Patterico's Pontifications

9/7/2006

L.A. Times Series on Public Defenders

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer,General,Law — Patterico @ 6:10 am



The L.A. Times is running a week-long series in which a reporter follows around a public defender in Norwalk. Part One is here, as are links to the other installments. So far, as you would expect, the series is extremely sympathetic to the public defender — whom I don’t know, and who sounds like a very competent lawyer.

It’s an interesting series. And I have no problem with praising a good public defender. I have said before that public defenders are often some of the best and most effective lawyers I know.

If I have one quarrel with the series, it’s this:

The next time a reporter from the L.A. Times follows around a prosecutor and posts day after day of favorable articles about him — you let me know.

24 Responses to “L.A. Times Series on Public Defenders”

  1. Casting a prosecutor as a hero would be difficult because of the character of the criminal justice system. That’s because the harder a prosecutor has to work to prove his case, the more uncomfortable many of us are with the result.

    When a public defender wins a nail-biter of a case, it’s fairly easy for most of us to breath a sigh of relief and say “whew, that guy was almost convicted!” The fact that we don’t know for sure that the accused was innocent isn’t too hard to ignore because there are no immediate consequences — life simply goes on as it did before.

    That’s not to say that sometimes there aren’t terrible consequences after an acquittal, if the acquitted party goes out and commits crimes that would have been prevented had he been jailed. But those consequences aren’t immediately apparent, or certain, when a public defender wins.

    It’s a lot tougher (at least for me) to say “whew, society really got lucky there!” when a prosecutor wins a seemingly close case. A man marches off to jail, life changes forever, and I’m left with this sick feeling that we may have locked up an innocent man.

    It’s difficult to really celebrate such a close victory unless you focus on victims of the crime who are themselves certain of the accused’s guilt, and ignore whatever evidence makes the case a close one. And if you do that, you reduce the tension that makes the prosecutor’s accomplishment stand out in the first place.

    In cases where the person is clearly guilty — the ones where I wouldn’t worry about the guilt or innocence of the accused — the prosecutor’s work doesn’t seem that hard. It’s a question of sentencing — and it’s hard to get really excited when a prosecutor wins a life sentence over a 20-year sentence.

    [Are you an L.A. Times editor? Anyway, this is exactly the sort of mistaken point of view that could be corrected by a series like I’m talking about. Compelling cases are not always dumped in our laps. Prosecutors often do work that turns a weak case into an overwhelming one. — P]

    Phil (88ab5b)

  2. the more uncomfortable many of us are with the result.
    it’s fairly easy for most of us to breath a sigh of relief and say “whew, that guy was almost convicted!”

    Wow, really? Many of us? Most of us? I guess this is what it feels like to be in a minority.

    The fact that we don’t know for sure that the accused was innocent isn’t too hard to ignore because there are no immediate consequences — life simply goes on as it did before.

    What about–wacky scenario, bear with me–if we didn’t know for sure, but any evidence reported by the media–which is the only access we have to the case if we’re not trying it or forming an audience at the courthouse just for fun–made the guy seem guilty? I dunno, I like to consider alternative fantasies.

    That’s not to say that sometimes there aren’t terrible consequences after an acquittal, if the acquitted party goes out and commits crimes that would have been prevented had he been jailed. But those consequences aren’t immediately apparent, or certain, when a public defender wins.

    And will likely never *be* apparent to you, unless you’re the loved one of the next child the guy molests or the next person he murders or the owner of the next store he knocks over.

    It’s a lot tougher (at least for me) to say “whew, society really got lucky there!” when a prosecutor wins a seemingly close case. A man marches off to jail, life changes forever, and I’m left with this sick feeling that we may have locked up an innocent man.

    Again, just for fun–can you imagine for one moment the possibility that “we” may have locked up a *guilty* man?

    It’s difficult to really celebrate such a close victory unless you focus on victims of the crime who are themselves certain of the accused’s guilt, and ignore whatever evidence makes the case a close one. And if you do that, you reduce the tension that makes the prosecutor’s accomplishment stand out in the first place.

    You seem to have no problem ignoring whatever evidence might make the defendant’s guilt obvious; apparently it’s only a particular kind of evidence that keeps you up at night.

    In cases where the person is clearly guilty — the ones where I wouldn’t worry about the guilt or innocence of the accused —

    So you fibbed above, and it’s truly not going to matter to you if the guy kills/rapes/robs again after he’s let out? After all, if his guilt or innocence doesn’t matter–

    the prosecutor’s work doesn’t seem that hard. It’s a question of sentencing — and it’s hard to get really excited when a prosecutor wins a life sentence over a 20-year sentence.

