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Kevin Spacey is Clarence Darrow: What We Can Learn From the “Attorney for the Damned”

June 27, 2017

  To be an effective criminal defense counsel, an attorney must be prepared to be demanding, outrageous, irreverent, blasphemous, a rogue, a renegade, and a hated, isolated, and lonely person – few love a spokesman for the despised and the damned. These words of Clarence Darrow (1857 – 1938), America’s most famous trial lawyer, transcend time.  The challenges Darrow confronted in and outside the courtroom over 100 years ago are the same for criminal defense attorneys today. Dubbed the “attorney for the damned,” Darrow represented the innocent and the depraved, the wealthy and the penniless, all the way defending each the same because he believed that every human life was worth saving.  His efforts helped spare 102 defendants the death penalty.  Darrow pleaded with judges and jurors that only by overcoming hate with love and by employing logic and reason instead of contempt and prejudice, could we hope to progress as a society and fulfill our human potential for greatness. Darrow did not claim to be righteous or wise; he was aware of his own misgivings, believing he, like all men, were capable of doing both well and ill.  He was agnostic, believing the fallibility of human knowledge prevented the certainty of God’s existence.  That said, his firm belief in human mortality and the indivisible nature of the human spirit fueled his relentless efforts to bring civilization to a higher level and distinguished his place in American history as a formidable champion for life. Just over a week ago, our team at Varghese & Associates had the privilege of experiencing Kevin Spacey bring Darrow’s story to life in a one-man show performed in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Tennis Center in Queens.  For 90 minutes, Spacey breathtakingly recounted some of Darrow’s most renowned cases and delivered bits from the great speeches Darrow used to win over the hearts and minds of juries, judges, and the public. Spacey first walked us through Darrow’s representation of Eugene V. Debs, arrested on conspiracy charges for organizing the American Railway Union strike in 1893.  Darrow delivered a pointed, principled description of the restrictive, oppressive nature of the conspiracy statute that unfortunately still holds true today: Conspiracy from the days of tyranny in England down to the day the railroads use it as a club, has been the favorite weapon of every tyrant. It is an effort to punish the crime of thought. If there are still any citizens interested in protecting human liberty, let them study the conspiracy laws of the United States which have grown until today no one’s liberty is safe…This is not the first time that evil men—men who are themselves criminals—have conspired to use the law for the purpose of bringing righteous ones to death or jail! Darrow said Debs’ case would be an historic one, serving as a reminder that the law, simply because it is written, is not necessarily just.  Darrow believed that citizens needed to fight to preserve liberty against those who would infringe upon it. Fighting to preserve liberty is the work of a criminal defense lawyer and so is the necessity of sometimes defending […]

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When the Villain Has a Badge

