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What’s it really like to defend people accused of serious crimes?

June 15, 2012

Without exception the myriad fictional television shows about the practice of criminal law get everything so totally wrong I can’t stand to watch them. I just love how every show has a scene with some arrogant bastard defense attorney insisting angrily that a case be dismissed due to some violation of the axe murderer’s rights. The judge agrees with the defense attorney. The DA yells, “You are letting a guilty man go!”

Such total and complete bullshit. In my job, you better damn well be humble when negotiating. After all, the guys you are talking to hold the cards. They have the exclusive power to say yes or no. I am always very respectful when dealing with people in positions of authority. I have to be. In many of my cases, my client got caught red-handed and confessed. You would be surprised what people will confess to. Ironically, sometimes the more horrific the crime, the more the suspect feels guilty and just wants to come clean and confess. Groveling and begging would be more of an appropriate description of my behavior in that situation. If I shouted and demanded, the DA would laugh and cram it down my throat (or stuff it somewhere, anyway). And the judge? Almost always a career former prosecutor who has a One Big Ass Mistake America (OBAMA) next to his NRA life member decal and “Jesus is the Answer” sticker on the back of his pickup truck. You think that guy is going to help me out? Ha!
Oh, and my other favorite scene is when the team of DA’s sit around and try to convince their supervisor that there is enough evidence to file charges. The old supervisor says, “All you have is circumstantial evidence.” That argument has never taken place ever, in any DA’s office, anywhere. If the cops arrest you, by golly, in Kern County the DA’s office is quite likely to prosecute you.  The odds are huge. And there isn’t a lot of agonizing about it. If they can point the finger at you, they are going to push the case. And lots of people get convicted based on circumstantial evidence. It happens every day. The scene in the courtroom where the lawyer screams at the witness, “You’re a liar!” Yeah, look, that melodramatic crap is totally prohibited. No judge would allow it. And lastly, I just love how in every show it always comes down to some dynamite piece of physical evidence: Yeah, that happens once in a while, but rarely. Usually, it’s good old fashioned eyewitness testimony that proves the case. Or not. Mostly, I just have to leave the room if my wife is watching one of these shows: It’s too irritating to stay and watch it.

I think the best way to show what it is really like to do what I do is to recommend some movies that address these issues. Some are fairly well known: Others, very obscure. In no particular order, I would recommend the following:

1. Capturing the Friedmans (2003): A documentary about the prosecution of a father and adult son for child molestation. Unfortunately, this particular crime is a huge part of my practice, and this documentary does a great job of capturing the denial so inherent in many of those cases. It also shows how complex such a case can be.

2. First Person: Kingdom of the Unabomber (2000) : This is a short documentary consisting mostly of an interview of a psychologist who befriended Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. He did so because he wanted to become famous for doing the definitive psychological profile of him. Unfortunately, he ran into the complex social network around him, as well as a large dose of paranoia from Kaczynski himself. While, thankfully, I don’t have to deal with situations as complex as that every day, the tone of the film rang very true. A lot of criminal defendants are surrounded by very complex social networks: Mother, wife, current girlfriend, ex girlfriend, best friend aka favorite drug dealer, you get the picture. Navigating all these shifting sands of various loyalties and stresses is unfortunately, very much part of this job. Also, dealing with demanding and paranoid assholes like Kaczynski is sadly, not too rare.

3. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) : This is a pair of documentaries from the same director are about the filmmaker, his subject, female serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and her lawyer. Surprise! She is an uber-bitch from hell, and she makes everybody around her miserable. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with people this bad very often: If you are really out there, we are not going to do business together for long. But this movie shows how difficult someone like her can be. Just having a conversation with her about the weather can turn ugly, as these films can show. And I have had defendants almost this bad. Sometimes being a criminal defense attorney can really suck. Oh, and check out the real life lawyer in this movie. He is one crazy bastard. Smoking dope on camera while driving to visit his client in prison? Classic.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): A classic film from 1962 that actually shows what it is like to cross examine someone in the courtroom. For once.

5. A Civil Action (1998): A movie that does a great job of addressing the boring but oh-so-necessary issue of:  “Am I going to run out of money?”  A great film starring John Travolta that shows what it is like to practice law as a business, an area that most movies ignore completely.

6. Requiem for a Dream (2000): Technically, not a movie about the actual practice of law, but important nevertheless. Lots of folks I deal with have very severe addictions, and this movie does a great job of showing what that life is like.

As you may notice, this list is very heavy with movies about the attorney-client relationship: That’s because it is so important. If you have a good relationship with your client, everything falls into place. If not, it could turn into something like the scenes with Aileen Wuornos, and that’s neither fun nor productive for anybody. If you watch these movies, you will get a taste of what my job is actually like.

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7 Comments
  1. Erica Greene permalink

    I was just having a conversation with one of my friends on a similar topic. I was telling them how I think think it’s funny that lawyers can’t stand to watch shows like “Law and Order” and how doctors can’t stand seeing shows like “House”.

  2. Donald Greene permalink

    These movies look very interesting. Where can I get hold of them?

    • All of them are available on Netflix except Kingdom of the Unabomber, which is available online from the Sundance Documentary Club. Only To Kill a Mockingbird and A Civil Action were major motion pictures. The rest are fairly little known.

  3. Georgann Greene permalink

    Dad and I are going to sign up for Netflics. Thanks for the tip.
    Love, Mom

  4. Great list, Mr. Greene! What do you think of the “Lincoln Lawyer” (if you have seen it)?
    Requiem for a Dream is a wonderful film, both heartbreaking and well-made.

    • I haven’t seen that one yet, but people have told me about it. It sounds pretty good and accurate. I need to see it, and then I will add it to my list.

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