    To each his own, phil, but a convicted murderer who gets life over a 20-year joke that’ll have him out in five or less–well, technically you said it’s hard to get “really excited,” and okay, I don’t, but that just makes me not a weirdly excitable freak. I am happy, however, when I find a muderer won’t be returned to the strets thanks to the work of a prosecutor, law-abiding jury, and smart judge.

    Anwyn (d24425)

  3. Prosecutors often do work that turns a weak case into an overwhelming one. — P

    Patterico, you silly thing, that’s *exactly* what poor Phil is so worried about!!

    Anwyn (d24425)

  4. Anwyn —

    Nice fisking; you saved me the trouble of hammering the keys off my laptop.

    Mike Lief (e9d57e)

  5. I, too, admire public defenders because they usually have to deal with defendants who are, in fact, guilty of the crimes they are accused of, but our system requires them to have representation anyway. It’s up to the public defender to ensure that judge and prosecutor play by the rules, and I think that it can be a thankless job. Frankly, I don’t know how they do it.

    Not having been a D.A. (or, in fact, having been an attorney), I am speculating here, but doesn’t the job well done have its own rewards? Not that it isn’t frustrating when defense attorneys play games, but I would think locking up the bad guys is enormously satisfying.

    I do agree that it would be nice for the LAT (or any news organization, for that matter) to spend a few inches writing features on D.A.s, but I won’t hold my breath.

    sharon (03e82c)

  6. Mike–I’m happy to save an innocent laptop from an untimely de-key-ing. 🙂

    Anwyn (d24425)

  7. I wouldn’t say I agree with Paul, but at the same time, I’m hardly going to begrudge the Times for doing a piece on Public Defenders. Like, sharon I think being a P.D. has got to be one of the more thankless jobs that exist, and probably most ordinary citizens think of P.D.s as helping the bad guys. After all you don’t see many P.D.s using that position to step up on the political ladder.

    Prosecutors on the other hand, may not get sympathetic pieces on the L.A. Times, but at least recently with Law and Order and the CSI, kind of shows, law enforcement and Prosecutors get a lot of “good press.”

    Of course, now “Justice” is on TV, but that’s not even about P.D.s its about a high-powered defense firm, that kind of actually takes its whacks at P.D.s quote from the show being “If you have the right lawyer we have the best justice system in the world.”

    So hey, I understand what you’re saying Patterico, but prosecutors do get a lot of better media coverage generally then P.D.s.

    Joel B. (a51051)

  8. The next time a prosecuter posts day after day of favorable blog entries about the L.A. Times – you let me know.

    TomHynes (c41bdd)

  9. Patterico, I was a journalist for a while, so that may be why I sound like an LA Times editor.

    I didn’t say no one should try to write a positive story about prosecutors; just that it would be a lot harder than writing one about public defenders.

    You commented that your “quarrel with the series” was that you wanted a reporter to follow around a prosecutor and post positive-sounding stories about the experience. From a reporter’s perspective, the little details that make for a “positive” sounding story would be less likely to pop out when watching a prosecutor’s performance.

    Reporters tend to observe and record the experiences and perspectives of individuals, and paste these individuals’ perspectives together into a story. I think it’s likely that if a reporter followed around a prosecutor for several days, what might very well stand out for him would be the two or three cases where he/she felt that an individual defendant was getting pummeled by the system. The other details of the prosecutors job would lack the immediate human impact that causes a reporter to write such “positive,” almost heroic-sounding stories.

    Also, the job of prosecutor is different from a public defender in that a prosecutor has the resources of the government behind them putting together a case. A public defender appears much more like a lone gunslinger, and appeals to the American myth of the individual hero in a much better fashion than the prosecutor does. From a reporter’s perspective, prosecutors are effectively the bureaucrats of the criminal justice system, lik an IRS agent, or an EPA investigator.

    Finally, there’s the way many journalists view the U.S. justice system in general. Many reporters, who interact with a broad range of demographics, see many “criminals” as ordinary people who have made mistakes and had bad luck. Thus, journalists will tend to view the very act of incarcerating such a person as a defeat for society.

    Many reporters, while respecting the fact that the present criminal justice system was developed through the democratic process, see it as, at best, something that is in desperate need of change. Many people who escape its clutches, even if guilty, thus are viewed sympathetically by reporters. And prosecutors, as agents of this flawed system, will be viewed skeptically.

