February 2013

Ray Lewis’s retirement has made for an interesting time to be a criminal defense lawyer.

Many of us who defend people for a living lead two lives. In one, we are in and out of jails, explaining things to clients. We are in the hallway huddled with families after a loved one was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. We engage in dark humor with colleagues because it’s the only way to maintain a sense of sanity. We nod and smile politely as judges yell at us or the folks we represent.

In the other life, we spend time with our friends and family, for whom the inside of a jail or a courtroom are as foreign as Timbuktu.

For me, those two lives also involve working in Decatur, a blue-state island within red-state Georgia, and living in my little neighborhood in Griffin. My neighborhood  is a white Republican red-state enclave within a blue-state city.

The same Facebook that freaked me out about the political process last October is now freaking me out about the criminal justice system. The Court of Facebook is even harsher than the Court of public opinion. I’ve seen Lewis tried by status update and comment. The Facebook environment encourages participants to do something they’d never do in public — shout uninformed opinion over a megaphone. The system of “likes” is the modern-day amen corner. For weeks I’ve been thinking of deactivating my account. Yesterday, the straw broke the camel’s back.

While I agree that the acclaim that Ray Lewis has been getting is overblown, I watched a lot of that trial when it happened. The lawyers on that case (even the assistant D.A.) were true all stars to me, and I wanted to learn from them. I set my VCR every morning and watched the trial at night when I came in from my summer law job. It didn’t take long for an interested viewer to learn that this case should never have gone to trial.

The case had some real problems. Ultimately, Lewis was offered a plea to a misdemeanor. The trial continued against his less celebrity co-defendants, who were all acquitted. The sequel to this trial being played out around watercoolers and online is a different animal entirely. There, the evidence doesn’t matter. The strength of the case doesn’t matter. He must have done it, or they’d have never arrested him. Who does he think he is with his emotional behavior before and after the game?

I’d be willing to bet that the “prosecutors” in this new trial couldn’t name the victims or Lewis’s co-defendants. Details don’t matter, when you’ve made up your mind about something from a 30-second news blip on ESPN.

Bill Rankin, at the AJC, did a great story on the case and its many problems. Over on Facebook, this case and the world are much more simple. But here is what the former lead homicide detective from that case has to say about it today:

The investigation remains raw with Ken Allen, who had just been promoted to his dream job as an Atlanta homicide detective. Allen was put in charge of the investigation but saw it hijacked by political forces, which ultimately caused the case to collapse at trial.

“The focus of the case was Ray Lewis, not necessarily because of the evidence but because he was a celebrity,” said Allen. “It was like they were star struck and saw this as a case that could make a career.”

In my line of work, I’ve had the misfortune of defending folks whose cases have attracted media coverage. Inevitably, the court of public opinion convicts people instantly. And I’ve represented people who were acquitted or who had their charges dropped only to call me later when a potential employer chose not to hire them simply because of the arrest (“he must have done something wrong or he’d never have been arrested”). They ask me what I can do to help, and I soon find myself running out of answers early in the conversation.

One day I’d like to buy my friends and my “friends” a beer and tell them some stories about how some of the judges treat me and my clients and about some past jury selections that have begun with rural jurors presuming my client to be anything but innocent.

I enjoy my job very much, but it’s not always a picnic. The Nancy Graces of the world don’t help things.

At the end of the day, I choose to keep my faith in the system even when I know that the same weak prosecution case would likely have worked against a poor defendant without the means to hire the very best defense counsel and investigators.

The invective I’ve heard at barbecues, at cocktail parties, and over Facebook reminds me of how fragile this system is. It’s a wonder that the State ever loses.

Recently, I completed the new biography on Thomas Jefferson. We are very lucky he was born in Virginia in the 18th century. He’d have never been elected today. We’re equally lucky that the Constitution was ratified then. A modern-day Bill of Rights would likely have only the Second Amendment in it.

I’d miss this system if it changed significantly. But I don’t think I’ll miss Facebook.