By Kendall Coffey, Prometheus Books, Amherst, N.Y. 404 pages, $26
Litigators love to tell war stories, and Miami attorney, Kendall Cofey is no exception. Coffey’s book, “Spinning the Law,” is not so much an account of his own extraordinary accomplishments in court, but a passing account of celebrity trials through the ages conducted by other lawyers, and how spin dramatically affected the proceeding. It is nothing new that a lawyer must have his unique bag of tricks. In the graveyard scene, Hamlet said to Horatio, “Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” Coffey argues that spin is just another weapon in the litigator’s arsenal.
Coffey’s premise, expressed in the opening sentence of his book, is generally accepted: “When attorneys spin, it’s about trying to win,” a snappy jingle reminiscent of Johnny Cochran’s closing mantra in the O.J. Simpson trial, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
What we have is a handbook, laced with well-known examples, for trying a high-profile case in the press. As Coffey puts it, “No one really knows the full extent to which a verdict from the court of public opinion might influence decisions inside the court of law.” Ignoring that this proposition is at odds with every conception of a fair trail based solely on the evidence adduced in the courtroom, Coffey argues that the modern advocate must try to win both verdicts for the client.
In vaunting his ability to engage in and recognize spin, Coffey skirts the pejorative implications often associated with the term. In public relations, the term spin generally “signifies a heavily biased portrayal.” Spin often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and highly manipulative tactics, which Coffey certainly would eschew.
The ways of spin include many of the odious tools used by Mussolini’s Ministry of Propaganda: cherry picking, i.e., selectively presenting facts and quotes that support ideal positions (thus possibly lying by omission); using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response; obfuscation such as the so-called “non-denial denial”; phrasing that in a way presumes unproven truths; euphemisms for drawing attention away from items considered distasteful; and ambiguity in public statements. That is why judges instruct juries to avoid media accounts of the case, which in our time must include posts on Twitter and Facebook.
But Coffey argues that if prosecutors announce on the courthouse steps damning indictments, laced with lush tidbits of the proof they hope to present, shouldn’t defense lawyers inform the community through the media of the mitigating circumstances or the exculpatory evidence? After all, there are two sides to every story. They will probably dig it up anyway, and what the defense puts out may be more coherent. If spin is used judiciously and lawfully, it can make a tremendous difference to the client in court or, perhaps just as importantly, in the real world where reputations reign supreme. Coffey knows whereof he speaks. He has appeared repeatedly as a savvy media analyst of high-profile cases on the Today show, Good Morning America, Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Headline News and many other of the usual suspects. He is plainly fascinated by the media and makes the case that the skills of the advocate and the spin-doctor are very much interrelated.
Coffey’s fascination is with trials of intense public interest. Every case is important to the litigants and to society, but it is to the high profile case that Coffey is drawn. Scaling the rock across the pond, he begins with a fraud trial in which he participated, involving the election of the Miami mayor. He then takes us on a promenade through history in which he explores the role of spin in the trials of Socrates and Joan of Arc.
Other cases he discusses are the media trials of the century: the Lindbergh kidnapping case where the press concealed movie cameras in the courtroom as a work-around to the trial court’s ruling barring cameras, and the O.J. Simpson trial where the judge ordered gavel-to-gavel coverage on national television. Could we ever forget Judge Ito? Coffey also relates his own experiences in the Elian Gonzalez custody case and speculates on the controversy’s effect in Florida on the 2000 Bush/Gore presidential contest.
Coffey serves up a hearty stew of some of the most publicized cases of recent times, those of Michael Jackson (acquittal), Kobe Bryant (prosecutor dropped case after it was abandoned by complaining witness), Martha Stewart (conviction), Scott Peterson (conviction), Gordon “Scooter” Libby (conviction), and impeached former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (conviction on one of 24 counts).
This is an entertaining and interesting book if for no other reason than to take us down the memory lane of famous trials of our era. What Coffey points out is that in the high profile case the advocate must also consider the verdict of history, and must try to influence that verdict outside, as well as inside, the courtroom.
As Judge Pierre Leval stated in the Westmoreland libel case, “Judgments of history are too subtle and too complex to be satisfied with a verdict. It may be for the best that the verdict will be left to history.”
James D. Zirin is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He is the host of the cable TV talk show, “Digital Age.”