    Phil (88ab5b)

  10. Phil said:

    Finally, there’s the way many journalists view the U.S. justice system in general. Many reporters, who interact with a broad range of demographics, see many “criminals” as ordinary people who have made mistakes and had bad luck. Thus, journalists will tend to view the very act of incarcerating such a person as a defeat for society.

    Many reporters, while respecting the fact that the present criminal justice system was developed through the democratic process, see it as, at best, something that is in desperate need of change. Many people who escape its clutches, even if guilty, thus are viewed sympathetically by reporters. And prosecutors, as agents of this flawed system, will be viewed skeptically.

    Finally, a (I assume from his comments) liberal admits to liberal bias in the media.

    Amen!!

    – GB

    Great Banana (aa0c92)

  11. By the way, I interact with a broad spectrum of society, have had friends that engaged in criminal acts and were prosecuted, rose up from a poor begining, have had many jobs, etc., etc., and I don’t view things this way.

    Being a reporter doesn’t “make” one liberal. Liberals tend to become reporters to “change the world.” thus, Phil’s entire argument is based on a false premise. Simply interacting with different people doesn’t necessarily make one liberal or conservative.

    The implication in his point is that anyone who believes in our justice system has NOT interacted with people. That is a very foolish assumption. But like all liberals, it makes the person believing it feel noble and superior to the rest of us.

    Great Banana (aa0c92)

  12. But, to continue my threadjack,

    Ultimately, I agree with Phil’s hypothesis – just not his reasoning. I agree that almost all reporters in mainstream media are liberal, and therefore would view prosecutors as “evil” or the “enemy” and therefore be unable or unwilling to write a positive story about a prosecutor.

    I just think those people are foolish and wrong.

    — GB

    Great Banana (aa0c92)

  13. just a hypothesis: public defenders are better looking, sexier than prosecutors. during the course of following one around for a day, he or she will offer better sound bites for publication. maybe i can get a federal grant to research this.
    tough job. 99% of the time, the guy across the desk is guilty. he done it. pd’s job is to get him off. “i have a magic trick i can use to get you off, but i can only do it once a week, and i get 100 new clients in a week. based on a preliminary review of your file, this does not appear to be your week!”
    one of the poignant moments of lawyering: the client seated across from you has just told you a whopping lie, partially concealled in a demeanor which is earnest, perhaps even boyish. you know it’s a lie, and you believe that he knows that you know it’s a lie, but you don’t bring this up. “ok, you were at the ballpark when the liquor store was robbed, and the guy caught on video must be an identical twin separated from you at birth. we’re gonna need evidence to substantiate this, witnesses who can place you there, drunkenly cursing the san francisco giants. i’ll get back to you on this, by the way, my initial retainer is fifty grand.”
    the dynamic in the pd’s office must be slightly different. i wonder if they ever lose it “how the hell can you sit there and lie to me like that, you worthless sack of dog feces!”

    assistant devil's advocate (33fa32)

  14. I agree mostly with Phil’s take on modern journalism. For that reason, I reject Great Banana’s.

    It’s the nature of journalism to go for the David in the David and Goliath story, and, like it or not, the D.A. sure looks like Goliath most of the time. It’s sort of the “man bites dog” instead of the “dog bites man” story. We expect the guy that’s arrested to be convicted, but when an innocent guy goes on trial, that’s news. I don’t think that has anything to do with liberals and conservatives.

    sharon (dfeb10)

  15. I don’t think that has anything to do with liberals and conservatives.

    Maybe not, but Phil’s original opinion wasn’t about what journalists think. It was an assumption that “most people” think the poor sap under the protective wing of the PD is an innocent patsy and that we’re so relieved when he flies free as a bird. That most assuredly has to do with liberal or conservative.

    And Sharon, I think you and Banana between you are engaged in a little bit of circular reasoning … you say it’s the nature of journalism to go for the David; Banana says it’s those who like to root for the David regardless of the facts of the case who become journalists. Chick or egg today for lunch, ma’am? 🙂

    Anwyn (d24425)

  16. God, that should have been “chicken.” Can’t type today.

    Anwyn (d24425)

  17. Sharon,

    “It’s the nature of journalism to go for the David in the David and Goliath story, and, like it or not, the D.A. sure looks like Goliath most of the time. It’s sort of the “man bites dog” instead of the “dog bites man” story. We expect the guy that’s arrested to be convicted, but when an innocent guy goes on trial, that’s news.”

    First, how does the reporter know the guy is innocent? Even if he is acquitted, that does not mean he is innocent, just that the prosecution failed to prove he did it “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    So, again, you are actually agreeing with me. Journalists see the world in a certain way, and the reporting naturally follows. Which, is exactly my point. they automatically always see the government as “goliath” (who was the villian) and the accused as the “david” (who was the hero).

