Monday, January 23, 2012

Does it Matter Which Lawyer You Hire?

I was spending some time with a longtime friend of mine the other day when an interesting topic came up.  We were talking about the first OJ trial and how we remembered getting to watch it at school from time to time.  I mentioned how dumb the whole bloody glove thing was, when he then said "What was dumb was OJ spending so much money on all those lawyers.  If the facts are the facts, does it really matter who's representing you?"

I was somewhat astonished, given the fact that he knows what I do and that a big part of getting clients is differentiating myself from the masses.  None the less, he was serious.  As we were flipping through the channels on the TV, we stumbled across the movie "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" on cable.  Perfect.  I stopped for a minute to explain to him how this movie shows just how important it is to have a good lawyer.

Now, if you've seen the movie, disregard the outcome of the case in this analysis.  If you haven't seen the movie, I think it came out in 2005, so get to it.  It really is a good flick, albeit a great example of bad lawyering.  Either way, stop reading now if you don't want the film to be spoiled for you.

Laura Linney played the part of the hard-nosed defense attorney representing the kind-hearted priest who has been charged with negligent homicide for supposedly causing the death of Emily Rose while administering the exorcism ritual.  The first time I saw this movie, I thought the defense attorney did a great job of taking an alternate angle at this case and creating doubt in an area where there usually wouldn't be any.  After watching it again a few months ago, my perception changed, as it was now colored by my experience as a defense attorney.  Despite the defense "prevailing" in this case, I saw two HUGE things that would have been great grounds for an ineffective assistance of counsel case if the priest had (really) lost the decision.

1.  The basis of the defense's strategy was proving that Emily Rose did not suffer from a medical condition, but was indeed possessed by a demon.  Alright.  The real problem here is that Linney, understanding the impending resistance against this defense, claimed that the jury would be able to find validity in this defense even if they themselves did not believe in demons.  Of course, the very idea of this is ridiculous.  If a juror does not believe that demons exist, how likely is it that they will decide that the theory of demonic possession creates the required reasonable doubt in the prosecution's case?  The answer, of course, is not very likely.

Rule #1 in criminal defense is to avoid defenses that force the jury or judge into making a leap of faith in order to buy your premise of the events in question.  Honestly, if your necessary theory of defense involves convincing the jury to believe in demons, ghosts, Bigfoot, or the Boogieman, you may want to begin discussing plea bargains with the prosecution.  If your client is not accepting of a plea, then its best to prepare them for an untenable result.  Resorting to asking people to believe in invisible entities should under no circumstances be an option for a competent attorney.

2.  Let's assume that Laura Linney did a great job during her voir dire (jury selection) and found 12 people who claimed they didn't believe in demonic possessions, but agreed that such a thing was possible.  This gave her the ammunition she needed to go ahead with her attempt to prove that Emily Rose was possessed, not ill. The only question is, how should we prove that demonic possessions exist?  Get a crazy looking lady with weird clothes and an accent to ramble on about religious rituals from 3rd world countries?  Sure!  Linney's character proceeds to send an "exorcism expert" to the stand to testify on how "uncrazy" the idea of possession is.  She was hard to understand, provided testimony that was unrelatable, and was generally bizarre.

Another great rule of thumb is to not send an expert witness to the stand who will immediately be judged negatively based on their appearance, profession, or the content of their information.  Sending up what equates to a "witch doctor" is probably not a great idea.  In fact, it's possible that such a witness being a linchpin for your case could cause a motion for a directed guilty verdict on behalf of the prosecution.  A good lawyer would have found someone a little less objectionable and gotten the necessary expert witness from a more reliable source.  This might not seem like a big deal, but when you are paying an expert witness for their testimony, you had better be sure that they are going to provide a positive impact on your defense, as opposed to more fodder for the jury to question.

Ultimately, as you either know or have guess by now, the priest was found guilty of negligent homicide but was sentenced to only the time he had already served.  The jury, apparently, didn't believe in the demons enough to acquit him, but did believe that he seemed like a nice guy, so they recommended he not do any additional time.  This, if clarification is even necessary, is not a likely outcome of a guilty verdict in a murder case.  You may be wondering, however, that if the priest didn't have to go to jail, didn't he kind of win?  Well, kind of.  But he now has a criminal record of being guilty of negligent homicide, so good luck to him in finding a new parish to lead, or any other kind of job.

Being an advocate for your client is what being a lawyer is all about.  Any attorney that won't allow you input on how your defense will be handled should not be someone you work with.  Finding an attorney that will listen to your needs, work with you in creating a strategy, and act as an effective advocate is essential if you are facing criminal charges.  Don't settle for the first lawyer in the phone book under the assumption that all lawyers are not the same.  We aren't.  If you don't want to be betting your freedom on the jury's belief in the Easter Bunny, contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney today for a free consultation regarding your case.

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