I grew up in a less than privileged family in Los Angeles, went to UC Berkeley on a basketball scholarship, and then worked my way through Berkeley Law School. After a year at a civil firm, where I was conscripted as a soldier into an endless paper war. It soon became clear to me that I had neither the inclination, nor talent, to be a civil lawyer. The one facet of the practice of law that appealed to me was trial work. I joined the LA Public Defenders Office, the largest criminal defense organization in the country, where the work consisted primarily of jury trials.
There is no more intense trial experience than when another person’s fate is at stake. I found criminal trials exhilarating, extremely stressful and at times heart breaking. But, it seemed I had a knack for it. After a few years I was selected to join the four person squad that tried all the “serious” death penalty cases in Los Angeles County, meaning the ones where a death verdict was probable. Over my career, in both public and private practice, I have tried thirteen death penalty cases before juries, one of which received the death verdict. I have always been able to find a touch of humanity in my clients, even the ones who have committed horrendous crimes. I was the best man at the wedding on death row of that one client.
After several years as a public defender, I went into private practice where I have had a long and successful career in which I tried such high profile cases as John Orr, a Glendale Fire Department arson investigator who was reputed to be the greatest serial arsonist in American history, a trial memorialized in Fire Lover, by Joseph Wambaugh; Laurianne Sconce, the matriarch of the family-owned Lamb Funeral Home, whose trial that was the subject of the book Ashes, by James Joseph; Eddie Nash, a prominent nightclub owner, who was charged in a death penalty case, and who was portrayed in the film, Boogie Nights; and William Harris, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, who kidnapped Patty Hearst.
During my years as a criminal defense lawyer, handling hundreds of cases, I have encountered, what I think is fair to describe as failures in our criminal justice system. For example, there is, in my opinion, a culture in some prosecutorial offices that tolerates the concealment of exculpatory evidence from the defense. This is a Constitutional violation that appellate courts bemoan, but rarely rectify and never hold the offending prosecutor to account. This attitude breeds a sense of immunity among prosecutors and can easily result in the conviction of innocent people.
It has also been my experience that some police officers falsely tailor their testimony to fit the prosecutor’s case, or as it’s referred to, “there’s court truth and there’s street truth;” that some coroners’ opinions are heavily influence by the detective’s theory of the events; and that judges, on the whole, who must stand for election in California, are careful not to appear too lenient and are reluctant to rule against the prosecution on pivotal issues.
The real impact of these failures in our system were brought home to me when I spent two years living in Ukraine as a Senior Fellow under the auspices of George Soros’ Open Society Justice Initiative. While there, I established, with the financial backing of that foundation, the first public defender type offices in three different cities in Ukraine. The lesson I took away from that experience is that the most important foundation for a democracy is not the ability to hold fair and free elections. Rather, it is the strict adherence to the Rule of Law; that the courts apply the laws equally to all those, without favor or bias, who appear before them; that those in authority are held to the legal standards and are required to apply the laws to everyone.
It was these opinions that influenced my writing. I felt our justice system should be presented in a realistic manner, warts and all. Our jury system is the marvel of the world, but it must be protected. It must be understood that the role of defense lawyers in our criminal system was designed to be a bulwark against the abuse of power by the State; that our Constitutional protections are not “technicalities;” and that a prosecutor’s duty is to render justice, not to win at any cost. That is why I have written my legal thrillers from the point of view of a defense lawyer, Bobby Earl, who takes you inside the system as it really is.