From still wild and beautiful Wyoming, where I lived for 20 years, all but two of them in a 20-foot diameter yurt at the foot of the Sleeping Indian, a very revealing interview in one of the local weeklies, Planet Jackson Hole.
June 27, 2012
by Richard Abowitz
On Thursday the Jackson Hole Historical Society is presenting an evening of “living history” with famed trial attorney Gerry Spence at Jackson High School Auditorium. Reached by JH Weekly, Spence, 83, notes: “I’m tired but I’m not retired.” One reason he is not retired, Spence says, is the slow speed of the court system where one case he has been working on for seven years may finally get a jury trial in November. Among Spence’s famous cases are those connected to Randy Weaver and Imelda Marcos. He recalls both cases in the interview bellow as well as renders his verdict on the O.J. Simpson case that Spence offered commentary for back in the day.
Tickets to see Spence are $5 for members of the historical society and $15 for nonmembers. More information at jacksonholehistory.org:
JH Weekly: I’m wondering if you think most Americans have a good understanding of our criminal justice system?
Spence: I’m writing a book about it. The title is self-explanatory. It’s called Killers on the Loose: The Crimes and Cover Ups of the American Justice System. That includes the police, prosecutors and judges and all the rest. We don’t like to admit it in America, but we are a seriously class divided nation. There is the very highest end in this campaign we are calling the 1 percent.
Then there is the diminishing middle class. And, then the masses are beginning to appear in the helpless and powerless poor class of people who have no rights who cannot defend themselves in a criminal case. If you are a poor person and you are charged with a crime—it doesn’t make any difference what the case is, it could be you are charged with a murder, it happens all the time— and you are innocent, then you have no way to defend yourself. You will be given a public defender who has 150 cases and he won’t be able to talk to you until he walks into the courtroom. It is almost a foregone conclusion that the prosecutor will use snitches.
I have been engaged in the defense of people for now onto 60 years and I have yet to be in a criminal case in which the prosecution didn’t violate some kind of basic proper rule of law. Or, they know they are prosecuting somebody who is completely innocent: that happens. As a matter of fact a new study says about 25% of the people on death row are innocent.
JH Weekly: Does that number sound credible to you based on your experience?
Spence: Right now I am working on a case in which two black kids were sent off to prison for life for a murder that the prosecutor knew they were innocent of. The cops knew they were innocent. They actually knew who killed the person. But it was an easy, easy prosecution and the prosecutor was up for reelection. These kids spent 25 years in prison and were innocent.
JH Weekly: And, yet recently in high profile cases the public often sees acquittals as with John Edwards and Roger Clemens…
Spence: Well, yes. But if they had public defenders what do you think the results would have been?
JH Weekly: Let me ask you.
Spence: If you can’t hire the most skilled lawyers in the area you are going to be convicted.
JH Weekly: Why do you think that is the case?
Spence: For example, the media almost always portrays the defense attorneys as sleaze bags. They are people who will take any kind of case, do anything to win and represent all the guilty people. We have watched Law and Order for three generations. In Law and Order the prosecutors are always the good guys. And actually the prosecutors always have their own agenda.
I finished another case about two years ago involving a kid from Illinois. They brought in snitches and twisted the arms of 15 year-old kids to lie against him. They lied because they were afraid. This kid got the death penalty.
You are interested in the Edwards case and the Clemens case. You should be interested in the little guy who is sitting down there who is innocent and who is being prosecuted and can’t defend himself. That covers most of America, and, my friend, it covers you as well. When you get charged with a crime of any seriousness you are going to probably be unable to defend yourself. So, that is where my interest has been.
JH Weekly: You are speaking in what is being billed as “living history.”
Spence: Living history? It is a good thing they got me at this early age. I might not be living tomorrow. I am 83 and so every time I take a breath I am grateful. I was born in Wyoming. I lived all my life here. I think Wyoming formed me. Who I am is a result of having lived my mature life in the court system of Wyoming. I’ve had some interesting cases and I am going to talk about that. You might go to the Internet and look up Randy Weaver. You might go to the Internet and look up Imelda Marcos.
JH Weekly: Those are two of your more famous cases. Do you think there is a risk of people not remembering them?
Spence: Absolutely. The majority of people don’t remember me, because why should they remember me? They are a younger generation doing a different thing.
JH Weekly: How do you think the current president is doing on civil liberty issues?
Spence: I don’t want to engage in that political judgment. I have been disappointed in both parties and their willingness to avoid the rights of ordinary people. You put your finger on it just now with the two cases [Edwards and Clemens] you were interested in. The American public eye is put on these cases and they judge the Justice system by these cases. And, we are told from the time we are little kids there is liberty and justice for all and if you have a problem to go see a policeman and he will help you.
The best example is the O.J Simpson case. Everyone thought he was guilty and he probably was. But he wasn’t found guilty. Why wasn’t he found guilty? Seven of the jurors were black and they had been spending their lives in front of all white juries, white judges, white cops, white marshals, white witnesses. They are supposed to believe them now? But they know how they lie and have snitches and they know the system is rotten because it does not supply liberty and justice for any of them. They said, “Given any excuse we are going to find for a black man against these white people.” And, that is what they did.
JH: Weekly: How would you reform the justice system?
Spence: That is the last chapter in the book. How would you like to have an operation with a doctor who never held a scalpel in his hand? How would you like an operation by a doctor who never held a scalpel in his hand trained by another doctor who never held a scalpel? The legal education system is a money machine for most universities. They turn these kids out without any basic skills in lawyering.
I mean, they can be hired by a law firm to do research but they have never been taught anything about trial lawyering. Secondly, the court system is broken. Most of the judges are former prosecutors. You can’t get a speedy trial. We have got to have a different way of choosing judges and we have to have more judges. We have to simplify the justice system. Those are a few things for starters. And it would nice if you people in the media would start to reveal the justice system for how it is instead of thinking, for example, about the fucking Edwards case.