It goes without saying that when it comes to book, film and TV rights, a notorious crime has a great deal more value than a fun-of-the-mill one that hardly got into the newspapers.
There was a time when the person who was thought to have committed the offense received the lion's share of the money for telling his side of the story. But now, with legal fees so high, lawyers are demanding they get their cut of the action.
Last week, an accused murderer revealed that his lawyer would take his legal fee out of the potential proceeds of a book contract.
The D.C. Bar Association is looking into the matter because the arrangement could violate the District Bar Code of Ethics.
The reason why the District doesn't approve of lawyers sharing in the literary fruits of their clients' alleged crimes (although many states do) is that a lawyer might be more interested in how the book comes out than the trial. He could even knowingly, or unknowingly, tailor the defense to make a better story.
This fictitious conversation could take place in many states where a canon forbidding a defense lawyer from sharing in literary rights does not exist:
"Lefty, as you know, we're in the second week of the trial, and I think I've made a pretty strong case for you."
"I ain't complaining. You gave the D.A. a run for his money. I got a feeling the jury is gong to come back with a not guilty verdict."
"That's what my editor thinks, too, Lefty. Originally, when we worked out the outline of the book we thought it would make a better story if I got you off at the end. But now that the press keeps referring to our cawe as the 'Crime of the Centruy,' we believe it would be better if you got the electric chair."
Are you crazy or something? Why would it be better if I got the chair?"
"It's more dramatic if, after a great defense, the jury still finds you guilty. A 'Not Guilty' verdict makes the book anti-climatic and a big letdown, particularly if we're going for a 'Book of the Month' deal."
"Wait a minute. I don't mind you taking your fee out of the literary rights to my trial, but I don't want to fry for it."
"Listen, Lefty, when you came to me, you didn't have a dime. You chose me because I was the best criminal lawyer in the country. But I'm not in the business for my health. I don't want you to go to the chair any more than you do. But if I don't make any money out of this book, I'll have wasted six months of my time."
"I could get you life, but every major Hollywood studio is interested in making a movie from the trial. We can't make a big deal unless you get capital punishment. My agent said the difference between you getting life and the chair is worth a half a million bucks."
"So what are you going to do?"
"I've got to persuade the jury in my summing up that all our witnesses have been lying through their teeth, and society would be much better off if you paid the ultimate price for your heinous crime. But I have to be subtle about it. I don't want to hurt my reputation in the legal profession." s
"I think the whole thing stinks."
"Look, Lefty, I'll even throw in an appeal to the Supreme Court for nothing for you. But my first obligation is to my publishers. After all, they're the ones who are paying me."
"I could have done better with a public defender."
"You know you don't honestly believe that Lefty. Have you ever heard of a public defender who has won a Pulitzer Prize?"