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How do I speak for a frustrated, lonely widow?

Do you remember Imelda Marcos? She does not get a lot of press in the United States these days, but is still alive. She was making headlines in the Philippines just last year.

Marcos and her husband, Ferdinand, ruled the Philippines for twenty-one years.  According to some reports, the couple was responsible for imprisoning, torturing, and killing thousands of their opponents.

Yet, many of us remember Ms. Marcos simply for her excesses, especially her reported collection of 3000 pairs of shoes.

Actually, the United States government indicted Ms. Marcos "for the alleged plunder of millions of dollars from the Philippine treasury." The prosecution centered around allegations that she transferred that ill-gotten money to buy commercial buildings in Manhattan, thereby defrauding banking institutions to finance the purchases.

The Associated Press uncovered an internal Justice Department document that claimed United States Attorney Rudolph Giuliani “guaranteed” a successful prosecution.

Famed trial lawyer Gerry Spence represented Ms. Marcos and responded to the relentless publicity by commenting on her relationships with U.S. presidents and humanizing her.

″Now suddenly these people become the enemies of this nation when it’s convenient and useful to do so[.]″

″There couldn’t be a more frustrated and lonely person in the world than a widow who’s been charged with racketeering, not only by her own government, but by the government of the United States of America,″ he said earlier in an interview in the Jackson Hole News of Wyoming. ″She’s a helpless widow without many friends. I want to be her friend. I want to represent her.″

(AP News, Racketeering Case Against Imelda Marcos Goes to Trial This Week, Vera Heller, March 17, 1990.)

A federal jury in New York acquitted Ms. Marcos in 1990.

Giuliani has been in the press this week for different reasons. I don't need to pile on his problems, but that publicity reminded me of the Marcos' trial and Gerry's quote.

Navigating the press and dealing with publicity are among the most difficult obligations of any defense lawyer.

Being accused of serious crimes or professional misconduct is demoralizing. Any news coverage announcing an accusation is negative by definition. It's bad enough to be consumed with your own problems but humiliating and overwhelming to know that you have become the focus of your neighbors' attention.

Our clients almost always want us to respond.

I find navigating the press and responding to publicity among the most perplexing obligations of any high-profile representation. After years of studying famous cases, the lawyers involved, and their methods of dealing with publicity, I remain uncertain about the best approach.

After that study and some practice, I am sure of a couple things:

  1. The primary reason lawyers give for speaking to the press on the record is that responding is important to balance the coverage and defend our client's reputation publicly.
  2. The primary reason many lawyers talk to the press is that responding is important to building the lawyer's public reputation.
Now, I am not cynical about lawyers. Nor am I dismissive of our obligations to help our clients' navigate publicity. But, I do think the process requires a great deal more introspection than some may practice.

I consider the following preliminary questions helpful:

How important is my client's reputation to his future? 

Let's face it, that answer is not the same for everyone. Former Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives Joe Hackney once told me "there are a whole lot of ways to make people forget over time." That may be true, but the higher the profile of the personality, the longer it takes.

Are the consequences of losing the case greater than losing the battle over a person's reputation?

Years ago, I tried a high profile murder case in Durham. The press was relentless. Although we spoke to the reporters daily, we refused interviews or quotes for the record. (See number 3) The trial ended in a hung jury.

To this day, true crime shows broadcast stories about the trial, which are painful for my client and damaging to his reputation.

But, my client lives, works, and raises his son in another state. He would not trade that freedom for any amount of favorable reporting.

Can anything I say in public help?

I know many lawyers will disagree, but usually I conclude the answer is no.

That's not to say I don't talk to the press or make sure reporters are aware of important developments in the case.

But, my public comments are not going to balance the coverage or change the narrative very often.

I can list cases where that strategy would have been wrong, such as Duke Lacrosse. But those cases had more to do with the subjects involved, the facts of the cases, and the skills of their lawyers than any generalized approach.

I am certain of one thing. Ignoring publicity is never a legitimate strategy. 

We have to consider its impact to our clients' defenses, their reputations, their emotional well-being, and their futures.

We just might choose not to do so on "Dateline."

We are criminal trial lawyers. We represent people accused of criminal offenses who risk losing everything. We work to get them their best results and back to leading productive lives.

Call if you need us, or if you just want to say hello.


P.S. The Tour de France begins tomorrow.

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