CHICAGO (AP) — The question of when lawyers cross the line from zealously defending their clients to fabricating evidence is the focus of a rare trial in Chicago, where an attorney is accused of coaching defendants and witnesses to lie.
As Beau Brindley’s federal trial drew to a close Thursday — and before a judge began considering a verdict — a prosecutor accused the lawyer of distorting justice in at least six criminal cases.
“The lies were like a virus that spread from case to case to case,” assistant U.S. attorney Michael Chmelar said.
The fabrications worked, he added, with Brindley securing acquittals on at least some counts in several of the cases at issue.
Lawyer jokes aside, the vast majority of the more than 1 million American attorneys don’t resort to lies to win at trial, said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law and a national authority on legal ethics.
Gillers said only two cases come to mind that involve lawyers charged for their work with clients and witnesses. “It’s extremely rare,” he said.
The 37-year-old Brindley, who was born in Iowa but made his name in Chicago with impassioned defenses of purported mobsters and drug dealers, faces multiple counts of obstruction and perjury. A lone perjury count carries a maximum 20-year prison term.
Brindley and co-defendant Michael Thompson, a lawyer who worked for Brindley, asked for a bench trial, so Judge Harry Leinenweber will decide their fate instead of jurors. He told lawyers he will deliver a verdict Monday.
The most serious allegation against Brindley is that he wrote scripts of questions that were likely to come up at trial, followed by false answers he told clients and witnesses to memorize.
Prosecutors said Brindley resorted to lies in part because he was promised payments beyond his basic legal fees if he won acquittals. Contingency payments are prohibited because they could be inducements to fabricate evidence.
Some lawyers worried about a chilling effect from Brindley’s prosecution, citing the multiple versions of client answers that agents carted away in a raid of Brindley’s law office and that prosecutors used against him at trial.
“If prosecutors win, lawyers might think, ‘I’m next,’” said Joseph Lopez, who represented reputed Chicago mobster Frank Calabrese Sr. at his 2007 trial. “All of us do trial preparation. And our clients sometimes tell different versions.”
Thompson’s attorney, Ed Genson, said Q-and-As are common tools among lawyers.
“(Prosecutors) make it sound like putting together a Q-and-A is evil. It’s not,” he said, adding: “Lawyers who are doing their job shouldn’t be indicted.”
Brindley testified this week that his aggressive legal strategies don’t include encouraging lying. He said his overriding message to clients was always, “You have to tell the absolute truth.”
He said the Q-and-As were his way of making sure clients’ answers were as consistent and accurate as possible during months of pretrial preparation.
But Gillers said most lawyers eschew question-and-answer scripts because they can be construed as coaching witnesses to lie. The law professor concedes, however, that “the ethics of witness preparation can be murky.”
“It is a lawyer’s responsibility to help a client present his side of the story,” Gillers said. “Sometimes certain words are more effective than other words.” But altering facts would clearly cross the line, he added.
Brindley’s attorney, Cynthia Giacchetti, said she agreed lying was at the core of the trial. But she said it was Brindley’s old clients who lied on the stand this month as government witnesses against Brindley.
“They all have significant motives to lie,” she said. “The government tells them, ‘We want to get Beau Brindley.’ ... They know they get a get-out-of-jail card if they testify.”
Another prosecutor, Mel Johnson, scoffed at that notion in his closing.
“The government’s not going after Beau Brindley because he’s so gosh darn important,” he said, “but because he fabricates evidence.”