The Damage Incompetent Pundits Do: Criminal Defense Misconceptions

See? I WARNED you not to listen to Mercedes Colwin!

A couple of months back, I flagged some outrageously mistaken commentary on Sean Hannity’s radio talk show given out by Mercedes Colwin, who is a lawyer but prone to howlers whenever she shows up on Hannity or Fox News, which I suspect favors her for qualities that have nothing to do with her law practice. On the occasion that roused my ire, Colwin suggested that she could not defend a criminal client who told her he was guilty, because she was “an officer of the court.”

This is pundit malpractice grafted to legal incompetence: a defense attorney MUST maintain a client’s legal innocence whether the attorney knows the client is guilty or not, and being an officer of the court has nothing to do with it.

Colwin, who was discussing the Casey Anthony trial, represented herself as an expert and then reinforced the most persistent and most damaging popular misconception about the legal system, which is that there is something unethical about defending guilty criminal clients. The system has to be held to a high standard of due process, and even an “obviously” guilty defendant must be proven guilty with admissible evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Defense attorneys are there to make sure the state meets its burden of proof by making the strongest argument for their clients’ innocence as possible, whether the defendant has confessed his or her guilt or not. For one thing, a defendant often doesn’t know if he is legally guilty, even if he “did it.” For another, even if he did it, the state still has to prove it.The defense’s job in to make sure it does, Continue reading

Casey Anthony’s Lawyer is Pronounced Unethical By an Expert

Jack Thompson knows incivility

Ah, the Casey Anthony trial continues to be the legal equivalent of “Jersey Shore,” or some other annoying TV reality show. In today’s episode: Hypocrisy! Revenge!  Irony! Abuse of process! Incivility!  And a special guest!

Cheney Mason, one of Casey Anthony’s defense attorneys, gave a raised middle finger (the international symbol of “I have nothing but contempt and utter disdain for you and your untoward words and conduct, so please have some form of unpleasant sexual intercourse with yourself!”) to a spectator who was verbally harassing Mason and others celebrating Anthony’s July 5 acquittal at a restaurant immediately after the trial.  Such public conduct by a lawyer is rude, undignified and inappropriate, but it is also rude, undignified and inappropriate for sea captains, puppeteers and plumbers, too. Incivility by a lawyer has to be especially egregious and must in some way threaten to undermine the administration of justice to raise the possibility of bar discipline, and flipping the bird to a jerk in a restaurant just plain doesn’t qualify. Now, a lawyer running all over town giving the finger to everyone for weeks on end, or a lawyer making the gesture to judges, opposing counsel or jury members in court would be very different matters. Such conduct would call into legitimate question a lawyer’s fitness to practice law. One such incident? No. I won’t speculate on what percentage of lawyers have given the upturned finger to someone during their careers, but you can.

Nevertheless, a Florida citizen decided to file an ethics complaint against Mason, which is his right. But this wasn’t just any Florida citizen; the complainant was Jack Thompson, a once nationally prominent attorney who managed the nearly impossible: he got himself disbarred for life in Florida for incivility, along with other ethical misconduct. Continue reading

Something For the Casey Anthony Lynch Mob to Think About

So they cut some corners....

The New York Times reports that John Bradley, a software designer who testified at the Casey Anthony murder trial that Anthony had visited a website regarding the use of chloroform 84 times, now says that he made a mistake, and that in fact Anthony only accessed the site exactly once. The finding of 84 visits was used by prosecutors repeatedly during the trial to suggest that Ms. Anthony had planned to murder her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.

The designer realized his mistake after reworking his software.  Bradley told the Times that he immediately alerted a prosecutor, Linda Drane Burdick, and Sgt. Kevin Stenger of the Sheriff’s Office in late June to make them aware of his new findings. Yet the prosecutors never corrected the record or alerted the defense, as they are required to do under the law.

What does this mean? Continue reading

Barn Doors + Anger + Ignorance + Irresponsible Legislators = “Caylee’s Law”

When someone first mentioned the wave of support for “Caylee’s Law,” proposed legislation so far pending in four states making it a felony for a parent not to report a child’s death within an hour or a missing child within 24 hours, I responded that it “sounded like a good idea.”  Lots of dumb things sound good to me before I think about them. “Caylee’s Law,” is in fact a terrible idea, and about 10 minutes of quality thought illuminates why.

