Wednesday June 30, 2010

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High on the list of things I never gave a bit of thought to before I started working in the office at Sumpter & Gonzalez: the way criminal defense attorneys were portrayed in the media. I wasn’t among the camp who thought they were Bad People Who Get Criminals Off (I believe that’s an official designation, though, hence the caps). I just didn’t give it much thought at all – I’d never been arrested, and except for a few friends who’d been hit for DWI or friends-of-friends whose houses had been burgled*, didn’t know anyone who had been involved in a crime on either side of the divide. Call me sheltered, I guess.

When I interviewed for the job, Dal asked me some questions I hadn’t given a bit of thought to, either – like how would I feel about coming into the office and finding someone accused of something heinous in the conference room? I tried to answer as honestly as I could (“I don’t know, I guess that person has a right to a good defense in any case…”) and they took a chance on me.

I’m proud of the work that the firm does now, as I’ve written about before, and “Bad People” never come up anymore. But in my other work, I do quite a bit of media criticism, and one thing that strikes me is how every portrayal of criminal defense attorneys is resolutely negative.

In The Wire, beloved by pretty much everyone whose seen it as the most comprehensive and nuanced look at crime and its affect on society, with thoughtful and delicate portrayals of drug kingpins, hitmen, corrupt cops, sleazy politicians, and stick-up men, showing them as actors operating under the influence of overwhelming societal forces that demand their corruption and crime. The show’s remarkably effective at engendering sympathy for a drug lord who orders the murder of a child we’ve come to know and care about over the course of a season, at making a corrupt cop who knowingly fakes major crimes into a hero. No character on the show is a stereotype…

…Except the criminal defense lawyer. Everyone else gets nuance, the lawyer gets his motivations reduced to greed and the desire to see Bad People Get Off.

(Funnily enough, I’m more offended by this, as a media critic who sees it as lazy storytelling in an otherwise great show, than the attorneys at the firm are by the portrayal of their profession as greedy villains. I guess they’ve come to expect no less.)

Exhibit two, meanwhile, is a recent episode of the Vile Dick Wolf Franchise** Law & Order: Special Victims Unit based on the death of Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of arson and executed, despite his apparent innocence. In the episode, a good-hearted, justice-seeking Assistant District Attorney learns the truth – that the man her office has prosecuted is innocent – and fights all opposing forces to see that he’s freed. Ripped from the headlines!

Except, of course, in Willingham’s case, it was appellate defense lawyer Walter Reaves (and a team of volunteer experts) who did the actual work. The prosecutors, on the other hand, dismissed the abundance of evidence supporting Willingham’s innocence as junk science.

The message: Prosecutors are allowed to be heroes, but not defenders. At least not on TV.

Anyway – this is all preamble. The actual story here is that there’s apparently a TV show about defense attorneys scheduled to air this fall. It’s called The Defenders. No idea if it’s going to be any good, though the general quality of TV drama right now suggests that it probably won’t be bad, but at the very least, there’s another side being seen.

And all of this is important, not just because the poor defense attorneys’ feelings won’t be hurt anymore – like I said, it rolls off the backs of the attorneys at this firm – but anything the deviates from the message of prosecutorial infallibility and defense lawyers as Bad People Who Get Criminals Off is good for clients and our justice system, generally. If you watch Law & Order: SVU, and you see the arson episode, then your question in the Willingham case is, “If he was really innocent, why didn’t an intrepid ADA in a short skirt do something about it?” If you believe that all defense attorneys are as bad as the one on The Wire, then that means that all of the clients become Marlo Stanfield.

And that’s offensive, whether you’re a lawyer, a media critic, or just someone who wants to live in a fair society.

*Another thing I never gave thought to before working at the firm: the difference between “robbed” and “burgled”.
** “Vile Dick Wolf Franchise” TM and (c) Mark Bennett

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