Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Review: The Criminal Justice Club, by Walt Lewis

GUEST ENTRY by David in Tennessee

After the shocking Anthony verdict, I thought our T&T readers would appreciate a little change of pace. Sprocket.

A Review of Walt Lewis' book, The Criminal Justice Club.
By David In Tennessee

Three years ago, I bought "The Criminal Justice Club," by former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Walt Lewis. Since then, Walt and I have exchanged emails about current trials and criminal justice issues. The controversy over the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial makes this book especially relevant.

The "Criminal Justice Club" is available on Amazon and at

The book points out that the players in the criminal justice system are members of a club and each has their own role. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have very different ethical obligations. A DA can ethically charge a suspect only if they are certain that with the available and admissible evidence all twelve people in the jury will be convinced the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

This ethical rule means that only the cases with the strongest evidence are filed. This is a safeguard against convicting an innocent person. Because of this high standard, many suspects who are guilty of serious crimes go free.

The defense attorney's role is very different. His job is to get the best possible deal for his client, often a plea bargain. The fact that the defense attorney believes or knows his client is guilty is irrelevant. A defense attorney cannot stand up in court and say "My client is guilty." If he did, the conviction would be reversed and the attorney would likely face discipline by the state bar. The attorneys for defendants like O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony did nothing wrong by winning acquittals for their clients.

The book is critical of the media and the Los Angeles Times in particular for, among other things, not telling the truth about the gap between sentences reported and the actual time served. Credit is given to the media when warranted.

Walt praises women's groups for demanding reforms regarding sexual assaults, child molestation, domestic violence, and drunk driving. Politicians of both parties come in for criticism.

The California justice system has undergone dramatic reform since 1978. Most of this was due to ballot initiatives. Walt Lewis was a Deputy DA from 1968-2000. In the early years of his career, he would have defendants who had been convicted of murder, been paroled from prison and were back on the street committing crimes. The general public would see a news story about a convicted murderer sentenced to "life in prison." They would not know that he would be up for parole in seven or eight years. Those in the criminal underworld were very aware of it, law abiding citizens were not.

Another thing that surprised Walt upon becoming a Deputy DA was that very few murders are reported in the press. Either the suspect or the victim had to be a celebrity, wealthy, or very good-looking for there to be press coverage.

Walt discusses some of his cases. Among these are the Dorothy Mae Apartment fire and the Lois Haro murder case. There is also a "Perry Mason Moment."

When I asked Walt his opinion of the Casey Anthony verdict, he answered:

"I did start following the trial near the end. I saw the closing arguments. I don't recall if I said it in my book, but I have always believed that the most important part of any criminal trial is jury selection. These 12 people are everything. The DA cannot make a mistake with selecting one juror who will find it very difficult to convict a defendant regardless of the evidence presented. I heard that juror #4 said in voir dire that she didn't like to judge people. The DA tried to excuse her (I heard) but judge Perry would not allow the DA's peremptory challenge because she was black. If this is true, my hunch is that the best the DA could have gotten was a hung jury. I have had many prospective jurors (mostly religious) tell me that they believe it is not their place to sit in judgment of another human being. When they said this I never had a problem excusing them no matter what their race."

"In L.A. County I think it would have been unlikely we would have sought the death penalty, although I think that searching the Internet for chloroform and neck breaking and the masking tape over the nose was sufficient evidence of premeditation for 1st degree murder."

"During the trial I saw many talking heads predicting this and that. The truth is that nobody, not the DA, defense attorney or judge, can predict what a jury will do. These talking heads with all their opinions and theories mostly just fill space between commercials. I could never be a guest on these shows because most of my answers would be "I have no idea."

"The Criminal Justice Club" has given me more understanding of the criminal justice system and helped me in following trials, including writing about one. There is much more valuable information in the book than I have mentioned here.

David in Tennessee