Thursday, December 4, 2008

Still not making nice

Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, has once again found trouble by speaking her mind. Of course, there was the famous "we're ashamed of George Bush" line that resulted in hate mail, organized burnings of DC cds, radio stations refusing to play DC songs, death threats, lots of public criticism from Toby Keith, and a big, shiny Grammy for the Chicks' song response to the whole thing. [Bias alert: I'm a huge DC fan, love the album they released after this whole kerfuffle, and was thrilled when they won that Grammy for the song "Not Ready to Make Nice".]

Now, Maines, and the other two less vocal Chicks, are being sued for their support of the 3 men known as the West Memphis Three. The case has been a high profile case since three teenage boys were convicted for the 1993 murder and sexual assault of three boys. Though one of the teens confessed, many supporters have subsequently come to believe that the three teens were railroaded because of their interest in heavy metal and the occult. (Because those types of things were such reliable indicators of guilt in the Tim Masters case in Colorado...) There have been rallies, a documentary, appeals, and new DNA testing in the case, all of which garnered media attention.

The West Memphis Three supporters and their lawyers have focused suspicion on the stepfather of one of the three victims. At a rally in Little Rock, Natalie Maines alleged this stepfather was involved in the killings. And now he's suing her for defamation. Interesting.

Maines is hardly the first person to cast suspicion on the stepfather. A documentary was made about this case several years ago. I haven't seen it, but I've always thought the documentary certainly didn't exclude the stepfather as a possible suspect. As long as I have been aware of this case, I have known that the stepfather was the target of defense claims that the three teens were innocent. So why has the stepfather chosen to sue Maines and not the dozens of other people who have floated him as a suspect?

Perhaps Maines is just an easy target in the south, where a lot of country music lovers have not forgiven her for her "unpatriotic" comment. And she's a deep pocket. So maybe he thinks he can get a jury filled with people who hate her to give him some of her money. It would be difficult for him to sue everyone who has publicly accused him of involvement, so she's a convenient target that will get him publicity.

As a criminal defense attorney, I have proudly and loudly proclaimed the name of the guy I thought had really done it in an effort to defend my innocent (but still, sadly, convicted) client. I would do it again without hesitation should the opportunity arise. But am I civilly liable for defamation if I do so? Obviously, I wouldn't be as fun a target to sue. A suit against me wouldn't get you on ET or CNN and I certainly do not have deep pockets.

I guess the question here is when is it acceptable to make a public statement accusing someone of being involved in a crime and when is it defamation of character? Lord knows, the general public doesn't often shy away from accusing the obvious or chief suspect within days or hours of a crime occurring, usually long before they really know anything about the facts. I once had a client convicted in the court of public opinion before there was even any confirmation that a crime had occurred. I really don't know anything about this area of law, beyond what I studied in law school many years ago, so I think I'll follow this case just to see if I can learn about any limits the law might place on me or my clients' family and supporters when we think someone else did the deed.

I doubt I'll change too much about what I say in defense of my clients, though. I doubt Natalie Maines is going to start shutting her mouth, either. I hope not. The Dixie Chicks are probably due to start working on a new album.

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