Ignore the smoke and seek the fire

I was just watching a live news conference held by Joe Amendola, the chief defense attorney for Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach charged with molesting young boys. So far, this case is so heinous and disturbing that most people seem to believe Sandusky is guilty, even though he’s not yet had his day in court. I must admit, I too have felt outrage and disgust as this case has unfolded.

But today, while watching Sandusky’s experienced and dogged defense attorney answered question after question from a mob of reporters, I was reminded of a few important points: First, I always advocate openness, honesty and cooperation for all my clients, even if they’re suffering under the glaring eye of the national media. The worst thing someone in such a position can do is use the ‘No Comment’ defense. “No Comment” nearly always translates into one thing: “I’m hiding something and, therefore, I’m guilty.” That may not be fair, but that’s how it works. I never allow my clients to do that. Never have, never will. Amendola seems to understand this. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a defense attorney engage in such a conversation with reporters, all of it being broadcast nationally and live.

Amendola’s tirade also reminded me of some absolute fundamentals on which our justice system is based. When defendants are surrounded by the skeptical media — along with blinding, billowing smoke — that doesn’t mean they’re guilty. It’s hard for many to see that, but it’s true. Sandusky certainly appears guilty, but how could I possibly know? That’s the point isn’t it?

I’m reminded of the Duke lacrosse case. In the days following charges against the Duke students, most everyone seemed to believe the lacrosse players were guilty. The woman who had allegedly been assaulted, for some reason, seemed to become a credible accuser. The DA then, Mike Nifong, fueled the fire with his public insistence that the players were guilty, even recounting, through physical re-enactment, how he had become certain a crime had been committed. Still, the lawyers representing the players stood firm, even when they faced ridicule by some. Wade Smith, Joe Cheshire and Kerry Sutton never gave up on their clients. They insisted on their innocence even when many, including myself, had doubts. Now we all know the Duke students were innocent. Now their once ‘”credible” accuser is embroiled in a murder case that could land her in jail for a long, long time. Innocent until proven guilty? You’re damn right.

The lesson? It may sound trite, but it’s true: Americans charged with crimes are not guilty until proven otherwise — or admit their guilt. We can’t forget that. Ours is a judicial system that’s served our country well for more than 200 years.

Is Jerry Sandusky guilty? Maybe. Seems like it to me. There’s a ton of smoke pouring from this case. Still, I’m trying as hard as possible to keep an open mind. Let’s allow the system to do its job. Let’s not pass judgment until it has. As difficult as this might be, it’s the right attitude. And we should all, difficult or not, think this way.

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