Our weekend post questioning defense attorney John Keker’s assertions of the innocence of client Dickie Scruggs (“prosecutors have concocted a ‘manufactured crime’ in which his client had no part”) drew a couple of comments from readers who saw Keker’s statements as no more than the zealous advocacy we should expect of a defense attorney. They’ve also been discussing the issue over at the WSJ law blog, where they quote defense attorney Benjamin Brafman’s rapidly disproved boast that his client Mel Weiss “will be fully exonerated,” as well as Monroe Freedman, the Hofstra legal ethicist and regular antipode of views expressed on this site, who
says that generally speaking, he doesn’t see problems with a lawyer making aggressive statements to the press in defense of his client. “We don’t know what the client told the lawyer when the lawyer made the statements,” he says. “We don’t know what Scruggs told his lawyer. We don’t know if Scruggs said I did it, but I want to fight it or something else entirely.”
George Sharswood’s Essay on Professional Responsibility, the standard American text on legal ethics before the modern period, contains the following assertion (pp. 99-100 of Google Books digitized version):
…no counsel can with propriety and good conscience express to court or jury his belief in the justice of his client’s cause, contrary to the fact. Indeed, the occasions are very rare in which he ought to throw the weight of his own private opinion into the scales in favor of the side he has espoused. If that opinion has been formed on a statement of facts not in evidence, it ought not to be heard — it would be illegal and improper in the tribunal to allow any force whatever to it; if on the evidence only, it is enough to show from that the legal and moral grounds on which such opinion rests.
It’s bad enough and sad enough to read the sorry story of the greed of tort-king “Dickie” Scruggs. The evidence and the transcripts was, of course, damning.
It was really nauseating, however, to read the absurd assertion by John Keker, his lawyer, that Mr. Scruggs was innocent and that the “prosecutors have concocted a ‘manufactured crime’ in which his client had no part” (“A Lawyer’s Trials: Tort King’s Path to Bribery Charge,” page one, March 14). So, according to Mr. Keker, the prosecutors could freely be accused of trying to frame an innocent man.
All Mr. Keker should have said was that his client had pleaded not guilty and that the matter would proceed to trial.
One assumed that when Mr. Keker made factual assertions he was accurately reporting what Mr. Scruggs had told him, since he presumably knew Mr. Scruggs’s side of the story through lengthy interviews under the protection of the attorney-client privilege.
Then we learned, a few hours later, that Mr. Scruggs was guilty all along. Either Mr. Keker knew this or he was ignorant.
Why lawyers in criminal-defense cases feel compelled to make factual assertions about their clients’ innocence, facts which they couldn’t possibly know, is beyond me.
Every day these lawyers appear on television and in the papers repeating the ridiculous alibis of their clients, not as their clients’ legal positions but as facts, only to be ultimately made foolish by a plea or a trial.
Innocent or guilty, a lawyer should retain his dignity and that of his client, if possible.
Felix M. Phillips
Attorney at Law
More: Discussion continues in this Tuesday post.
Some developments of the past ten days or so:
* In major blow to defense, Judge Biggers denies motions to suppress wiretap evidence and evidence of similar bad acts [Rossmiller]
* Balducci says he and Patterson got $500K from Scruggs to influence AG Hood to drop indictment of State Farm, motive being to advance civil settlement [Folo]
* Sen. Trent Lott says he’s a witness, not a target, of federal investigation [Anita Lee, Biloxi Sun-Herald]
* In effort to get Zack Scruggs indictment dismissed, his lawyers dwell on switch from “y’all” to “you” as implying shift in persons addressed from plural to singular [Folo first, second; Rossmiller first, second; on a “sweet potatoes” point, NMC @ Folo and sequel; also]
* DeLaughter/Peters branch of scandal reaches deep into Jackson legal community [Adam Lynch, Jackson Free Press]
* Article in new American Lawyer notes that Scruggs’s ambitious suits have lately hit a big losing streak, notably those against HMOs, nonprofit hospitals and Lehman Brothers [Susan Beck]. And Lotus catches an interestingly lawyerly wording on John Keker’s part [Folo]
* I’m quoted and this site is discussed in an article on blog coverage of the case; my lack of clarity as an interviewee probably accounts for Scruggs being said to have addressed audiences at the Manhattan Institute “a few” times, when if memory serves the correct reference is “twice”. [Patsy Brumfield, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo) @ Folo]