Readers know that I am a criminal defense lawyer in Atlanta who handles lots of federal cases. Most folks also know that various prosecutors employ full-time press officers who put together a “press release” every time that something happens that the prosecutor hopes to see published. And most of us are so inundated and overwhelmed with information from so many sources that we have a hard time figuring out what is true and what is, to use the recently coined term, “fake news.” So, let me use a case in which I am involved to demonstrate how all this happens and how sometimes it is important for a lawyer to have his or her client’s side mentioned as part of all this publicity.
The local federal prosecutors have their website where they give out their “news,” such as announcing a new set of charges or that someone got convicted and sentenced. Here is a recent one announcing the guilty plea by my client. Note that it is a pretty straightforward account of the case and that my client has agreed to plead guilty. Now, what happens is that these “press releases” are obtained by various news organizations and internet news sites. Some newspapers and sites are devoted to legal news, and the reporters for these organizations tend to be very good and very well-aware that a press release is only one side of the story. For example, here is the story written by a reporter working for a well-respected local paper devoted to legal news which discusses this recent case involving my client. Note that this story is written by a reporter who not only read the prosecutor’s press release, she actually wanted to hear both sides and called me for my reaction, which is mentioned in the story.
The problem, of course, is that all of this works its way on to the internet. I have no problem with the dissemination of truthful and accurate information, that is a good thing. However, big problems happen when at the early phase of this process a prosecutor or reporter decides to cut corners. Some prosecutors do far more than issue a well-honed and accurate press release. Instead, these prosecutors say all sorts of incendiary things to reporters who lap it up like kittens at the milk bowl in order to publish a story with some juicy quotes. Then, less scrupulous internet sites further disseminate the inflammatory parts of the story, and subsequent readers only hear one side, a side that is frothing at the mouth (kind of mixing my metaphors with the kittens at the bowl, but you get the idea).
So, while I am not one of those attorneys who always wants to get quoted or put on TV or radio, on occasion I do feel it is worthwhile telling my client’s side of the story to a well-respected reporter who I know is trying to do an objective piece of journalism. I also feel that lawyers have an obligation to clear up stories that turned out differently than the way they were portrayed at the beginning of a case. We all know about cases where the press are all over the Defendant when she or he is arrested, and brought shamefully to the courthouse. However, what happens when that same person is later found “not guilty.” That happened to a client of mine a few years back, and after the verdict I called the TV reporter who had made such a big deal about the original charge. To his credit, the reporter did a full story announcing that the jury found my client not guilty. Unfortunately, too many reporters are not that upstanding, and the internet is used by people who are often less interested in the truth than their own point of view. In other words, be wary of what you read!