There’s certainly no shortage of opinions on how prosecutors should deal with the media. Officially, of course, they rarely comment on anything. But, really, there’s always some sort of relationship between reporters and the chief law enforcers.
Current and former prosecutors, defense attorneys, journalists and a law professor had a lively debate on the topic today during a panel discussion at Hastings College of the Law. The panel was part of the program on ABA standards for criminal litigation.
California Chief Assistant Attorney General Dane Gillette, once dubbed the “dean of the death penalty,” took a hard-line approach, saying prosecutors really shouldn’t talk about cases at all.
He relayed a story about working on a tight deadline just days before an execution in the early ‘90s, and how a slew of reporters had surrounded his building. Among the dozens of voicemails waiting on him while he and the other lawyers frantically worked on briefs was one from a reporter saying: “We know you’re in there. Come out and talk to us.”
Needless to say, that didn’t happen.
Other panelists offered opinions that were a little friendlier for us media folks. Paul Henderson, chief of administration at the San Francisco DA’s office, who has made a name for himself as a TV legal analyst, said it’s to prosecutors' own detriment that they don’t make an attempt to work with the press on the front end of cases. He said prosecutors who want good publicity after a big verdict or sentence should also “be prepared to answer questions at the beginning.”
McDermott Will & Emery’s Matthew Jacobs, who once was the spokesman (or “spokesmodel, as he likes to joke) for the Northern District U.S. attorney's office, talked about the benefit of at least returning calls.
Of course, no panel discussion would be complete without a video clip. Unfortunately for Arkansas, one that made the locals look, well, a bit too country, was used to illustrate the problems with pretrial publicity. Following the arrest of three youths in what’s now known as the West Memphis Three case, a reporter asked a police officer to rate the strength of the case on a scale of 1 to 10.
“Eleven,” the officer responded in his Arkie drawl. With that, said Riordan & Horgan’s Dennis Riordan, the case was basically “over.”