Keeping client under tight wraps is best strategy for time being, veteran defense attorneys advise

04/18/2003 9:00 AM

11/20/2007 6:16 AM

You are an attorney whose client is at the center of controversy in a high-profile homicide case.

Police neither name nor eliminate him as a suspect. Yet, investigators have searched his home and his workplace. They've seized property as evidence in what a judge calls a potential death penalty case.

During the investigation, the client consented to interviews with investigators and TV reporters.

But now, bodies have surfaced, and the speculation spins out of control.

Your job? Protect your client.

This is the task of Kirk McAllister, a Modesto attorney who represents Scott Peterson. The Modesto man has been at the center of a media storm for much of the time since Christmas Eve, when his pregnant wife, Laci, was reported missing.

McAllister has not discussed his strategy, but other criminal defense attorneys offered insight into how they would handle such a case.

"You gain nothing by talking to law enforcement or prosecutors," veteran New York attorney Raymond Perini said. "I would clearly shut him down."

Attorney John Burris of Oakland, who recently represented San Francisco Police Chief Earl Sanders in an obstruction of justice issue, agreed. And Burris, a frequent guest expert for CNN and other cable networks, said he has followed the Peterson story closely. Damage control is important, he said.

"Right now, I would make sure he doesn't do any talking," Burris said. "He's already given statements to the police. What you've said, you've said. You can't talk your way out of it. You just have to wait it out."

Attorney Michael Thorman of Hayward, meanwhile, said he prefers to have clients take private polygraphs.

"If I don't like the results, nobody else has to know," he said.

Thorman represented Mike Blatt, the Stockton developer and sports agent who was tried twice for conspiracy in the murder of a business associate in the early 1990s. Thorman represented Blatt during the first of two trials that both ended with hung juries.

Lining up resources

All three attorneys said it is important to brace a client for the worst.

"I would let the client know that there's a good chance he'll be getting charged and to start marshaling funds," Thorman said. "He'd need to get the proper amount of resources together. He'll certainly need to think about money for bail. And, generally, you'd consider an independent investigation."

It is the same advice that Thorman gave to Blatt three months before the former Seattle Seahawks' interim general manager was arrested in 1990. Blatt ignored it, Thorman said, never expecting to be charged.

Independent investigations can accomplish two things: They can at least create the perception that the suspect is looking for the real killer, Thorman said. And they might turn up evidence that can contradict or cast doubt on police evidence.

Police investigations focus on gathering evidence for a conviction -- not helping a defendant.

Investigations, Thorman said, "cost money."

And, of course, there will be legal fees. Advice might be cheap from everyone else. Attorneys, however, have another term for advice. It is called "billable hours."

Yet, amassing cash can cause problems, too, Burris said. Selling major items -- homes and other real estate, cars, boats and other assets -- can draw the wrong kind of attention.

"You should not make an effort to sell," he said. "It makes you look like a flight risk. If you can show ties to the community, there's a better chance you'll get bail, although chances for bail are not high if you're looking at a double murder."

There have been cases in which possible suspects have fled.

Perini cited an ongoing murder case in New York, where the wife of a murdered man suddenly went on an extended vacation in England.

"They're going to have to get her back here (through extradition) if they want to indict her," he said.

"I cannot tell a client to flee to avoid prosecution," Perini said. "I can't tell him to flee once (arrest) warrants are issued."

But without charges or probable cause, a client with a valid passport cannot be stopped from leaving the country, Perini said.

Bee staff writer Jeff Jardine can be reached at 578-2383 or

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