    So, you have basically stated that my original point was correct.

    Moreover, Phil was very clear that he believed journalists looked at the prosecution with skeptisism and at our whole justice system as broken, based on a whole bunch of liberal cliches he threw out. So, again, if you agree with what Phil said, you actually agree with what I said. What I said is that most journalists are liberal, therefore they view the world a certain way, and therefore are much more likely to view the defense positively and the prosecution negatively.

    – GB

    Great Banana (aa0c92)

  18. I will agree that many journalists are liberal, based on my experience. Obviously not all. In my experience some journalists entered the field in part because of liberal leanings and a desire to change the world, expose wrongdoing, etc. No doubt about it.

    Also, while other careers and lifestyles can provide exposure to many different types and classes of people, I think journalism does allow a more detached observation of these people, for what it’s worth.

    However, while I find journalists tend to be more tolerant of people’s differences, and more likely to recongnize the common humanity in each of us, the media as a whole, I certainly admit that that’s not the whole story.

    The dark side of journalism is it’s tendancy, in its eagerness to tell a compelling story, of oversimplifying issues, and for that matter, people. In doing so, journalists accentuate these very differences that they themselves have learned to tolerate. I think that this oversimplification in the name of storytelling is one majory cause of the polarization and intolerance among political and social groups in our society today, where our disagreements get shriller and shriller, and what we have in common as human beings tends to be ignored.

    Phil (88ab5b)

  19. I thought the “pro-prosecutor” viewpoint was delegated to “Law and Order”.

    🙂

    Dave Wangen (6001a6)

  20. “First, how does the reporter know the guy is innocent?”

    He doesn’t. That was my term for the defendant. A story that focuses on the public defender is likely to focus on those defendants that end up acquitted. Readers like that. Ever read Perry Mason?

    “Even if he is acquitted, that does not mean he is innocent, just that the prosecution failed to prove he did it “beyond a reasonable doubt.””

    Actually, a defendant cannot be found “innocent.” He’s found “not guilty.”

    “So, again, you are actually agreeing with me.”

    If you want to believe that, ok, but that’s not what I said.

    “Journalists see the world in a certain way, and the reporting naturally follows.”

    GB, everybody has a viewpoint. Journalists are taught to look for news. It’s news when David beats Goliath, not when Goliath beats David.

    “Which, is exactly my point.”

    If I read what you wrote correctly, you assumed that the reason journalists prefer writing nice stories on public defenders rather than nice stories on district attorneys is because they are liberally biased. I disagree with that (not that most journalists are liberal, but that it necessarily colors every story they cover).

    “they automatically always see the government as “goliath” (who was the villian) and the accused as the “david” (who was the hero).”

    They don’t “automatically always see the government” as anything. They are skeptical, which is what the public should want them to be because it is one of the checks on governmental abuse. For example, when John Gotti was on trial, I don’t think anyone thought of him as “David” and the government as “Goliath.”

    “Moreover, Phil was very clear that he believed journalists looked at the prosecution with skeptisism and at our whole justice system as broken, based on a whole bunch of liberal cliches he threw out.”

    You may think what he said was a bunch of “liberal cliches,” but cliches are usually based on truth. Many journalists get into the field because they believe it is a way to make a difference in the world. But their own opinions on such subjects as law enforcement do not necessarily color their writing. In some cases, it might, but in others, it probably does not.

    sharon (dfeb10)

  21. Sharon,

    You have not really disproven – or even argued against – my point, you have simply rationalized reasons why you think its ok for liberal reporters to have an agenda. I don’t have a problem with it, as long as they are honest about their agenda. I also don’t have a problem with nice stories about public defenders, who do good and neccessary work.

    My broader point is about why this is so, and everything you wrote backs me up. You say reporters aren’t “liberal” but “skeptical” – I say, sure, but they are skeptical of government, not skeptical of defendants or public defenders, according to both you and Phil – which is a liberal viewpoint generally.

    That is a liberal bias which drives an agenda and a story. You can rationalize it, but that is the case. I’m not sure that an argument can be made that generally being sympathetic to the defense and skeptical of the prosecution is not a liberal viewpoint.

    You say reporters are “taught” to look for news – how is following a public defender around for a few days to write a puff-piece news? It wasn’t folloing a specific noteworthy trial. Instead, someone decided that they should write a nice piece about the hard-working PDs. The whole point of Patterico’s comment was that it would not occur to the paper to do the same for a prosecutor. So, I don’t think you are arguing about the same thing that I am. We – here – are talking about the decision to do a puff piece on a PD. That is hardly “news.”

