Is it the responsibility of a defense attorney to do everything he or she can to try to win the case for his client? Are there any rules or guidelines within which a defense attorney is expected to operate, or does anything go -- regardless of the consequences?
These are the questions being asked today by a growing segment of the public who saw and heard the tactics of defense attorney Johnnie Cochran in his final appeal to the jurors in the O.J. Simpson murder case.
Law school faculty members undoubtedly have an answer as to the specific responsibilities of an attorney when defending his client. But where do the lines cross between what may be looked upon as being "reasonable" vs. what some may suggest are tactics designed to inflame and incite.
Is it more important to win a case, regardless of the consequences?
The past several days' news reports have told of Los Angeles law enforcement officials increasing their alertness relative to any troubles that might arise as a result of the Simpson trial and the eventual verdict.
President Clinton said, "I hope the American people will not let this become some symbol of the larger racial issue in our country."
One of Simpson's attorneys, after Cochran's appeal to the jury, said he hopes there will be a "peaceful resolution" to the Simpson trial and verdict. Is he worried about violence?
If Cochran didn't go over the line of what is proper and within reason, he came awfully close.
He told jurors they could right all the wrongs, or at least "change history," in this country by their decision on whether they find Simpson guilty of murdering Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.
He has shifted the focus of the trial from a murder case to one of racism.
The jury has been told that putting a stop to past racial injustices is more important than the facts of the case.
Cochran told jurors the Los Angeles police department is an evil force. He compared Detective Mark Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler. The public now knows Mark Fuhrman is a liar. There should be no place for anyone like him in law enforcement. He is a disgrace to the entire law enforcement profession.
Cochran, however, characterized the entire criminal justice system as liars willing to tolerate both racism and lies. He called the police department a "cesspool" and a "black hole."
And again, he told the jurors, "Maybe you're the right people, at the right time, at the right place to say no more."
Cochran's arguments and logic are like throwing gasoline on a fire. Racial tensions already are extreme in Los Angeles, and they are becoming more intense in many parts of the country. What kind of message is he sending to minorities throughout the country who may have troubles with law enforcement officials and the justice system when he tells them the entire criminal justice system is made up of liars willing to tolerate both racism and lies.
And, regardless of whether evidence shows Simpson was highly likely to have committed the murders, he told jurors they must do more than judge Simpson. They had to stop police racism and corruption everywhere, he said.
Maybe they teach this kind of thing in law schools. Maybe law professors think it is perfectly all right to say things in defending a client that could trigger major riots and outbreaks of lawlessness, IF it takes such tactics to win a case.
This may be perfectly in line within the law fraternity, but chances are good the public is getting its belly full of such tactics and the effect of such tactics, stunts and showboating to win a case. It is playing with fire!
Various attorneys, during the course of the Simpson trial, have been interviewed on many TV talk shows about how they think the trial is going, who is winning and who is losing. Occasionally the question is asked, "Do defense attorneys ever ask their clients, `Did you do it?''' Most attorneys said they didn't ever ask the question as it would hinder their ability to argue the case. None said that if they knew their client was guilty they would excuse themselves from the case. They said they had a duty and responsibility to defend their clients and gain their freedom, regardless.
One has to wonder if Cochran ever asked Simpson if he murdered his former wife and Goldman.
Cochran may be a brilliant attorney and he may win a victory for Simpson, but he has set the stage for all kinds of disrespect for this nation's judicial system. Does he care or is he merely intent on winning his case and in the meantime pocketing a handsome fee and increasing his visibility and ego.
It is a terribly unfortunate situation.
It's all water over the dam, but there are many questions for the second-guessers: Has Judge Ito handled the case properly or did he lose control of his courtroom? Should cameras have been barred from the courtroom? Why didn't Los Angeles police department officials handle every bit of evidence in the proper manner? And why, if Fuhrman had such a record of racism, wasn't he dismissed from the department years ago?
Lost in all of this, however, is the question of whether Simpson did indeed murder two people, and if he didn't, who did?