June 13, 2017

In the 1980s and 1990s, Louis Scarcella was the best homicide detective in New York City.  In an era demanding law enforcement to be tough on crime, Scarcella, well-dressed and charismatic, made a name for himself by solving some of the most high-profile murders.  Scarcella charmed witnesses and juries and easily secured confessions and convictions.  Scarcella was said to be able to get things the other detectives couldn’t.  In 1990, one of these investigations led Scarcella to David Ranta, who was convicted for shooting holocaust survivor and Hasidic rabbi, Chaskel Werzberger—Mr. Ranta got a life sentence.  At the time, no one stopped to consider whether his investigations were too good to be true.  After all, the Brooklyn DA’s office needed to demonstrate they were doing something about crime and Scarcella was serving them murderer after murderer on a shiny silver platter.  With each conviction, the DA was one step closer to appeasing the public panic brought about by the crack epidemic plaguing the streets of New York.   Twenty years later, public attitude has somewhat shifted as there has been some focus on wrongful convictions and a push to reform the criminal justice system.  In response, in 2011, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office under Charles Hynes established its “Conviction Integrity Unit” (CIU) to review potentially problematic cases.  Many questions had surfaced surrounding several of Scarcella’s cases and the DA’s office announced it would review over fifty cases in which Scarcella played a chief role in the conviction.  So far, seven of these convictions have been overturned.  Scarcella manipulated the investigations to fit his narrative and send his suspects to prison, guilty or not. In 2013, David Ranta, after 23 years in prison, became the first of the Scarcella defendants freed.  The Brooklyn DA’s office concluded that Scarcella’s investigation did not add up, that Ranta did not belong behind bars, and asked a judge to release him.  Multiple convictions were then overturned.  As it turned out, Scarcella coerced or falsified confessions, and bribed or blackmailed witnesses to lie on the stand.  Some of these defendants said Scarcella beat them until they signed a confession, others that he manufactured it altogether.  Witnesses reported they were threatened with perjury, jail, and even losing their children, if they did not say what Scarcella told them to say.  Notably, Scarcella also relied on the testimony of one crack-riddled prostitute, Teresa Gomez, as his star witness in at least four different murder trials. Mr. Ranta was convicted despite a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the murder; his conviction stemmed instead from witness accounts and a confession, all of which since appear to have been coerced or plainly falsified by Scarcella.  An eyewitness testified that he was told by a detective—Scarcella was the lead detective on the case—to pick the man with “the big nose” out of a lineup, with Ranta being the only one fitting that description.  Two other witnesses admitted to explicitly lying in exchange for clemency in their own unrelated cases, and said that Scarcella had even accommodated them by having them leave jail to smoke crack and have sex with prostitutes in exchange for their testimony.  Mr. Ranta himself steadfastly maintained that Scarcella […]

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A Face of Evil

June 1, 2017

Massachusetts forensic chemist, Annie Dookhan, played God to advance her career.  As she sat in her lab and deliberately mishandled drug samples, she determined the fate of over twenty thousand lives.  Dookhan carelessly and selfishly claimed to be “the best chemist on staff,” leaving little regard for the destruction she left in her wake.  Not only did she send innocent men and women to jail by tainting evidence—a gross injustice for which the Boston DA’s offices refuse to take responsibility—but, she also cost taxpayers millions of dollars to mop up the shattered pieces of the criminal justice system that she broke. Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and tampering with evidence.  She marked tests positive without properly testing them, mixed samples to create positive tests, and forged signatures to cover up inconsistent results.  Dookhan was known as Superwoman by her colleagues, yet that nickname couldn’t be further from what she turned out to be.  In the comics, Superwoman saved lives, Dookhan, however, destroyed the lives of over twenty thousand people. Shockingly, Dookhan was sentenced to only 3 years in prison, a sentence shorter than many sentences issued to the innocent people that were wrongfully convicted due to her complete neglect for human life and lack of respect for the criminal justice system.  Dookhan should have been punished with a sentence proportionate to the crimes she committed, yet she wasn’t. Although more than 20,000 cases, around 95%, of the 24,000 tainted by Dookhan have been dismissed, the Boston DA’s offices continue to defend the original convictions.  As quoted in The New York Times, a spokesman for one of the Boston DAs, Daniel Conley, claimed that these convictions were not wrongful, but were rather “cases that could be appealed on procedural grounds.” If the ACLU had not stepped in and filed a lawsuit, Bridgeman v. DA of Suffolk County, most of the “Dookhan defendants” wouldn’t have filed for post-conviction relief.  Before the suit, less than 1,200 of these defendants had filed for such relief. In its defense of this suit, the DA proclaimed that because most of the Dookhan defendants’ convictions resulted from guilty pleas, they were surely guilty of something and, therefore, to dismiss such a high volume of cases would lead to “chaos.”  The DA demonstrated a cavalier indifference to due process and insulted our criminal justice system, which is predicated on innocent until proven guilty.  The “chaos” of this situation does not stem from the rightful dismissal of these 20,000 cases, but is due instead to the deleterious effect that Dookhan’s ego had on the lives of these 20,000 wrongfully convicted individuals. The government, which has the power to strip people of their liberty, must be held to the highest standard of integrity.  Those who take advantage of their position should be punished to the degree of the damage they imposed.  Superwoman Dookhan, playing God, ruined 20,000 lives and should have been punished more severely and a contrite attitude by the DA would go a long way toward repairing the trust between the public and law enforcement.

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