A Master of Police Drama, But Lawyers? Not So Much
July 25, 2016 (Fault Lines) — The HBO miniseries, “The Night Of,” gets many things right. Its writer, Richard Price, is a master at describing what police do. Almost equally well, he imagines cases from the viewpoint of the suspect, witness or victim. However, he has not spent enough time learning about lawyers.
The story is about a son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants who lives at home in Queens and attends college. One night, Naz (Riz Ahmed) borrows his father’s cab and drives to go to a party. He gets lost in lower Manhattan, and while stopped, a young woman gets in the back seat. She is attractive, so instead of asking her to get out, he follows her request to go sit under a bridge and look at the river.
Against his better judgment, Naz accepts her offer of pills. He then drives her home where they take more drugs, drink alcohol and engage in sex. He passes out. When he awakens, Naz finds her upstairs in bed, dead from multiple stab wounds.
The case against him is strong. There are witnesses to him entering the home with the girl and to his running away after her death. He is found with her blood on his hands and the murder weapon in his pocket. He confesses everything he knows to the police, although he cannot remember what happened when he passed out.
The first lawyer in the story is Jack Stone (John Turturro). He is a mass of contradictions. On one hand, he advertises with a slogan that overreaches, “No fee ‘til you’re free.” On the other hand, he visits a client with no apparent means, at a precinct jail in the middle of the night. Of course, these facets make him more interesting, but they also do not make much sense. His slogan, which he can somehow afford to post in New York subways, violates ethical rules against contingent fees in criminal cases. His competitors would be the first to turn him in to the state bar.
More important, Stone’s initial meeting with Naz violates rules against solicitation. He asks a desk sergeant to let him into Naz’s cell. Although the advice is free and sound, it is obvious that his intent is to later set a fee after meeting Naz’s family. The pejorative term “ambulance chaser” comes from the unlawful practice of finding someone known to need a lawyer for the purpose of getting money from them. That is exactly what is shown here.
The violation is glossed over by the fact that Stone seems like a nice person who just needs a break to get his legal practice moving again. Shady court-appointed attorneys sometimes overstep by seeking payment from clients or their families, but not in a case that could get the scrutiny of the early pages of the New York Post.
Contrast this to Alison Crowe (Glenne Headly), a very successful lawyer who also asks for Naz’s case by charming his parents, but for free. It is legal, just highly unlikely. As she correctly points out, the case will probably cost her firm hundreds of thousands of dollars. Large firms do pro bono work in criminal cases, but that is typically in post-conviction litigation where claims of actual innocence or a death sentence are involved. The rule for big firms is to get good publicity or get paid. This case appears to offer neither. Unlike Stone, for whom any press is good press, Crowe’s interest in working for free, in a seemingly airtight brutal rape and stabbing murder, is nonsensical. Remember how many big firms offered to represent any of the Central Park Five at trial for free? None.
There are only a handful of big firms that let their members take criminal trials that do not also meet the definition of “white collar defense.” Representing rapists rarely brings in lucrative mergers and acquisitions later. The idea that criminal defense is practiced in big firms is mostly a television concept anyway. LA Law and Boston Legal created the image that private firms could simply specialize in high publicity cases, whether they were murders or intellectual property disputes. They also have faux devices like a meeting between the prosecutor, defendant and his lawyer, where they freely discuss the case until the defendant fatally incriminates himself. In over 30 years of practice, I have never attended such a meeting, but they are on almost every episode of Law & Order.
I write, not to disparage Richard Price, who is one of my favorite novelists. I know that he must answer to producers and directors in a manner that editors do not expect. Some television constructions are necessary. However, if in a later episode, there is a meeting between the prosecutor (Jeannie Berlin), Naz and either one of his aspiring lawyers, I may need to turn off the sound for a while.