When contemplating the role of an attorney, one generally associates traits of honesty, righteousness, and selflessness as being the bedrock of all officers of the court. This is particularly true of those attorneys who are the voice of the people – the prosecutors. The American Bar Association publishes a series of Criminal Justice Standards, which “are intended to be used as a guide to professional conduct and performance.” Many, if not all, of the standards set out for attorneys are common sense, i.e., duties that are inherently understood by most professionals, such as avoiding conflicts of interest. Failure to adhere to these standards has the potential for destroying not only an attorney’s career but also his life.
The 1990 drama, Presumed Innocent, portrays the story of a Deputy Prosecutor Rusty Sabich – Harrison Ford – who is assigned to a case involving the murder of a female colleague. Yet, from the very beginning of his assignment, Rusty failed to disclose that he was having an affair with the now murdered colleague. The story unfolds further as a new District Attorney is elected, placing Rusty in the crosshairs of an internal investigation surrounding the alleged improprieties in his handling of the murder case. Within days of the investigation commencing, Rusty is brought before a grand jury and indicted for the murder of his former colleague and mistress, Carolyn Polhemus.
Of course this legal fiction is hyped up with traditional trial surprises such as when the defense locates exculpatory evidence at the last minute. Yet, every law student, lawyer, and judge can take away some important lessons, and perhaps reminders, of their duties as legal professionals.
ABA Criminal Justice Standard 3-1.3 (Conflicts of Interest) advises “prosecutors to avoid conflicts of interest with respect to his or her official duties.” Moreover, subsection (f) states “A prosecutor should not permit his or her professional judgment or obligations to be affected by his or her own political, financial, business, property, or personal interests.” Rusty failed to disclose his conflict of interest with the case, specifically, his romantic relationship with the victim. Making matters worse, Rusty conducted himself in ways that suggested he was controlling the investigation and leading police officers away from finding evidence that would otherwise point to himself as the murderer.
The viewer, of course, knows that Rusty isn’t guilty and there is comfort in the fact that the movie ends with Rusty’s aquittal. The truth regarding who killed Ms. Polhemus remained a mystery. Yet, in a typically Hollywood twist, with only minutes left in the movie, Rusty undertakes some work on his outside fence. Rusty discovers, in his shed, a hammer/hatchet like tool with hair and blood on it. This is important because at trial, the prosecution had an expert testify that Ms. Polhemus was struck with a hammer like object that had a sharp edge – like a hatchet. It is at this moment of discovering the bloody tool, that both Rusty and the viewer realize Ms. Polhemus was actually killed by Rusty’s jealous wife, Barbara.
In addition to the blatant violations of professional standards already discussed, there are a couple of key lessons that shouldserve as important reminders for law students and lawyers. During the initial investigation into Rusty’s handling of the Polhemus murder, one of the newly appointed ADAs confronts Rusty and openly accuses him of murder. Rusty, in an apparent fit of rage, turns around and pushes the ADA, telling him “yes, I killed her.” Later on at trial, the ADA attempts to have this statement introduced as evidence of an admission to the crime, yet the judge does not allow it, because the ADA had been alone when he questioned Rusty and cannot now seek to enter evidence of a conversation which is essentially his word against the defendant’s.
~Dean Castaldo, L’15~
Class Advisor, Susan Catterall, Esq.