CHICAGO — The question about how far lawyers can go in providing clients the strongest defense underlies a rare trial coming to a close in Chicago, where prosecutors accuse a prominent attorney of coaching defendants and witnesses to outright lie.
During closing arguments Thursday, a prosecutor accused Beau Brindley of fabrications in half a dozen criminal cases, saying they had distorted justice.
Brindley had “perpetrated … a total assault on the judicial system,” assistant U.S. attorney Michael Chmelar said. He added that the lies worked, securing acquittals on at least some counts in several of the cases at issue.
Among the allegations is that Brindley, 37, presented written scripts of questions that were likely to come up at trial, followed by false answers that he told clients and witnesses to memorize.
Brindley’s attorney, Cynthia Giacchetti, agreed that lying is at the core of the case. However, she said it was about Brindley’s clients lying to him and changing their stories in the trial lead-up.
“That’s what his case is about: People lie to their lawyers,” she said.
Lawyer jokes aside, the vast majority of the more than one million licensed American attorneys adhere to laws and ethical rules prohibiting them from lying on the job, said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law and a leading national authority on legal ethics.
“It’s extremely rare,” Gillers said about cases like Brindley’s. He said he could think of only two cases in recent memory of lawyers charged specifically for their work with clients and witnesses.
Some lawyers worried about a chilling effect from Brindley’s prosecution, citing the multiple versions of clients’ answers in pretrial prep entered as evidence at Brindley’s trials.
“If prosecutors win, lawyers might think, ‘I’m next,'” said Joseph Lopez, who represented reputed Chicago mobster Frank Calabrese Sr. at his 2007 trial. “All of us do trial preparation. And our clients sometimes tell different versions.”
Brindley, who made his name in Chicago with impassioned defenses of purported mobsters and drug traffickers, faces multiple counts of obstruction of justice and perjury. A lone perjury count carries a maximum 20-year prison term.
Brindley asked for a bench trial, so U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber — not jurors — will decide his fate.
The Iowa-born Brindley has openly boasted about spurning plea deals. But his aggressive strategy, according to his own testimony this week, doesn’t include encouraging lying to judges and juries. He insisted that his overriding message to clients was always, “You have to tell the absolute truth.”
Prosecutors say Brindley resorted to lies in part because he was promised payments beyond his regular legal fees if he won acquittals. Contingency payments are prohibited because they could be too strong an inducement to fabricate evidence.
Asked on the stand about the use of Q-and-As, Brindley said they were a standard tool for defense lawyers and prosecutors. He said they weren’t how-to guides to lying but, rather, a way of ensuring testimony was as consistent and accurate as possible.
But Gillers said most lawyers eschew the kind of question-and-answer scripts precisely because they can be construed as coaching witnesses to lie. He concedes, however, that “the ethics of witness preparation can be murky.”
“It is a lawyer’s responsibility to help a client present his side of the story,” the law professor said. “Sometimes certain words are more effective than other words.” But altering facts themselves would clearly cross the line, he added.
One reason cases like Brindley’s are so rare is because attorney-client privilege typically shields private interactions between lawyers and their clients from investigator scrutiny.
If convicted, Brindley could not only face years in prison but likely disbarment.