When fact-checking fails

This local TV station’s “fact check” of a campaign ad in the South Carolina governor’s race shows just how easily the fact-checking concept can fly off the rails. At issue is an ad by the Republican Governors Association accusing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen of “protecting criminals” and which then points out that “(Sheheen) got a sex offender out of jail time, defended a child abuser and represented others charged with violent acts.”

Greenville, S.C., news station WYFF recently reviewed the ad and proclaimed most of it “true.” And indeed, as a one-time criminal defense attorney, Shaheen did all of those things. But this is what criminal defense attorneys do. A zealous defense of people accused of crimes is a critical component of our adversarial criminal justice system. You could just as easily have run an ad stating, “Vincent Sheheen spent part of his career defending the very principles that separate the United States of America from authoritarian countries.” A bit lofty, perhaps. But still technically “true.”

This RGA ad comes fresh off the successful GOP-led effort to block Debo Adegbile, Obama’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division. The objection was over Adegbile’s efforts on behalf of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal when Adegbile headed up the NAACP’s legal defense fund.

These attacks are, of course, primarily motivated by partisanship. But they’re more dangerous than the typical attack ad. The implication is that anyone who works in legal defense is, by the very nature of the job, unfit for any other public office. At their core, they’re assaults on the very notion that people who are accused of crimes should get legal representation at all.

Frankly, we need more people with criminal defense experience in policy-making positions. We certainly need more of them sitting on the bench, particularly at the appellate level and on the U.S. Supreme Court. Currently, judgeships are overwhelmingly occupied by people who have only served as prosecutors.

But these sorts of attack can be potent, especially in a conservative state like South Carolina. You can see this in how Sheheen’s campaign responded to the ad.

“As a former prosecutor, Vincent has seen what families and victims go through and he has worked with law enforcement to hold criminals accountable and achieve justice. This dishonest ad by Nikki Haley’s DC friends is a disgusting and desperate attempt to distract from children being abused and dying because of the reckless leadership at Haley’s Department of Social Services,” said Andrew Whalen, campaign manager for Sheheen for South Carolina.

Note what’s missing, here. There’s no articulation of why criminal defense is an important and honorable profession. Instead, the campaign refers to Sheheen’s time as a prosecutor and his dedication to holding criminals accountable. Criminal defense isn’t even something the campaign of a former criminal defense attorney is willing to defend.

Of course, the ironic thing about the Republican disdain for criminal defense attorneys is how many Republicans eventually end up needing one.

 

UPDATE: I should note that in the video for the linked article, though not in the text, the report does interview a former prosecutor and defense attorney who criticizes the ad on the same grounds I criticize it here. According to WYFF’s news director, the station also ran additional segments that provided further context for their fact check of the ad.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · April 25