Nancy Grace started her career as a special prosecutor with a perfect court record. She became famous as a legal analyst for her sharp commentaries on high-profile trials. Now the Court TV anchor brings behind-the-scenes insight and her signature in-your-face style to the pages of her new book, "Objection!: How High-Priced Defense Attorneys, Celebrity Defendants, and a 24/7 Media Have Hijacked Our Criminal Justice System." Here's an excerpt:
“I was just doing my job.” That’s the tired excuse offered up by every defense attorney whenever they’re asked how they do what they do — how they pull the wool over jurors’ eyes to make sure the repeat offender they’re defending walks free. I’ll never know how they can look in the mirror when their client goes out and commits yet another crime, causing more suffering to innocent victims. I’ve heard, “I’m just doing my job — it’s in the Constitution,” too many times to count. Just doing their jobs. They make it sound like they’re making doughnuts, drawing the yellow line down the street with a spray gun, or manning a toll booth on the freeway, nothing personal, just doing their jobs. In response, I agree with Dickens: “If that’s the law, then the law is an ass.”
That same tired excuse has been used to explain away wrongdoing throughout history. Everyone from the repo-guy to the utility worker who cuts off electricity to the needy to the parking-lot attendant who won’t refund your quarters after you lose them in a broken meter to banks who foreclose on Christmas ... they all work the same excuse. They’re all just doing their jobs. When it comes to defense attorneys singing the same chorus, I don’t buy it. Justice is not “just a job.” The duty of a jury is to render a true verdict, a verdict that speaks the truth. How is that attainable when the “job” of defense attorneys is to use every means possible to get their clients acquitted — regardless of the truth?
The 2002 murder trial of David Westerfield, found guilty of kidnapping and murdering his seven-year-old neighbor, Danielle van Dam, is one of the most horrifying examples of the true business of being a defense attorney. The minute her disappearance was made public, there was an intense, massive, and frantic search involving hundreds of volunteers, all desperately working around the clock to find any trace of this beautiful girl. They combed the hillsides, the brush, the canyons, and the creeks near the van Dams’ San Diego home. Danielle’s parents, Damon and Brenda van Dam, were completely distraught.
Brenda appeared on television over and over, begging for her daughter’s return. Her face was swollen from crying, her eyes were raw and red. While this was going on, Westerfield’s defense lawyer, Steven Feldman, was trying his best to bargain with prosecutors — to cut a plea deal. Feldman knew Westerfield had only one bargaining chip, the location of Danielle’s body. In exchange for life behind bars as opposed to death by lethal injection as dictated by California law, Westerfield would give up the location of the little girl’s remains.
Knowing full well his client was a child killer, Feldman went into open court to launch a defense that consisted of dragging the seven-year-old victim’s parents through the mud, ruining their reputations within the community, and revealing to the jury and the world that the couple had once been swingers. The defense boldly claimed the van Dams had unwittingly introduced a sexual predator into their own home. Knowing it wasn’t true, Feldman argued someone else had killed Danielle — some predator linked to her parents. Nothing could be further from the truth. The predator was David Westerfield.
Feldman also chose to twist science itself to prove a series of lies to the jury. He produced a forensic entomologist to tell the jury that the larvae (maggots) on this beautiful child’s body were of such an age as to preclude Westerfield from suspicion. He reasoned that the larvae were hatched on the body at a time when Westerfield was already under tight surveillance by police, and therefore he could not possibly be the killer who disposed of the child’s body.
The argument was incredibly scientific and innovative — but hardly original. Turns out Feldman had used the exact same defense and the exact same “expert” in another murder trial and snagged an acquittal because of it. The second time around, it wasn’t creative, innovative, or clever, just tired and rehearsed. Most important, the defense didn’t fit the facts of the case or the truth.
I am sick at heart that an officer of the court concocted that defense while knowing the whole time his own client knew where Danielle was hidden. Feldman is a veteran trial lawyer and under the law is entitled to put on the best case he can on behalf of his client. Still, it’s so disheartening that juries are hoodwinked every day by defense lawyers just “doing their jobs.” Our adversarial system allows it — in fact, encourages it. They get paid tons of money to do it. Successful defense attorneys are idolized, treated like rock stars.
And hey, they’re just doing their jobs.
“The Dark Side”
Lewis R. Slaton was the elected district attorney of Fulton County in inner-city Atlanta, where I tried cases for ten years. He was like a grandfather to me, and when he announced he was retiring after thirty-seven years in office, I was shocked. I went to his office and begged him to serve another term. I said the public — and, most important, the city’s crime victims — needed him. But he was well into his seventies and wanted to spend his remaining years with his wife and say good-bye to the courthouse. What could I say? I walked from his office with my head reeling, not knowing what I would do. I knew that the newly elected district attorney would likely fire all the top litigators left over from Slaton’s administration, as is the custom, and I would be left with the alternative every veteran prosecutor faces at some point: being out of a job and considering the “dark side” — defense work.
I hadn’t gone to law school to do slip-and-falls, write wills, or do real estate closings. After my fiancé’s murder, I abandoned my plan to teach college literature and entered law school specifically to help other crime victims — to try to do right. All I knew, all I wanted, and all I loved, was criminal prosecution and victims’ rights. In court, I was finally home.
When Slaton’s announcement was made public, I discovered a myriad of job possibilities to consider — all for a lot of money to boot. Unsolicited offers from criminal-defense firms started pouring in. The salaries thrown my way were more than I had ever dreamed of. If I took a defense job, I could say good-bye to my second (and third) jobs, exchange my car with the smoking engine for one that actually ran every day, and stop shopping exclusively at Marshalls and Kmart. But from the get-go, it was wrong. All wrong.
I accepted that as soon as the newly elected district attorney fired me, I’d rather teach law school than be a defense lawyer. I sent out my résumé to local colleges and universities and hoped for the best. Then, out of the blue, came Court TV, which gave me a platform to speak out on behalf of victims’ rights. After an entire career as a public servant, a trial lawyer, I packed up and headed to New York.
There was no way I could ever stand in front of a jury and use the knowledge and talents God gave me to “just do my job.” No way. I knew that if I ever did, I’d look in the mirror every morning and see Keith’s blue eyes looking back at me.
Excerpted from “Objection!: How High-Priced Defense Attorneys, Celebrity Defendants, and a 24/7 Media Have Hijacked Our Criminal Justice System,” by Diane Clehane and Nancy Grace. Copyright © 2005 by Diane Clehane and Nancy Grace. Published by Hyperion books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.