10:13, March 14 163 0 abajournal.com

2019-03-14 10:13:06
‘Proven Innocent’ proves stale but prompts a discussion: Should criminals become attorneys?

Proven Innocent photo

Rachelle Lefevre as Madeline Scott and Russell Hornsby as Ezekiel “Easy” Boudreau in the Fox legal thriller Proven Innocent. Photo from Jean Whiteside/Fox.

I previously wrote about how and why Marvel’s Daredevil isn’t a good role model for defense attorneys. To my surprise, I received quite a bit of backlash. The majority of complaints and negative comments circled around the fact that Daredevil, as a comic book character, isn’t meant to be a “role model” for attorneys. Many readers took offense to my use of a comic book character to equate the real-life tensions and contradictions defense attorneys face.

I somewhat understand. Comic books aren’t real. But as one commenter mentioned through social media: “human beings have been storytellers perpetuating their own mythologies to reflect and commentary their perceptions of reality since the dawn of time.” Others read those stories and build upon them further. For example, this column examines elements of the law as they are portrayed by such storytellers … regardless of the medium they are exhibited in. Some make an honest attempt at incorporating actual law into their stories. Others simply employ the notion with little or no substance.

Sadly, the new Fox series Proven Innocent falls into that second category. For whatever reason, Fox continues to come up empty-handed with its recent forays into the legal landscape. Shows such You the Jury have found Fox searching for some new legal angle to latch onto. I’ve watched the first two episodes of Proven Innocent (the only ones available at the time of this column), and I’m far from impressed. I don’t know if my disappointment is associated more with the show itself or the fact that it wastes a brilliant premise on second-tier performances and easy-out cliches.

In the series, teenage Madeline Scott is wrongfully convicted of murdering her best friend. She subsequently spends 10 years in prison before Ezekiel “Easy” Boudreau, a reinsurance lawyer, decides to take her case after she writes him a heartfelt plea from prison. After Scott secures her freedom with the assistance of Boudreau, she decides to enroll at Yale Law School. Scott graduates at the top of her class and begins a private practice with Boudreau solely dedicated to post-conviction relief cases for the wrongfully imprisoned. She fights against the evil prosecutor (played by Kelsey Grammer) who initially convicted her, and the show follows Scott and her team as they attempt to overturn other convictions the prosecutor secured through fraudulent and unethical means.

From as early as 12 minutes into the first episode, the audience is forced to accept that the prosecutor is the antagonist to Scott’s defense attorney lead. There is no character development whatsoever. Both characters reach their arch without any real discussion regarding the depth of their individual struggles. Viewers are immediately assaulted with scenes that cram every aspect of the characters into tight and tidy boxes without much context.

In this regard, the series simply tries too hard. The production team puts a ton of effort into painting the protagonist as a tough, hard-edged ex-con. Their attempts are thwarted by the script’s ridiculously unrealistic “legal” scenes. Scott’s constant quips and sidebar comments would not last in any courtroom I’ve ever practiced in. The point/counterpoint exchanges are pretty predictable and almost devoid of any real legal merit. More often than not, a courtroom scene consists of nothing more than Scott passionately arguing, the prosecution backtracking, Scott making a snide aside and the judge threatening to throw her in jail. The formula gets old very quickly.

For this reason and others, the leading lady’s overall depiction comes off as disingenuous. Any attempted connection with the audience is lost amid an excruciating amount of flashbacks viewers must endure. These aren’t merely flashbacks to create a narrative or fill in parts of Scott’s story. No, the flashbacks are most often only “mirror image”-type memories in which Scott remembers experiencing the same struggles as her incarcerated clientele.

Not only do the flashbacks seem pointless (it’s evident that she spent 10 years in prison … the series makes sure you don’t forget), but they actually undermine the integrity of the character. How can one believe that Scott is an effective advocate when she is continuously haunted by random and unpredictable flashbacks? Sure, you could point to the reversed conviction she achieves at the end of every episode as proof of her legal skills, but from a realistic perspective, her inability to view situations objectively would be an extreme detriment to any client’s case.

The acting is overdone, the suspense is anticlimactic and the characters are so hastily developed that it is almost impossible to feel invested in their plight.

