Question: What's the difference between a lawyer and a shark? Answer: Nothing.
Okay, look, right off the bat I want to say: I work with a lot of lawyers and I count many of them as good friends. But we've all heard the old jokes and let's face it; the public's general perception of lawyer's honesty and integrity is pretty rotten. The latest Harris poll on the subject puts attorneys way down at the bottom of the list with members of congress, car salesmen -- and, yes, journalists.
But since lawyers are the crux of our justice system I think it is important that we take a closer look at the way some of them operate. Why is it so many of us curl our upper lip at the very mention of dealing with a lawyer?
Maybe it's the sheer number of them these days. Maybe because we believe they make so much money on other people's misery. Or maybe it is that so many of us are forced to turn to lawyers these days to handle things that used to be settled with a hand-shake and someone's good word.
Despite what we see on TV in dramas like Law and Order and The Good Wife, most lawyering goes on in a stealthy way. It is done out of plain sight -- in board rooms and depositions, in front of secret grand juries or in the confines of a prosecutor's office. When engaged in their profession lawyers speak a different language than we do and they follow a set of rules most of us will never understood. It is human nature not to trust what we don't know or what we can't see or hold in our hands.
For the last six weeks I've been closely covering a capitol murder trial taking place in Orlando, Florida. And it struck me as I watched the defense lay out its presentation in the case of Florida vs. Casey Marie Anthony that there is another more basic reason why we think the way we do about lawyers.
They often destroy innocent people in the name of defending their clients.
Watching defense attorneys Jose Baez and Cheney Mason conduct their case on behalf of Ms. Anthony was painful. Of course, they have every right (and a duty) to do what they can to insure their client gets a fair trial, especially since she is facing a possible death sentence. But they do not have the right to vilify and destroy bystanders to the murder of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony. The scorched earth, take-no prisoners behavior should not be allowed.
During the defense's opening statement Baez promised the jury they would hear evidence that there was no murder and that the little girl had drowned in the family's back yard pool. He blamed Grandfather George Anthony for discarding her body. There has been no evidence presented to back up that claim.
Baez told the jurors that repeated sexual molestation of his client by both her father, George, and her brother, Lee had turned her into a trained liar who naturally kept secrets. He promised evidence to explain why his client let 31 days go by before finally admitting her daughter was gone. So far, the jurors have heard exactly the opposite-- clear denials that any sort of sexual abuse ever took place.
What the jury has actually heard is testimony from more than a dozen of Casey Anthony's friends and co-workers that showed she was a known liar and thief long before her daughter went missing.
Baez's opening statement also smeared the reputation of a man named Roy Kronk, a county meter reader who found Caylee's skeletonized remains in the woods 6 months after she was last seen. He reported the tiny child's skull was still wrapped in duct tape which had snarled in her long hair. The defense lawyer called Kronk a "morally corrupt individual" and promised evidence that would show he had stolen Caylee's remains after she drowned in the Anthony's backyard pool and waited for the reward money to grow. Kronk has come and gone from the witness box and no such evidence was presented against him.
I've highlighted the Casey Anthony case here but it is far from the only trial in which lawyers have made reckless claims on behalf of their clients leaving human despair in their wake. Believe me, it happens all the time in courthouses across the country.
The question for all of us -- including honorable lawyers who read this now -- is what do we as a society do with attorneys who deliberately demolish the reputation of others in their quest for their client's acquittal? If they make promises to a jury at the expense of others and don't follow through shouldn't there be some sort of penalty? If you or I repeatedly lied about important issues at our job wouldn't we face consequences?
Most other professions have a code of behavior. I submit that criminal defense attorneys should be held to one as well.
Diane Dimond can be reached through her web site: www.DianeDimond.com