Nonfiction

Defense attorneys have their say in ‘Mistrial’

 

In Mistrial, two prominent criminal defense attorneys, Mark Geragos and Pat Harris, argue that the American judicial system has undergone a fundamental change in the last 30 years, and not for the better. The pair, whose high-profile clients have included Michael Jackson, Chris Brown and Winona Ryder, argue convincingly that the public lacks a proper understanding of what defense lawyers do and why they do it. They blame this failure on the “tough on crime” movement and on celebrity court television, both of which prime the public to convict rather than acquit.

Instead of heightening respect for honest and wise defense counsel (think Atticus Finch), programs like Law and Orde r and legal commentators on cable TV news shows shape public opinion by depicting defense lawyers as arrogant and greedy.

Geragos and Harris call for a rebalancing of the scales of justice. “Defense attorneys need to do what we do best — fight back,” they say. Chapter by chapter, they do just that, and the media are not the only ones in their crosshairs. Other targets include overzealous prosecutors with win-at-all-cost attitudes, timid judges who are more concerned about reelection than fair trials, and dishonest police officers.

From self-important stars who presume that their celebrity alone entitles them to pro-bono representation, to the authors’ interactions with wife-killer Scott Peterson, the book has no shortage of gossipy, little-known moments. The authors pull no punches. “You don’t become a defense attorney to win Miss Congeniality,” says Geragos. They describe TV commentator Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor, as “an actress playing a role … who propagates untruths. … Before long, her story become a truism that is repeated by the media throughout a trial.

Although Mistrial is a self-serving brief for criminal defense attorneys, it is also an interesting, if jaundiced, view of the judicial system. The authors admonish the reader to stay true, even in this age of media hype, to the fundamental American principle that we are all innocent until proven guilty.

Megan McDonough reviewed this book for the Washington Post.

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