Sunday, October 31, 2004

Ballroom full of lawyers


Someone heard a “ballroom full of lawyers” laugh the other day and decided that it could only characterize an instant dismissal of the seriousness of the occasion. Yes, laughter is usually associated with a comedic atmosphere but you have to consider “the laughers” for what they really are. Steve Ford didn’t consider that trial lawyers (most of the laughers were in fact lawyers) in some ways often resemble hyenas. Hyenas are usually associated with being scavengers but they are completely capable of predatory behaviors, even with their own kind. The sounds that hyenas make are often mistaken for laughter, but make no mistake about it, when they start circling a carcass (or something soon to be dead), they aren’t really laughing and many take equal joy in the spoils (living or dead) for as long as they aren’t the meal. Ford didn’t share that observation with readers because it is beyond his imagination. I suppose that the fact that his wife is a trial lawyer has nothing at all to do with that too. Another thing to consider is that every animal (hyena or lawyer) has his place in the food chain. It's understood that each serves it's own unique purpose, so "hyena" is not meant to evoke disrespect for them. They are what they are, they can't help it. One can't argue with what lawyers are. As in any profession, there are many good ones and others many agree need "a good spanking".

One shortsighted observation usually deserves another and Ford didn’t let readers down in that respect. Ford can’t “let go of Gell” and attacked the North Carolina Bar Association or persons entrusted to discipline lawyers for bad performance. It’s an easy guess that this pattern (and associated revenue stream?) will continue.

No one knows better than Debra Graves and David Hoke about their personal knowledge (or what they didn’t know) of case files or about the murder of Allen Ray Jenkins in Gell’s first trial. They’ve claimed to not know about all of the withheld evidence. Ford isn’t buying it. Maybe some other folks aren’t either. One can’t argue with the fact that this disagreement has resulted in continuous employment for a number of N&O reporters and columnists and that uncertainty and doom trigger ratings and revenue. Gell has been used as a prop for persons who oppose capital punishment.

Hoke and Graves (to their credit) have not disputed that the evidence in question was withheld from defense attorneys in the first trial. Had they known about the existence of it, it’s possible that their prosecution strategy would have been different too. Some might even wonder if the case would have even gone to trial a first time. That kind of speculation is only possible if you acknowledge what they have said and accept that they weren’t aware of the conflicting evidence.

To conclude that some kind of conspiracy was concocted solely for the purposes of securing a conviction would be “just plain stupid”. It contradicts what has already been reported. If Hoke and Graves were really trying to get a conviction “at all costs”, they wouldn’t have left exculpatory evidence in the Gell case files. Evidence that might have conflicted with the verdict would have “disappeared”. But it didn’t.

Obviously, Steve Ford and some other persons are clairvoyants. These skeptics (or mystics) seem to know more about what Hoke and Graves knew prior to the end of the first trial. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Bar had to make a decision on disciplinary action based on evidence, testimony, logic and facts (not clairvoyance). Ultimately, no one (not even Ford) could prove that Hoke and Graves lied about the prosecution of Gell.

It’s doubtful that skeptics (like Ford) will ever be silenced. The thought that what some persons now call a wrongful conviction may have resulted in an actual improvement to the judicial process is too much for them to handle. Forget mentioning that new laws have since been enacted to require full disclosure of evidence before trial (not after).

Don’t be fooled by Ford’s digressions into thinking that the hearing concerning Hoke and Graves’ performance was anything about what happened (or might have happened) to Gell. It was all about their performance (or lack of it) as lawyers. In the strictest sense of what the Bar was considering that day, they were not concerned about Gell at all. They were there to address a performance issue (at trial) with two of its lawyers. Ford knows this was not the forum for Gell to “play victim”, but he played that card in his column. Gell’s presence at the occasion was expected and by all rights, he should have been there. If no one asked what the personal consequences of the first trial were for Gell, it was not because they didn’t care. It’s worth mentioning that all persons involved in the disciplinary action understand that the case was initially a capital one (some facts are now self evident). It’s also worth mentioning that some persons in the media have almost forgotten about the Jenkins family and what they deserve in terms of justice. The real victim is in a grave.

It’s entirely possible that Hoke and Graves did their job to the best of their knowledge and provided a zealous prosecution (to a fault). They missed the exculpatory information in their own review of the evidence (and admit as much). Appellate review resulted in extra eyes and understanding of the case, and resulted in a second trial (as it should have).

It’s a shame that the folks at the News and Observer haven’t put as much effort into other cases that resulted in early or wrongful releases of known predators. They haven’t looked more closely into who actually murdered Allen Ray Jenkins, have they? That could mean that a case might be closed, Lady Justice might be satisfied, and revenues (and gloom and doom effect) would be reduced. Wise readers probably shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for a conviction on the Jenkins (not Gell) case, should they? One might as well ask when the killer of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson will be convicted.

Yes, some persons will look at recent events and snort and giggle. To some extent, this amounts to unbecoming or disrespectful conduct (as lawyers, columnists or citizens at large) concerning the decisions leaders make on important issues, one must be prepared to live with it (and learn to love it). Ford and other persons who disagree (or giggle) with the Bar are entitled to their opinions, but if they cannot accept that the buck has to actually stop somewhere (or nothing gets done on any case), perhaps they should consider a different kind of employment (where life is more black and white and all of their issues will be more simple). If the issue has been turned into a “fiasco” they have only themselves to blame. One could just as easily conclude that the abuse of power is occurring at a more public bully pulpit (a.k.a. Raleigh News and Observer?).

The next week’s (election) decisions will require us all to separate such wheat from the chaff. Maybe that’s the real agenda of the N&O, to support the election of candidates that loathe or disrespect the system (along with them)? Or perhaps folks at the N&O will refer to this court case as “The Jenkins Case” (which is still unresolved)? Jenkins happens to be the name of the real victim(s). That family and their loss should not be forgotten.

Yes, the prosecutor’s said “My bad” and they’ve accepted the shame and ridicule (and warning from the Bar) that goes along with it. They've been publicly "spanked". Changes have been made to the process to prevent such things from happening again too. Don’t expect to read much more about it in the N&O or from Steve Ford (unless they find fault with it).