Monday, February 22, 2010

You can't take it back

Dealing with the media is one of the trickier parts of my job.  For the most part, they leave me alone, but every once in a while, I get one of those high profile cases that get lots of coverage.  Now, usually the reporters are a little more interested in talking to the prosecutor, but they do also see if I might have any comment worth printing.  It's kind of a heady experience, to see your name in the newspaper, to be quoted, or to have a news camera on you and a microphone in your face.  Make no mistake about it, it's fun to be on the evening news.  It makes your parents proud.  They might even DVR the moment and insist on saving that recording for the rest of eternity, showing it to any unfortunate friends or family who come over for dinner.  Being asked to comment by a reporter is definitely an ego boost that makes you feel big and important.  And we lawyers do love to talk, so it's sometimes hard to resist the temptation to do just that when someone asks you to talk about your case.

But you have to put all that aside because it isn't about you.  It is always, always, always about the client.  Everything I say and do needs to be about my client.  If I talk to the press, it should be to advance my client's case, not to satisfy my own ego.  The first time I had a case where I expected to get questions from a reporter, I thought about it well in advance.  I thought about whether I wanted to say anything at all.  Would my client benefit or be harmed by me giving a quote to the local paper?  If the answer is that he would not benefit in any way, I feel it's best to keep my mouth shut.  My first and only purpose is to zealously advocate for my client. 

The press can certainly be a useful tool in criminal defense if used correctly.  But it can also sink your client.  Especially in the age of Google, where anything you say will remain accessible in perpetuity.  I would so much rather say nothing than the wrong thing.  Because you can't take it back.  Not once it's already out there.  My rule, then, is if I don't know in advance what I'm going to say and why, then I just don't say anything.

So I cringed when I read this story.  The lawyer representing the Alabama professor charged with shooting 6 people at a faculty meeting doesn't appear to have thought it through before talking to the press.  And because he spoke too reflexively and candidly, he wound up with a national news story quoting him as saying that his client was a wacko.  Oh, and that she's aware of what she's done and is very sorry.  Now he wants to take it back, but, of course, he can't.  There will always and forever be a record that this woman's lawyer called her a wacko and admitted her guilt before there was even a preliminary hearing.

Young lawyers and law students, consider this a cautionary tale.  Never, ever talk to the press until you've thought about what you're going to say, why you're going to say it, and how it helps the client.  Nobody ever lost a case by telling a reporter, "No comment."


Nance said...

I imagine that the lure of the camera and the lights (and the fleeting fame) can be very seductive. That moment of intensely exciting attention is likely very powerful. But you're so right that it just isn't about "you" at all; the defense of the client and that sacred relationship has to be uppermost.

I have a question, though: How much does the attorney's "estimation" of his client's mental state, tossed off like a remark in that way, really matter? He's not a qualified psychiatrist, obviously, and so he cannot really speak to her clinical mental state. Do his sort of off the record remarks really mean anything from a legal standpoint in the way that they can be used against her, really? Or is it just a colossal breach of professionalism more than anything else (egregious enough, but not legally damning)?

Kylie said...

This is why I want to just remain in the background conducting research that no one knows I did. But it is so true that you can't take it back.

S said...

Nance, you're right it really might not have much effect. He didn't say anything the rest of us weren't thinking anyway. Theoretically, his statement that she knows she did it and is sorry could be considered an agent admission, but most prosecutors probably wouldn't go there.

It's the professional breach that irked me. I would never speak publicly about my client like that without being really, really sure it was useful to the case. This whole thing just happened a little over a week ago. He can't possibly have already developed any sort of trial strategy.

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