Representing Celebrities in High Profile Criminal Cases
Representing celebrity clients who have been arrested requires a special set of skills, knowledge, and experience. Lawyers who defend the icons of American cinema, television, music, and sports will face problems that do not arise in the normal course of civil or criminal legal proceedings. The far-reaching implications of a celebrity arrest are often more significant than for a person whose life is lived out of the spotlight. Ongoing negative publicity can devastate even the most famous celebrities. The task of the celebrity’s criminal defense lawyer is not only to fight for a good result in court, but also to protect the client’s ability to keep performing in the public eye.
Transactional Lawyers Should Know Some Criminal Law Basics
The celebrity client’s transactional lawyer, may never set foot in a courtroom, but if she is primed for the unexpected 3 a.m. jail house phone call from her client, she can save her client a tremendous amount of hardship. Even a simple arrest can have long lasting effects on a celebrity’s career. The transactional lawyer can minimize damage to the client by alerting the client, in advance, to the many landmines that might result from an arrest.
The transactional lawyer might consider having an experienced criminal defense lawyer meet with some of her more “impulsive” clients about what to do in certain circumstances. While this might seem unduly pessimistic, it is standard protocol for college and professional sports teams. If a client has previously met with a criminal defense lawyer, after an arrest he might make a well-informed decision, such as whether to speak to the police or to provide a blood sample, that could be career-saving.
DUI’s, Domestic Abuse, and Sex Crimes
If a celebrity client gets stopped for driving under the influence, the celebrity might not know which blood alcohol test to take or the ramifications of refusing to take such a test. Or, if the celebrity client gets arrested and decides to call his wife from jail to tell her how sorry he is that he gave her a shiner, he should know in advance that the call will probably be monitored and tape recorded, and that this evidence can be used in court or even released to the media.
In many cases where the alleged victim knows the defendant, especially in a sexual assault case, a common investigative technique is the pretext phone call. The alleged victim calls the suspect on the pretext of telling him how upset she is, in hopes that the suspect apologizes, admits to various acts, or at the very least, fails to strenuously deny her accusations. The police are listening to and recording the conversation, and if a client is caught off guard his responses can be very incriminating. Such evidence is admissible in court and can be devastating, even if the defendant remains silent in the face of such allegations. Advanced warning of police tactics could save the client a great deal of embarrassment and years of incarceration.
Celebrity clients should also have advanced knowledge of the implications of sex crimes with minors. A conviction for having sex with a minor normally results in lengthy prison sentences and mandatory lifetime sex registration. As a result, wherever the client lives, he will have to report to the local police department that he is a registered sex offender. The client may get unwelcomed visits from the police whenever there is a sex crime in the neighborhood or a sexual assault suspect matching your client’s general description.. If the client is a pop star who likes young girls, perhaps a strong warning might cause him to check the girl’s age on her driver’s license before getting too involved.
The transactional lawyer should also be familiar with the process of posting bail, which might be critical in the middle of the night before being able to retain a criminal defense attorney. There are circumstances where the media are racing to get the first images of the client leaving the police station before the bondsman can whisk him out the back door of the jail. Advanced knowledge of the bail process is important in controlling the media’s exploitation of events.
A bail bondsman will charge anywhere from 7 to 10% of the bail amount as his premium. As soon as the client is released from custody, the premium belongs to the bondsman regardless of what happens with the case. He will often insist on collateral, which is property or possessions with a value equal to, or greater than, the bail amount. If the client fails to come to court, the court will forfeit the bail and allow the bondsman to sell the property in order to recoup the cost of the forfeited bond. Often, an experienced criminal defense lawyer will have established relationships with bondsmen who will charge lower premiums to the clients of lawyers with whom they have working relationships.
When friends or family of the defendant have sufficient cash to cover the entire bail, they can take that money, in the form of a cashier’s check or money order, to the jail and the client will be released. Posting an all cash bond eliminates the premium and ensures that at the end of the case, if the client has made all of his court appearances, the entire bail will be refunded to the person who posted the bail.
Six Steps to Success
Step 1 – The Client
Before the criminal defense attorney begins to search for the narrowest of legal windows for her client to fit through, she must first deal with potentially the greatest obstacle, the client himself.
The public often adores celebrities, who, in turn, are used to being loved and revered. Unfortunately, when the prosecution alleges that the celebrity client has run over a person and left the scene, or been caught with a controlled substance, the celebrity may be experiencing a first encounter with the legal system which does not give him favored treatment. Many celebrities are not used to other people, especially authority figures, telling them what to do. Behavior that works when making a film or captivating an audience on stage does not normally succeed with the police, judge, or prosecutor.
The attorney should gently help her celebrity client to understand that, while she respects his artistic talents, he needs to appreciate that every representative of the judicial process must be taken seriously and treated with respect. As any manager or agent can attest, staying on the happy side of a celebrity client isn’t always an easy task. This is particularly difficult when a celebrity, who is used to the best of everything, is sitting in a jail cell next to a guy gnawing on a cheese sandwich and asking if he can get backstage passes to the client’s next concert.
At the first meeting with the client following his arrest, the criminal defense attorney needs to make sure that the client knows that the script he will be following allows no room for improvisation and isn’t likely to be a comedy. Above all else, the celebrity needs to be very clear about the dangers of digging himself a deeper hole.
If the defense lawyer is able to speak with her client before the police, she should advise him not to make any statements without first consulting with counsel. It may turn out that the lawyer will allow him to speak with the police, but this decision should be made only after consulting with her and making sure that the appropriate safeguards are in place. For example, she may allow the client to talk, but might first insist on reviewing discovery, or might insist that the conversation be recorded in order to ensure accuracy. No matter what protections are put in place, the lawyer should always be present to make sure the client’s rights are protected. The client may be respected in the entertainment field, but in most cases he is an amateur when it comes to being arrested and understanding all the implications of his arrest.
If the client is in custody, the lawyer needs to speak with those in charge of the jail in order to ensure that the client is adequately protected from other inmates. Most jails have special areas for those who need to be separated for their own protection. A jailer who doesn’t recognize your client, may not be aware of his need to be segregated from the rest of the jail population.
Step 2 – The Team
Representing a celebrity in a high profile criminal prosecution often requires a team of professionals, not just lawyers. Although the transactional lawyer will rarely represent the client in the criminal case, she will be called on to assess the impact of the criminal proceedings on contracts the client may have for performances or endorsements. Additionally, most clients have agents and/or managers who will want to be involved in the decision making process because it affects the marketability of the client. Finally, the management team for a celebrity often hires a crisis public relations consultant to help the lawyer and client control the flow of information to the media.
A crisis public relations consultant can be invaluable in spinning the news and portraying the client in the best possible light. Establishing a relationship with an established crisis public relations firm is a good practice, especially when the transactional lawyer knows that her client is inclined to act impulsively.
When representing a celebrity in a high profile criminal case, the lawyer must keep in mind not only the disposition of the case, but also the publics perception of the disposition. For example, a client who is arrested for a shocking offense, such as child molestation, might ultimately be exonerated, yet still suffer a fatal blow to his career because of the
arrest. Thus, having a skilled crisis public relations consultant who keeps a watchful eye on news coverage helps to ensure that the client isn’t winning the case in court, but losing in the court of public opinion.
Everyone on the team needs to be on the same page, to dispense with his or her egos and personal agendas, and to work for the betterment of the client. The criminal defense lawyer must be in charge of the case, not the client’s mother, wife, or manager. Nevertheless, the lawyer must be aware of how many people depend on the client and should be sensitive to the fact that their livelihoods may depend on a successful outcome to the criminal case. Keeping the team together and working for the common goal is critical.
Step 3 – The Theme
In any case involving a celebrity, the lawyer needs a theme for the defense. Is the case about the celebrity assaulting his neighbor, or is the case about the secret life of the neighbor? The theme should be something simple: “My client is not a child abuser, and we are confident that he will be exonerated once all of the evidence is made public.” It may be that the criminal defense attorney is trying to establish that the client is not guilty of the child abuse charges (of which the lawyer expects him to be exonerated), but may be guilty of other unspecified charges. In any event, she will want to repeat the theme often and use words in a way that states the celebrity’s position in the most positive manner, without making statements that later prove to be false.
In the initial stages, the defense lawyer won’t know much about the case other than what the client tells her or what she may have seen or heard in the media. Therefore, it is vital to establish a trusting relationship with the celebrity client so that he will be completely forthcoming with his lawyer. The lawyer must explain to the client the need for complete client candor, so there are no surprises later in court.
In a normal non-celebrity case, a defense lawyer has some time to evaluate the evidence and prepare a response before taking any action in court or speaking with the media. The lawyer and client, therefore, have more time to establish a trusting relationship. In a high profile case, the defense lawyer will probably be confronted by swarms of media when walking out of the jail, perhaps after having spoken with the client for the first time. She will be inundated with questions about the client and the case, and any statements she makes may be aired again and again, sometimes to the client’s detriment if they later turn out to be false or inaccurate.
Clearly, the burden is on the defense lawyer to be cautious when talking to the media and in stating a theme or a specific defense. If the client has misled his lawyer, the lawyer’s statements can have a devastating effect on his credibility, and by implication, the client. If the lawyer loses credibility in the media, most pundits will assume that the client misled his lawyer. As a result, the client can lose credibility long before he has a chance to testify in court.
Step 4 – Spin Control
Once you have a theme, it is essential to develop the theme and reduce it to a few key talking points early in the legal process. If you lack experience in dealing with the media, there are numerous media consultants available to train and educate you. Many such consultants have their own video equipment so the lawyer can practice dealing with potential questions and issues, and have the opportunity to review her performance in the comfort of a private conference room before taking it public.
As publicity escalates, the theme becomes the mantra: A standard statement, which is totally acceptable, goes something like this: “My client is not guilty of the charges, and is anxious to have all of the evidence presented in court. We are confident that after a thorough airing of the evidence, my client will be found not guilty of all charges.” A more creative, eye-catching statement, which is more likely to air on the evening news would be: “My client is not guilty of all of these charges, and we eagerly look forward to proving that the “so-called victim” is the one who should be in jail right now, and not my client.” The media are often looking for short, catchy audio or video clips for the evening news or the morning talk shows. The more creative and proactive you are, the more likely you are to get the sound bite you want on television, radio, or the internet.
Many lawyers are frustrated with the knowledge that the media will cut and paste their words so as to fit into news broadcasts. Indeed, the media and the law do have a symbiotic relationship. However, once the lawyer accepts and embraces the media as a useful tool, she can use them to help disseminate her message.
If the media respect the defense lawyer and believes that she will be honest with them, they can have a constructive effect on the publics opinion of your client. If the lawyer has an existing relationship with the media from past cases, they will already know that she can be trusted and can be counted on to be honest with them while still protecting her client from overexposure to the media.
In the political arena, politicians have the time to assemble focus groups to see how slight variations in wording and body language influence their constituency. Unfortunately, in criminal cases involving celebrity clients, not only is there a limited amount of time, but there is no definable constituency. Fans of celebrities can sweep across the social landscape and represent every demographic element.
The lawyer must keep in mind that when dealing with the media she is playing to countless constituencies, including: (1) the public that pays money to see the client and will, hopefully, remain enamored of him, (2) the public that may be called to sit as jurors deciding the client’s fate, (3) the judge who will make critical rulings and may end up sentencing your client, and (4) the district attorney, often an elected official who will be considering the publics perception of the client when deciding how to proceed with the case. Taking care of all of these constituencies when dealing with the media is challenging, but extremely important.
Learning how to provide telegenic footage for television news broadcasts is essential. When facing the cameras, the case theme is an easy fallback position when asked an uncomfortable question at a press conference, even if your answer doesn’t respond to the interviewer’s question. For example:
Question: “Are you saying, Ms. Lawyer, that your client was not caught in the back seat of his limousine with a teen-age prostitute?”
Answer: “My client is happily married, is not a child molester and is not guilty of these charges.”
Question: “Do you have any comment on recent reports that your client is wanted for murder in three states?”
Answer: “Well, as you know, there are certain things I am not allowed to talk about, but I do want to remind you that my client is happily married, goes to church every Sunday, and is not guilty of these charges.”
Remember, when faced with a tough question that you really doesn’t want to answer, it’s better to answer the question that you wish you had been asked. After a couple of attempts, the interviewer will give up, and the lawyer will have his or “answer” in the media for everyone to see and hear. Clearly, this approach will not work if you sit down for an in-depth interview with 60 Minutes, but it will work on the courthouse steps where you can expect a 10-15 second sound bite to be seen on the network news.
Before agreeing to a live, in-depth live interview, you should carefully consider your case and be clear on the purpose for such an interview. It is flattering to have national news media asking to put you on television, but you must resist the temptation for personal aggrandizement and first decide if it will benefit your client. There may be difficult questions that will prove embarrassing for you and devastating for your client in the world of public opinion. In recent criminal cases against Phil Spector, Conrad Murray, and Jerry Sandusky, their lawyers allowed them to be interviewed by news agencies, and the results were disastrous.
If the decision is made to participate in the interview, you must carefully rehearse. You should consider hiring a professional media consultant with video equipment so that they can see how you look on television, and prepare you for the toughest questions. When talking with the media, every word counts and the lawyer must carefully consider the forum in which her words will be broadcast.
Step 5 – Protecting the beloved mystique
As the celebrity client’s lawyer, you should make sure that the media and the public recognize that your client deserves no more or no less from the criminal justice system than any other citizen. Never let the judge or the jury forget that underneath the fame is a human being who wants to be treated fairly and impartially.
The more the celebrity client looks and acts like a normal human being who drops the trappings that are so expected by the entertainment and sports industries, the greater the chance for fairness in the criminal justice system.. When the lawyer treats the client the same as any other person, it allows the courtroom personnel and the jury to get past the celebrity status, and to treat the client like the person next door.
In a high-publicity case, however, we all know that the public is not the only audience. As noted above, there is also the media and they are not all that interested in the guy next door, so be wary.
The public wants glimpses of their beloved star or twisted entertainer. The lawyer must help the client maintain his celebrity status while at the same time asking him to act like a regular person. How does one reconcile that inherent contradiction? The lawyer should encourage the celebrity to explore and “own” his feelings of regret or contrition, but also to know that even though he may have made a mistake, the public still loves him. There is no reason to slink into a courthouse hiding one’s face, or to slam limo doors, or to ignore the media and the public. That’s like ignoring a shark. It’s a recipe for being eaten alive.
More and more celebrity criminal cases are tried in the media. When a celebrity is accused of a crime, the media feeds on the event to a much greater extent than non-celebrity criminal cases. Photos, videos, texts, emails, tweets, and cell phones can provide worldwide exposure instantaneously. The court of public opinion can dominate the proceedings, but it can also be influenced to focus on the innocence, or at least the contrition, of the celebrity client.
Step 6 – Perception vs. reality
The last, and maybe the most important step in celebrity representation is for the defense lawyer to be able to navigate her own internal terrain during all the twists and turns of a celebrity prosecution. She wants the public to perceive that she will succeed on behalf of her client. The public must grasp that she is tough and capable of returning the celebrity icon, unscathed, to the screen, stage or athletic fields. She needs to be calm and sensitive to her client’s fears and trepidations, something that is rarely required in a corporate or general entertainment transaction.
Body language can also be critical. If the lawyer moves aside when her client sits down, that conveys the message that she wants to keep some distance from him. When in court, she should regularly consult with the client, to keep him informed, and to let everyone know that they have close, collegial relationship. It’s totally appropriate for a lawyer to put her hand on the client’s back while leading him through a phalanx of reporters and cameras while entering the courthouse. She must be his protector at all stages of the proceedings.
The defense lawyer needs to be perceived as a heavy hitter in the courtroom, but a nice person nonetheless. This perception would not matter if the case were not being tried on television or on the internet, but it makes a big difference in a highly publicized case. A celebrity case is the dirty laundry on which the world loves to feast, and the lawyer needs to balance the perception of going for the jugular against prosecution witnesses, with the gentleness and sensitivity of a caregiver when dealing her client.
To get through a celebrity trial, one of my goals is to always remain calm, and to be the one person who everyone on the team can turn to as their fears mount and the outcome is uncertain. The lawyer needs to be confident, credible, and in control. A good sense of humor is also a must, especially for those days when you think your parents might have been right about you going to medical school. How the lawyer comes across in the media can often make or break the case and the client’s career. Finally, the lawyer needs an extreme sensitivity to the public relations aspect of celebrity criminal cases and must devote as much thought and preparation to dealing with the media as she does in preparing a legal defense. The result will be a successful outcome in court as well as in the publics perception of the client.
*The article does not reflect the author’s experiences with any particular client, but is a compilation of experiences gained from representing celebrity clients over a career of more than 38 years. No inference is made or intended to reflect the author’s experiences with any particular client.
 For the sake of simplicity, throughout this article, the lawyers will always be referred to as women, and the clients will always be referred to as men