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Spinning the Law
Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion
By Kendell Coffey
Prometheus Books
HC, 404 pgs. US$26
ISBN: 1-6161-4210-3

Trying cases in the other court

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 4, 2011

Spinning the lawIn school Americans were taught to view the legal system as the personification of Lady Justice, the blindfolded, sword and scale wielding Roman goddess, assuring all of a fair and moral trial. The reality – at least for those without any personal experience as a defendant – mostly likely see it as more O.J. Simpson slow motion car chase, press conferences, pundits and CSI or Law & Order. Despite long tradition and the best efforts of some, the variable of public opinion has become established in the calculus that both prosecutors and defence attorneys must take into account in their work, particularly when it comes to high profile cases.

That point is driven home in Kendall Coffey's fascinating Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion – part how-to guide, part case study in the effect that public opinion is having on the American legal system. Coffey's name will likely be familiar to many as both a representative of Elian Gonzalez and his family in Miami and as a part of Al Gore's legal team during the 2000 election controversy. With a past which includes time as both a US Attorney and private practice, Coffey is well-placed to explore the intersection – or rather collision – of the law and public opinion.

As Coffey points out, spinning is hardly a recent innovation. In previous "trials of the century" which included both Socrates and Joan of Arc, prosecutors and defenders always spared some time for convincing the public about the rightness of their cause in addition to the jury. It is modern times, however, with its wealth of communications abilities that has seen spin explode from historical justification to battleground tactic. A prime example was Coffey's involvement in the controversy over the 1997 Miami mayoral election which witnessed massive fraud and the defeat of incumbent Joe Carollo. Taking on the case for Carollo, Coffey received an education in how important public opinion was – particularly for the Spanish-speaking community in that city – and integrated it into his ultimately successful legal campaign to have the election results overturned.

The Bible states that fear of the Lord is beginning of all knowledge but it was likely the 1994-95 O.J. Simpson saga that woke the average American to the role the media was playing in the court system. Seeking to influence potential jurors, both sides made extensive use of the media with leaks and overt announcements. Thanks to the media attorneys on both sides become celebrities and provided new tools for attorneys to fight their cases both in and out of the courtroom. It was likely the first time that many Americans had watched a court case from beginning to end and it was the sort of education that traditionalists probably despaired. Rather than a sober exercise to determine a man's guilt, Americans saw a judge playing to the cameras, attorneys as celebrities and witnesses that were more comedian then reliable.

From there Coffey examines other more recent cases including those of Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson and Rod Blagojevich. In addition to legal defences, all also saw the defendants execute media strategies as well – to relative degrees of success. Martha Stewart was lauded for her wily use of the media, and though she was convicted her post-prison career carried on much as before. Michael Jackson, on the other hand, was acquitted of his charges but his career never recovered from allegations of inappropriate contact with boys. The common theme for all, however, was that the media was relentless in its coverage and the court of public opinion in one way or another either convicted or absolved them of their crimes.

Possibly the most interesting portion of Spinning the Law is Coffey's final chapter which he dubs as "A Media Primer for Spinners". Along with advice for attorneys is a brief exploration of how the Internet and social media is beginning to impact the courtroom – including worrisome examples of jurors tweeting about the trials they're sitting on, investigating the case on their own through online resources and the covert use of blogs by lawyers to attack their opponents or promote their strategies. The future has arrived and it appears that the court system is unable to react quickly enough for the changing media landscape.

A cynic could argue that Spinning the Law is itself spin designed to promote Randal Coffey. Perhaps, but it is also a hugely entertaining and informative exploration of how the American court system is being influenced by the media and public opinion, all the while the system assures us that it remains aloof from such base pressures. Along with that education, Coffey has also hopefully armed the average American to more closely examine the next high-profile case and more critically weigh the pronouncements coming from both sides. After all, if a court of public opinion is to function successfully it must weigh all the facts. ESR

Steven Martinovich is the editor and founder of Enter Stage Right.

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