    And, you admit that everyone has a bias. That is my whole point. I submit that most journalists’ have a liberal bias. Does it completely and totally drive everything they do? No, but it tends to drive who they cover, how they cover it, who they get quotes from, etc. And, in the specific circumstance we are discussing here, it colors the decision to do a puff-piece on a PD rather than ever doing one on a prosecutor.

    As to Phil’s cliches about journalists “seeing the humanity” in people, and “realizing that people make mistakes” – those are liberal cliches, without meaning. I see the humanity in criminal defendants and realize they may have made a mistake – a criminal mistake. Just b/c I think they deserve to be prosecuted and dealt with doesn’t mean I don’t “see the humanity” in them or realize that maybe they “made a mistake.” So, yes, those are liberal cliches that add nothing to any argument.

    Despite what Phil may believe, reporters have no deeper understanding of humanity than anyone else, and sometimes (at least reporters I have met, or newspapers I read) they seem to have a lot less understanding than most. They don’t necessarily meet more or different people than anyone else might, particularly if their liberal biases make them seek out those with a similar world-view to write stories about and/or get quotes from – which is what I find most reporters doing in almost every newspaper I have read.

    Not sure why it cuts so deep to the bone for some people to admit or realize that the reason most reporters view the defense as heroic and the prosecution as a neccessary evil at best is because reporters, by and large, are very liberal. It is not neccessarily a damning indictment for this to be so, just a fact. I just wish reporters were more honest about their biases so that their reporting were more honest.

    Slightly off topic – It is always interesting to me that liberals run away from that title, but conservatives are proud to be called conservative. And, even more interesting to me, is that liberals always claim that conservatives aren’t really “conservative” in how they define conservative. I guess this tells us much more about where liberals believe the mainstream is then anything else.

    As to fictionalized accounts, a la “Perry Mason” or “Law and Order”, there’s generally as many defendant friendly shows/movies as prosecution friendly – although with the advent of the “Law and Order” franchise it has been prosecution heavy the last few years. But, it focuses quite a bit on the police work and investigation, even during the “prosecution” portion of the show.

    But, I think we were talking about news stories, not fiction.

    – GB

    Great Banana (aa0c92)

  22. GB I just wanted to reply to a couple of parts of your last

    You said:
    “Just b/c I think they deserve to be prosecuted and dealt with doesn’t mean I don’t “see the humanity” in them or realize that maybe they “made a mistake.” So, yes, those are liberal cliches that add nothing to any argument.”

    You’re right; that is a cliche. What I should have said is “journalists see the humanity LOST through the criminal justice system, and don’t believe the benefits gained are worth what is lost.”

    However, I could say that you saying “they deserve to be prosecuted and dealt with” is just a conservative cliche that adds nothing to any argument. Liberals think that lawbreakers should be “prosecuted and dealt with,” too, and you know it. We disagree on HOW they should be “prosecuted and dealth with.”

    You apparently believe either that the way criminal defendants are currently “prosecuted and dealth with” destroys less of their humanity (and ours) than liberals do, or you believe that what we gain from destroying said humanity is worth more than liberals do.

    Either way, though, you’re right that the focus shouldn’t be on the cliches, but on what is gained and lost by the particular policy.

    You also said:
    “It is always interesting to me that liberals run away from that title, but conservatives are proud to be called conservative. And, even more interesting to me, is that liberals always claim that conservatives aren’t really “conservative” in how they define conservative. I guess this tells us much more about where liberals believe the mainstream is then anything else.”

    I’d be interested in knowing where this experience comes from — what social circles do you frequent?

    “Liberal” and “conservative” are words that mean completely different things to different people. To some people, “liberal” is a short way of saying “communist, tree-spiking, anti-merit, anti-free-market, babykiller.” I’ve also been around groups where “conservative” is a nice, short way of saying “racist, fanatical-christian, profit-driven corporate destroyer of the earth.”

    I’ve defended myself against being labeled a liberal or a conservative, depending who I’m talking to. Because, of course, I don’t want to be stuck with either of the above shorthand labels.

    Phil (88ab5b)

  23. […] Phil, a commenter, former journalist, and current liberal, says in a comment to my post about Howard Dean’s thuggish threat to ABC’s broadcast license: On one hand, I agree that the very idea of censorship is anti-democratic. […]

    Patterico’s Pontifications » As Far As Phil Knows, Patterico Is a Hypocrite (421107)

  24. lodine…

    news…

    lodine (8bbdf3)


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