Still, there are a few aspects of the series that ring true. Although the first two episodes fail to delve much into the issue, the method and means by which Scott and Boudreau came together deserve more exploration. When recounting the decision to take on Scott’s case, Boudreau details receiving jail-mail from her that piqued his interest.

He describes receiving a letter from the young woman asking for help. He admits he had no initial interest in taking her case, but that he eventually noticed the number 2,736 written at the bottom of the letter. Boudreau explains that, upon further inquiry, he realized the letter he received was the 2,736th letter Scott had sent to an attorney requesting assistance.

The majority of inmates consistently send letters to attorneys they’ve never met before. We’ve all received them on occasion. Prisoners have a great deal of time on their hands, and many use that time to challenge their sentences. If they are lucky, they will find an attorney who is willing to work with them to review their case and expose any potential issues that might result in relief.

Many inmates miss that chance, though, as they decide to initiate appeals and post-conviction procedures on their own. Some aren’t willing to wait for their families to gather funds to retain counsel. Some will never have that option regardless of how long they wait. For those convicts, the prospects of waiting for an innocence project or the ACLU to potentially pick up their case seem slim to none, and easy access to a jail-lawyer may appear like the best option. Although convicts are entitled to court-appointed counsel for their first, direct appeal, there is no right to counsel for further collateral attacks on a sentence.

Even still, exonerations do happen, and Proven Innocent throws out a few stats here and there regarding the wrongfully convicted. Nevertheless, the emotional impact felt by an innocent person spending years in prison is not examined nearly to the degree one would imagine considering the storyline. Consequently, the inability to focus on that emotional aspect and the difficulty of reintegrating into society may be the shows biggest failure.

I have no idea if the new series took its inspiration from actual events, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on it. There are various stories of exonerees gaining their law licenses. However, the notion of an exoneree becoming an attorney to help others achieve exoneration is a much more limited circumstance.

To illustrate, news broke in 2017 that Jarrett Adams helped overturn an innocent man’s wrongful conviction. However, this was no ordinary (if there is such a thing) case of exoneration. Adams himself had previously been wrongfully convicted for a rape he did not commit. He served seven years in prison before his exoneration. Once freed, he graduated from law school and became a criminal defense attorney.

Personally, I would rather see a series focused on Adams’ situation rather than another dramatized attempt at re-creating what has actually already occurred. Sometimes there is nothing more evocative than real life. A show focused on Adams’ struggles while transitioning from an inmate to a law student and then to an attorney would be insightful in ways a legal thriller never could.

The depiction would provide a positive example of the human spirit triumphing over all odds. Moreover, it would help other practicing attorneys appreciate the life they live and the profession they chose. All of us have our own path and our own story, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who beat worse odds than Adams himself.

In spite of its flaws, the show offers the opportunity for an interesting thought experiment. Should “criminals” be allowed to become attorneys? One of the common threads throughout the first two episodes of Proven Innocent is the idea that you can never truly escape your past. If you look deep enough, you can spot a faint plotline relating to Scott’s realization that she will always be a criminal in the eyes of others no matter what she achieves in her career.

Proven Innocent would do itself plenty of favors by following further down that trail as well. There are plenty of attorneys practicing today who were once convicted of a serious crime. Alan P. Harber became a New Your attorney after receiving 10 convictions, including three drug-related felonies. Shon Hopwood became an appellate attorney and Georgetown Law professor after serving a 12-year sentence in federal prison for bank robbery.

Still, as Reginald Dwayne Betts explains, even a law degree from Yale doesn’t make one’s prior criminal history vanish. After serving eight years for pleading guilty to carjacking, attempted robbery and a firearm charge, Betts was initially denied admission to the Connecticut Bar due to his felony background. It did not matter that he had received his J.D. from one of the most prestigious law schools in the world.

At the end of the day, the final decision usually comes down to an individual state’s bar association. Some are more lenient than others. However, everyone deserves a second chance.

Or do they? Are there certain crimes people could commit that should permanently bar their ability to practice law regardless of the state in which they apply for admission?

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Law Offices of Adam R. Banner, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seem to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.