The law is the result of multiple factors more related to human nature than sound law enforcement. When something unpopular and frustrating happens, like the death of Caylee Anthony and her mother’s subsequent acquittal of murder charges, the response is often to try to fix the problem with a law. Such laws are often formulated in the heat of emotion and sentiment rather than careful reasoning and consideration, and the result is  bad laws that cause more problems that they solve.

These laws also embody the Barn Door Fallacy. Society passes broad-based measures to stop an unusual occurrence that has already done its damage, and that may be extremely unlikely to occur again. Nevertheless, society and the public saddle themselves with expensive, inconvenient, often inefficient measures designed to respond to the rare event. One shoe bomber, and millions of passengers have to remove their shoes to go through airport security. One adulterated bottle of Tylenol, and every over-the-counter drug bottle requires a razor blade and the manual dexterity of a piano virtuoso to open. Two sick boys shoot up Columbine, so third graders get suspended for bringing squirt–guns to school. Continue reading

“Twelve Angry Men,” A Million Angry Fools, and the Jury System

Their defendant was probably guilty too.

Ethics Alarms All-Star Lianne Best sent me this link about a member of the Casey Anthony jury who is going into hiding because of all the hate and criticism being directed at jury members and their controversial verdict. Her plight, which must be shared by other members of the much-maligned jury, highlights the unethical, not to mention ignorant, reaction of the public to the Florida ex-mother’s narrow escape from a murder conviction she almost certainly deserved.

The problem begins with publicity. We may need to re-examine the logic behind broadcasting high-profile cases. The combination of live courtroom feeds and quasi-semi-competent commentary gives viewers the mistaken belief that they are qualified to second guess the jury, and they are not. They are not because the jury is in the courtroom, and the viewers aren’t. The jury and TV watchers see different things; individuals communicate different emotions and reactions in person than they do on camera. There is only one fair and sensible way to answer those on-line instant polls that ask, “Do you think Casey Anthony should be found guilty?”, and that is “I don’t know.”

Most of all, the viewers and pundits are not present in the jury room. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Unethical Blog Post of the Week: ‘But What About Caylee?”’

As comments, accusations and retorts featuring the Ethics Alarms All-Stars were flying around on the blog in reaction to the Casey Anthony verdict and my reaction to some of those reactions (here, here, here, and here), Lianne Best came through with an  especially measured take, one that was immediately cheered by other commenters.

There is nothing wrong with feeling deeply, and emotions are important; after all, Mr. Spock had limitations as a leader. When emotion rather than analysis drives public opinion, however, there is a risk of real harm: those attempting objective analysis may be vilified, marginalized or ignored, and rash, reckless decisions and consequences can result.  (I could, but won’t, argue that the 2008 presidential election was a classic case in point.)  Lianne cuts to the real issue deftly. Here is her Comment of the Day:

“I too often find myself embroiled in emotional opinion, with no basis in facts. It’s easy here: an adorable and completely innocent, dependent little girl was killed. Virtually every human, particularly parents, want to see that vindicated, justice found and brought. That somehow makes it better. But you know what? It doesn’t make it better to go racing off on just a blazing gut reaction, not when people’s lives are affected by our lack of thought and analysis. I was a juror in a kidnapping and murder trial. It was an immensely difficult two weeks, and the decision was agonizing. Luckily, it was also popular; it would have been awful to suffer through loud, manic public criticism of our reasoned decision on top of the process … loud, manic public criticism by people who weren’t there, who knew less (or at least differently) than we did. We have a jury system for a reason, 12 people found Casey Anthony not guilty (13 if you count the alternate juror) and we have to trust them.

“Personally, I appreciate Jack’s cooler head prevailing when my mother’s heart is shrieking.”

Marcia Clark, Exploiting the Anthony Verdict for Her Own Sake

Marcia Clark. OK, this really isn't Marcia, but the real picture of her doesn't look like her either.

