Thursday, October 13, 2011

Access to clients to film documentary while case is ongoing

Friend of the blog Alan Crede, of the Boston Personal Injury Lawyer Blog, has posted a very interesting comment on the very nature of our civil justice system, particularly on the fact that the system depends on the evaluation of evidence that is available to the jury while there may be other evidence that the jury never gets to see.  You can read his comment here.

As every lawyer and law student knows, our judicial system is not based on the search for the objective truth of the facts at issue but on the concern over protecting the due process of the process itself.  That is the nature of the adversary system.  The rules of evidence allow for the exclusion of evidence that might be relevant because the policies upon which those rules are based are more important to us than the possible benefit we'd get from the admissibility of that evidence.  This is obviously true in criminal cases, but it is not less true in civil cases.

In his comment, Alan wonders about a number of things including the fact that sometimes the most important evidence appears to be the evidence that is not available to the jury.  Most of the time, we don't realize this because in most cases that evidence is, simply, never disclosed.  But sometimes the general public gets to see evidence (through the media, for example) that the jury does not get to see.  And in many of those cases, the impression the public gets is different from that reflected by the jury's decision.

Some see this as a bad thing; others as a good thing.  It depends on what you think of the jury system and the policy behind the rules of evidence to begin with.  In fact, it depends on whether you believe the adversary system of judicial decision-making (at the trial level, at least) is a good idea.

Alan concludes that it is a mistake to overrate the capacities of our judiciary.  He warns that lawyers sometimes are blind to the system's faults and limitations because of a belief that the adversary system is "the greatest engine for the search for truth."  And when that happens "we fall prey to the idea that we can reach from the well of a courtroom to the pure reality of events that transpired outside of that courtroom."

All that aside, Alan asked me to comment on a slightly different aspect of the issue.

His comment was prompted by the documentary "Paradise Lost" about the "West Memphis Three" case during the filming of which the attorneys for the defendants allowed the filmmakers to have access to some of their conversations with their clients, and to interview the clients while the case was still ongoing.  Alan wants to know my take on the ethics of the defense team's allowing such unrestricted behind-the-scenes access.

There are several issues that come to mind. First, there is the issue of whether the lawyers were trying to "try the case in the media" rather than in the courtroom.  I don't think so, simply becasue the the documentary was not going to be ready before the end of the case.  The footage would only become available until after the case was over.  However, it can be argued that the lawyers were trying to build a record that could later be used to support an appeal.  That is possible, but it is not different from many other cases which generated documentaries - often to support the defense.

I think the more interesting question is whether it is improper to allow the filmmakers to follow the lawyers and clients as they prepared for trial not knowing in advance what was going to be shown in the final version of the documentary.  As long as the clients gave informed consent, I see that as a tactical decision that may or may not turn out to be a good decision down the line.  It is pretty risky, but I guess the lawyers felt strong enough something positive would come out of it.  The one thing the lawyers had to be careful about was disclosing confidential information "on the air" that they would not want broadcast later.

Lastly, of course, I can only assume the lawyers in this case did not have an agreement with the filmmakers to get a media deal since Rule 1.8(d) (some version of which has been adopted in most, if not all, states) says that "prior to the conclusion of representation of a client, a lawyer shall not make or negotiate an agreement giving the lawyer literary or media rights to a portrayal or account based in substantial part on information relating to the representation."

No comments: