Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
Columns

Don't judge lawyers by their clients

Florida Voices
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 05:17 PM

In early 2007, attorney Charles Stimson, the Pentagon official then in charge of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, called for a boycott of every law firm representing prisoners there. He even read a list of targets on the radio. It wasn't enough that the prisoners could barely see an attorney and, to this day, can't know their accuser or the evidence against them. Stimson wanted them to lose their most fundamental right.

The American Bar Association condemned Stimson's remarks, as did the deans of 130 law schools. Stimson offered a weak apology. A month later he resigned, eventually joining Fox News and the Heritage Foundation.

The story is relevant because of discussion surrounding a county judge race in Flagler County, though it could occur wherever judicial candidates converge with controversial cases. Seven candidates are in the running locally, including Melissa Moore Stens. I'm not advocating for her: all seven candidates are eminently qualified. But something must be said, without reserve, about Moore-Stens' right to defend whom she chooses. The issue is not about a political race. It's about our values.

She's part of the Daytona firm of Williams and Moore, which agreed to defend Paul Miller, a 65-year-old Flagler Beach man accused of shooting his neighbor last March in a ridiculous confrontation over barking dogs. Four of the five bullets were fired into the man's back as he was crawling away. Miller is facing a second degree murder charge.

In my book, Miller is a perfect example of gun-wielding perversion in the name of self-defense. Still, Miller deserves the best defense he can find. But there've been attempts to link Moore-Stens's defense of Miller to her character, especially since she might use a Stand Your Ground defense at trial.

Any linkage between a lawyer's character and a lawyer's client is an offense against the Sixth Amendment's guarantee to a fair trial.

That Moore-Stens and her partner are defending Paul Miller is no different than, say, William Kunstler defending the Chicago Seven or Omar Abdel-Rahman, who orchestrated the first World Trade Center bombing. Kunstler was no less of an admirable lawyer for choosing such clients.

And Stephen Jones is no less of an admirable attorney for having defended Timothy McVeigh or Bobby Wayne Collins, who was Oklahoma's previous title holder for mass murder before McVeigh.

The men Kunstler and Jones defended were heinous, despicable and the rest of it. Kunstler and Jones were not. They are rightly regarded as part of the nobility of their profession, which must at times muck itself up with the worst of humanity because nobody else will do it.

The day we start judging lawyers by their clients will be the day when the law may as well be enslaved to the mob, or its more polite version known as public opinion. It's the day when the law will mean nothing.

Public opinion has its place. Even the mob does, unfortunately. But not in a courtroom, and not when it comes to the defense of an individual, no matter what the charges may be.

We're not much of a nation politically these days, and Paul Miller reminds us of the gun-toting barbarism in our midst. No argument there. But the Second Amendment is being abused enough. Let's not start abusing the Sixth.


Pierre Tristam is editor and publisher of FlaglerLive.com, a nonprofit news service based in Palm Coast, Fla.
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