A blog by Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Commenting on criminal law issues of local and national interest.

Friday, July 02, 2010

My Every So Often Rant On The Media

Somewhere in the archives of this blog are a few posts about the media. As a criminal defense lawyer, I read stories differently than Mom and Pop "did you see what that guy did!" do. I laugh at the buzz words that create anger amongst the public. Routine continuances are called "another delay," and defendants who are not required to appear at arraignments are reported to have "skipped out" on the 30 second hearing. A lawyer on vacation "did not return calls to his office," and any time two cars hit each other, "charges are pending,"

Former Florida Republican Party Chair Jim Greer was arrested recently. He had his arraignment. Get this - not only was he not there, his lawyers didn't bother to show up either! And, he has already decided he is going to trial and the iron clad date has been set.

Well, according to the newspaper:

Jim Greer, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, will go on trial on charges of theft, fraud and money laundering.

The trial of Jim Greer on theft, fraud and money laundering charges is to begin Oct. 18. Greer, who has pleaded not guilty, wasn't at the hearing. Neither were his attorneys.

This type of writing is done for a reason - it creates the opportunity for a guaranteed follow up. A follow up that will say this:

Despite the judge setting a trial date of October 18, Greer's lawyers have asked for more time, a delay that will set the trial off for many months. Prosecutors said today they would "like to get to trial as soon as possible as justice delayed is justice denied."

Just once, I'd like to see the type of story above, written like this:

Jim Greer, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, has a trial date for October 18. This is because every case, after arraignment, is given a trial date. It doesn't mean Greer will actually go to trial, or that the trial will be on that date, but it gives us an opportunity to make some assumptions in order to get the community all riled up over what will be a certain delay (we call continuances "delays" because people don't like "delays.") The "continuance delay" will be as a result of the same reasons in every single criminal case. Prosecutors probably have thousands more documents to turn over, depositions need to be taken, and much work needs to be done. Hell, prosecutors may even want some more time. Maybe a deal will be worked out. The reason a trial date was set for October is because there is a 180 day speedy trial rule in Florida, and this provides an opportunity for a waiver.

Greer wasn't at his arraignment, nor were his lawyers. This is because under Florida Law, and in fact in most states, written pleadings stating the defendant pleads not guilty, are favored over packing courtrooms with suits and defendants for 30 second hearings. We just say no one was there so that you can wonder why and maybe think the defendant is being rude or the lawyers are disrespecting the judge.

I understand the media has an obligation to sell its product. I understand the gritty details that cause people to say "oh, I see, no big deal," don't create a captive audience. But just once, once, I'd like to see a reporter go rogue and lay it all out.

Not just what's accurate, but the absolute truth.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter


  1. "Although Circuit Judge Marc Lubet set Greer's trial date, it is likely to change. That's because the case is high-profile, includes a great deal of evidence and involves many witnesses, including party and public officials."


  2. Media coverage of criminal justice sucks for many reasons. For starters, the most inexperienced reporters are assigned the police and courts beats as entry level work. Also, larger police and DA's offices have PR staff that control the information and spin given to reporters, who as you say get all their background understanding from Law and Order reruns. Few police beat reporters aggressively use the open records act (there are three in all Texas I'd call "aggressive" on that score, or maybe 2.5), and instead just print what authorities give them in a he-said, she-said fashion.

    Further, what little training given on covering crime by professional journalism groups (much less universities) relies on materials that emphasize a) sensationalizing victimization and b) casting blame on systemic actors for the behavior of criminals (e.g., critiquing a judge for granting bail to someone who later committed another offense). They're taught that's basically all there is to crime coverage, with the "innocence" trope being the only significant countervailing trend in the other direction, and a recent one at that.

    OTOH, often criminal defense lawyers won't let their clients talk to the media and themselves resort to confusing legalese which reporters have to interpret. Most people don't know the word "continuance" so reporters must translate to something the public understands, like "delay." What's a better non-jargon term for a continuance? It is one!

    You can't write things you don't know, and if the state has PR flacks staying "on message" and the defense bar doesn't talk to the press, it's easy to see how a green reporter merely observing the courtroom can make some of the sloppy assessments you mention.