Saturday, August 8, 2015

How Law Schools “Study” the Alton Logan Case

I admit, I only know the Alton Logan case by how my law school taught it. Based on the way I now know lawyers, I assume the lesson is crucial, instilling a code that all lawyers live and breathe by.

In 1982, Logan was tried and convicted of murdering a security guard working at a McDonalds in Chicago. Logan served 26 years in prison before the courts acknowledged he was wrongly convicted and freed him.

Dale Coventry and Jamie Kunz are two lawyers indirectly related to the Logan case. Now they consistently receive standing ovations at lawyer gatherings where they give presentations about how they knew all along Logan was an innocent man.

Coventry and Kunz represented a man named Andrew Wilson who when confronted about the security guard murder, privately confessed to his lawyers that he did it. As Wilson’s lawyers, Coventry and Kunz had a duty of confidentiality, according to the sacred lawyer rules known under the rubric “Professional Responsibility.”

Although Coventry and Kunz had correctly solved the crime police wrongly pinned on Logan, they couldn’t tell police about it. Duty called, and the lawyers could have been reprimanded or disbarred had they breached this duty of confidentiality to their client, even if it meant righting a profound wrong and setting an innocent man free.

The lawyers obviously felt the moral weight of what they were doing by upholding their sworn duties. This led them to get Wilson to sign a release so that if Wilson died, the lawyers would be free to release to the courts Wilson’s posthumous confession and clear Logan.

Without Wilson’s written consent to do this, Logan would probably have died in prison. It was a long wait before Wilson died, leading to Logan's 26-year stretch in the pokey.

I can’t blame Coventry and Kunz for what they did, but am puzzled about why lawyers would give them standing ovations. Is the Logan case, after all, not an extraordinarily tragic instance that illustrates that indeed the American legal system can be profoundly flawed?

My professor stated these facts to us in a fairly neutral way. So did a story on 60 Minutes, emphasizing the tragedy, but presenting the final result to the viewer as an issue for discussion.

Because I was older than most students in my class (made obvious by my widow’s peak and greying sideburns), my professor turned to me and asked me what I thought of the Logan case, carefully nuancing the question (as law professors like to do) so that I should have figured out that the “correct” answer was to praise the lawyers and show steely indifference to what happened to Logan. Instead, I expressed only remorse for Logan and suggested that certainly the legal profession as a whole should be smart or clever enough to invent some mechanism that could prevent such things from happening in the future.

As I recall that moment today, it probably represented my most important moment in law school. All law schools demand of their students a killing off the old child inside of them to become “adults.”

Every ounce of intimidation, innuendo, and even veiled threats came to me by this professor that day, and in essence, I hit him back with a cold fish. I paid for my insolence by getting a “D” in Professional Responsibility—the lowest grade I have ever received; the lowest grade this professor gave out that semester; and something that left me wondering how I could have screwed up such an otherwise easy course.

The official lesson that day in Professional Responsibility was why it is important for lawyers to be ice-coldly indifferent about the fate of innocent people whose lives are destroyed by the American legal system. Meanwhile, I can only see such lessons as a form of brainwashing.

If the goal of law professors is to teach young adults how to be cowardly super-citizens whose livelihoods depend on a type of human carnage that they never have to roll up their sleeves and be bothered about, then the legal profession is a parasitical and immoral institution. To quote Dickens, “then the law is an ass.”

I go one step further and imagine the monster in the movie Alien that has no emotion whatsoever and uses gutted human carcasses to feed its young. There is a profound human evil here that has nothing to do with how and why lawyers should follow their own rules of confidentiality, but has everything to do with creating a caste system in which the lives of non-lawyers are expendable in an effort to keep lawyers driving their BMWs to work every day in nice suits.

In light of such goals and attitudes, today I wear that “D” in Professional Responsibility with honor. Let anyone presently going through law school find their own definition for “adulthood,” but please, make it at least a multiple-choice question, not the true/false proposition that so many law professors and practicing lawyers are making it.