BOOK REVIEW: 'Spinning the Law' Reveals Inequities, Ethics In U.S. Judicial System

by Rene A. Henry
BOOK REVIEW: 'Spinning the Law' Reveals Inequities, Ethics In U.S. Judicial System

In his book, lawyer and former prosecutor Kendall Coffey reviews scores of high-profile trials and analyzes how the media and public opinion impacted the guilty or not guilty verdict.


When I finished reading “Spinning the Law – Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion” my immediate impression was that Coffey’s book revealed many inequities and unethical conduct in our courtrooms.  In a way, his book was an indictment of the fairness of the judicial system in the U.S. and the need for bar associations to write much stronger ethics standards for trial lawyers.  


The author cites cases where he believes judges’ decisions were influenced by media exposure, how prosecutors and defense lawyers leaked information to sway jurors, and how some lawyers, after being warned by the judge not to do so, deliberately made statements in a courtroom just for the jurors to hear.  Unfortunately, in a trial, winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.  Today we have a courtroom environment where it is win at all cost compared with not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. 


I’m a strong advocate of Freedom of the Press, but there also needs to be a new code of ethics for journalists with teeth that can be strictly enforced.  According to Coffey, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the American Bar Association attempted to develop a rule that prohibited lawyers from feeding quotes to newspapers prior to and during trials.  He says that guidelines today prevent lawyers from spreading information about a case if here is a “reasonable probability” of interfering with the trial or prejudicing the administration of justice.  However, the guidelines haven’t stopped spinning and it has been exacerbated by the Internet and social media.


Coffey writes that the court of public opinion is sometimes driven by popular beliefs that come from motion pictures and television programs rather than what really happens in a courtroom.  With so much exposure from reality court shows to fictional drama, jurors and the American public are given more information and misinformation that ever before.  “When the pop law is compared to the real law, there can be some astonishing differences,” he says.


The American public has long been fascinated by anything dealing with law.  This is supported by book sales and the viewer popularity of television series and motion pictures.  Legal aficionados should enjoy this book.  It also could be a lesson in ethics for law professors and their students.  Coffey even wrote a chapter, “A Media Primer For Spinners,” giving advice to lawyers who want to do their own media campaign.  He does caution that attorneys with minimal media experience should not handle media relations without professional help.  


From my personal experience and having worked with some of the most accomplished lawyers in this country, for the sake of the client, I would not suggest that any attorney, unless professionally and academically trained in public relations and crisis communications, ever undertake any do-it-yourself effort.  I believe that lawyers should no more practice public relations than public relations practitioners practice law.  I would recommend this book to public relations practitioners who work with lawyers in trial and crisis situations so they can know what to expect and be better prepared to deal with leaks, unforeseen expectations and overzealous spinners.

 

The book reviews many of history’s high profile trials from Socrates and Joan of Arc to the Lindbergh kidnapping, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson, “Scooter” Libby, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and the Duke Lacrosse team.  Coffey describes how he represented the family of Elian Gonzalez, losing the battle to Attorney General Janet Reno to return the young boy to Cuba.  He also details the issues he faced when he represented Presidential Candidate Al Gore in the Florida vote recount fiasco that elected George W. Bush.


Coffey outlines the advantages the prosecution has in a case including the way information is presented in court papers to make it easy for the media to lift sound bites verbatim.  “With all of the powers of government on their side the prosecutors need media support like an 800-pound gorilla needs a parakeet,” he writes.  He notes that in the Elian Gonzalez case Reno’s subordinates regularly slipped copies of letters, ultimatums and pleadings to media sources, and the defense team only learned what was happening when the media called.


From 1993-1996 Coffey was a U.S. Attorney and headed the Southern District of Florida, the largest federal prosecutors’ office in the U.S.  He is the founding member and a partner of Coffey Burlington, PL, Miami, and a frequent guest on television and radio talk shows. 


In November 1998, Bill Moushey and Bob Martinson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote a 10-part series, “Win At All Costs,” exposing where federal agents and prosecutors pursued justice by breaking the law.”  In the series, the two wrote: “They lied, hid evidence, distorted facts, engaged in cover-ups, paid for perjury and set up innocent people in a relentless effort to win indictments, guilty pleas and convictions.”  Now Coffey again notes how prosecutors spin their cases to victory and in the Scott Peterson case, because of the media exposure, 80 percent of the public believed he was guilty before he ever appeared in a courtroom.  He says Los Angeles Attorney Mark Geragos believes 40 percent of all prospective jurors lie some and some lie a lot to be selected for jury duty on high profile cases.


He quotes many of the nation’s leading trial lawyers and cites their tactics in various cases.  All of his references are carefully footnoted and documented.  He also has sprinkled the text with inserted boxes with history lessons and spinning lessons.  Here are a few of his comments: “When a celebrity is in hot water, there are plenty of cooks to help turn up the heat.  Police and prosecutors need each other – sometimes it is better to lose a case than to lose face with your teammates.  Questions with shock value have news value.  Defense attorneys will ruffle feathers to keep their clients from becoming a cooked goose.”


The book is entertaining and informative.  After reading it, I call for all those responsible to take a hard look at improving the fairness in our judicial system, reining in all of lawyers and the media, and leveling the playing field for both prosecution and the defense.


Rene A. Henry has authored seven books -- two on crisis communications -- and has counseled and worked with some of the nation’s leading lawyers and law firms.  Born and raised in Charleston, WV he now lives in Seattle and writes on a variety of subjects for HNN.  Many of his commentaries are posted on his website, www.renehenry.com. For David M. Kinchen's review of Henry’s latest book, "Communicating In A Crisis" click: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/080930-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html.

 


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