, and lesser manslaughter convictions for 2.

Clarence Darrow became America’s most famous criminal lawyer in the Scopes trial, the first trial to be broadcast on radio, and defending rich spoiled murderers Loeb & Leopold (predating the Menendez case by 70 years). Both trials involved issues that linger today: evolution vs. creationism and the death penalty. The Sacco / Vanzetti and “Scottsboro Boys” trials of the 1920's and 1930's became liberal causes focusing on social injustice. The Rodney King trials, beginning in 1991 qualify by that standard. The Nuremberg trials after World War II could lay claim for Trials Of The Century without much debate if the standard is social importance.

In all of these cases, the public’s interest was based on more than morbid curiosity. There were issues perceived to be at stake and while the coverage was often distorted, biased, untrustworthy, the issues justified the attention.

But the media’s exploitation of the public’s fascination with criminal cases also forces appeal to baser instincts. The first “Trial of The 20th Century” was the murder / sanity trial @1906 of Harry K. Thaw, a millionaire playboy of The Gilded Age, who killed famous architect Stanford White in Madison Square Garden’s theater-restaurant over Evelyn Nesbit, a showgirl who was White’s mistress before she became Thaw’s wife.

Hearst and Pulitzer sold scads of newspapers as readers soaked up the first celebrity circus of the new century in which mass media would thrive and drive the bus.

In the 1920's, silent film comic Fatty Arbuckle was prejudged guilty of rape by the press driving public opinion and his career destroyed by the Hearst chain of newspapers despite the weak evidence of his guilt that led to his eventual acquittal after 4 jury trials. Along with other scandals of the new film industry involving sex, drugs, suicides, and other public misdeeds by celebrities, this event led to the censorship of movies in the 1930's.

Film stars have always provided fodder for media churning. Errol Flynn’s trial for statutory rape, Charlie Chaplin’s paternity suit, Lana Turner’s testimony in the trial of her daughter for the killing of Lana’s lover, Johnny Stompanato, are among the many that entertained the public. In the 1950's, scandal magazines like “Confidential” thrived on borderline libels that gossiped about “Commies,” “queers,” and “dope fiends” in Hollywood.

The Lindbergh / Hauptmann trial of the early 1930's was the most talked about celebrity crime and trial of its time, unusual because the celebrity was not the suspect but the victim. Lindbergh was the most famous man in the world at the time and the kidnap / murder of his infant son and eventual trial of the accused killer accounted for more headlines than The Great Depression or the ascent of Adolph Hitler.

The Simpson trial was alarming to lawyers who labor in the legal vineyard because it threatened to turn our profession permanently into a spectator sport. We feared that televising the trial would unfairly expose the delicate deliberative process of the courtroom to the microscopic distortions that would destroy it.

While most in the legal system (meaning judges) quickly saw the danger and drew back from the practice of televising trials, Court TV thrives and lawyers seeking instant fame continue to chew up airtime as commentators willing to speculate with little information about notorious criminal cases.

That this practice is damaging was proven by the so-called Duke University lacrosse team rape case. Media talking heads, many lawyers among them, were quick to condemn the accused students, forcing their suspension, the firing of their coach, racial tensions, and a long hard fight to prove their innocence despite the presumptive guilt.

In L.A., Phil Spector has been in trial for 5 months in the latest OJ spin-off. Judge Fidler, when allowing the trial to be televised live on Court T.V., vowed that he would not become subject of a SNL skit like “The Dancing Itos.” But his risk is high. The trial included events that can be attributed to or at least were affected by the cameras. Lawyers on both sides have played up the dramatics, skirted ethics, witnesses have groped for minutes of Kato Kailenish fame, experts have promoted themselves, court watching pundits have speculated wildly and the judge himself has grandstanded.

No one’s reputation has benefitted. The L.A. D.A. office, which has almost as much at stake as Spector, has not inspired any more confidence in its ability to prosecute rich celebrities than it did in Menendez, Simpson or Blake trials. Now that the jury is possibly deadlocked, the judge seems desperate to squeeze a verdict and it seems pretty clear that he would prefer one of guilt to save his own bacon.

Back in the Simpson days, I envisioned a dystopic future in which lawyers would enter courtrooms covered in logos for endorsed products.

By the way, I wear Armani, Chanel, Bass, carry a Cross briefcase, use a Mont Blanc pen and have my hair styled by José.

That day hasn’t yet come, but the future is soon.