Marcia Clark’s article on the Casey Anthony verdict is so tainted with obvious conflicts of interest that it should have been rejected by The Daily Beast…or rather would be rejected by any website more selective and less shameless than the Daily Beast. This would be any fair site that does not deal in over-the-top opinion as a matter of course.

Marcia, like her colleague Chris Darden, is a rather tragic figure these days. The former lead prosecutor in the O.J. case is struggling to make it as a pundit, freshly botoxed and rendered almost unrecognizable so as to be fetching in those close-ups. After she sold the inevitable cash-in book about the Trial of the Century, she has wandered in the C-List celebrity wilderness, and will soon join Newt Gingrich and William Shatner as a celebrity novelist. She will be remembered, quite correctly, as the prosecutor who botched the O.J. murder trial, even if we give Darden an assist for the gloves debacle. (Why cable news shows insist on recycling failures as experts is an enduring mystery, the mystery being “how can the producers look themselves in the mirror after choosing recognizable flops over less well-known but more accomplished authorities?”)

But Clark apparently saw an opportunity in the Casey Anthony verdict to rehabilitate her tarnished reputation, and grabbed it. The result is “Worse Than O.J.!”, a new low in self-serving analysis. Continue reading

Unethical Blog Post of the Week: “But What About Caylee?”

Sad but true: the trial's purpose was not to find justice for Caylee.

If I responded to even one out of a hundred ethically muddled, logically addled posts by the hoard of bloggers in cyberspace, I’d have time for nothing else. Now and then, however, I am directed to a post that typifies the kind of free-floating, fact-starved gut sentiment that rots public discourse in America and that helps keeps the public confused and panicked.

In this case, I was directed to the post by the blogger herself, who managed to annoy me by accusing my post on the Casey Anthony jury of being callous to the victim in the case, two-year old Callie. I re-read my post; there wasn’t anything callous toward the child in any way. Puzzled, I went to the blogger’s page, a blog by someone who calls herself wittybizgal, and called Wittybizgal. Sure enough, there it was: an anguished lament about the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial entitled, “But What About Callie?”

The post is frightening, because I am certain that this kind of non-reasoning is epidemic in the United States, nourished by touchy-feely bloggers, pundits and columnists and made possible by the ingrained habit of having opinions without knowledge. Since their opinions are not supported by facts or reasoning, they can’t be debated. If you aren’t persuaded, you’re just mean, that’s all. That’s no way to decide what is right and wrong, but it certainly a popular way. Here is wittybizgal’s argument, one fallacious step at a time: Continue reading

“Professionalism?” What’s THAT? Julie Chen, CBS and the Descent of Broadcast Journalism

Walter could keep it together. Not Julie Chen.

The Casey Anthony verdict is doing some good: it is exposing the awful deficit in objectivity and professionalism in the broadcast media.

The latest example: while CBS’ “The View” rip-off, “The Talk,” was underway,  viewers saw co-host Julie Chen break down as she tried to read the news that Casey  Anthony had been found not guilty of killing her daughter Caylee. Chen attempted to read the verdict, but was overcome with emotion  and was unable to continue, asking her co-hosts,  “Help me out here.”

In 1937, radio broadcaster Herbert Morrison was correctly criticized for being unable to keep his composure and report the flaming destruction of the zeppelin The Hindenburg without weeping and becoming unintelligible. In 2011, a woman described in her official bio as a “news anchor; reporter; and journalist” couldn’t compose herself to read the news of a not guilty verdict. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Mercedes Colwin

It's a mystery: why would Fox News choose her as a legal analyst?

Attorney Mercedes Colwin, an attorney and Fox News commentator, just committed pundit malpractice while discussing the Casey Anthony verdict on Sean Hannity’s radio show. Her professional biography says that she has practiced criminal defense law. If so, she has done so laboring under some serious legal ethics misconceptions.

Said Colwin, in response to Hannity’s query about her past representation of guilty defendants:

“If my client says he did it, then I can’t defend him. I can’t then go into court and say he’s innocent; I’m an officer of the court, Sean!”

What??? Wrong, wrong, outrageously wrong, inexcusably wrong! And also: ARRRRRGHHHHH! Continue reading