The Court of Special Appeals had just granted his most famous client a new trial, and C. Justin Brown was having a press conference at his downtown Baltimore office. On the table between him and the assembled reporters that March afternoon was a small tripod, about 6 inches tall, holding up his phone.
Brown was livestreaming the Q&A to people all over the country and abroad who had been captivated by the story of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
“People loved it because it allowed the people who have been with us from the beginning (…) to come behind the scenes and sit in on the press conference as if they were a reporter,” Brown recalled last week.
Brown is part of what he calls “a small club of attorneys” who are representing clients whose cases have been chronicled in popular shows and podcasts – and therefore have people following their cases around the world with rapt attention.
Brown has been representing Syed since 2009, long before he was the subject of the internationally acclaimed “Serial” podcast.
“When ‘Serial’ came out, the case was kind of dormant,” said Brown, who was not involved in the podcast. “I had to some extent stepped back from it because there wasn’t a whole lot I could do.”
But as the podcast became more popular, that changed.
“One particular day,” he said, “I kind of had an epiphany that there was this kind of runaway train where you’ve got all of these people who are there to support Adnan and there’s all these resources that are emerging and even that there’s new evidence emerging. I had to step up and take control of it.”
‘Will this help?’
Brown opened his Twitter account as “Serial” was winding down in late 2014. With the help of Syed’s family friend and advocate Rabia Chaudry, Brown launched his “Twitter career,” and now has nearly 28,000 followers.
“I think the conventional wisdom for a very long time, particularly with criminal defense attorneys, is that you never let your client talk to the press and you just keep your mouth shut,” he said. “But I think that dynamic has really changed in the last five years. We have seen that through ‘Making a Murderer,’ through ‘Serial’ and through various other media.”
Even as a solo practitioner, Brown is able to run his own press operation. He posts updates on Syed’s case on Twitter and blogs about recent developments on his firm’s website.
“There was a time, not too long ago, when if you wanted something publicized, as an attorney, you had to cultivate relationships with reporters and call them up and hope that they do a story on what you want them to do a story on. That’s something that’s very hard to sustain,” Brown said.
But before he sends a tweet or blogs, Brown asks one question: Will this help my client?
“I have tweeted about other cases with adhering strictly to the principle that I’m strategically sending out a tweet,” he said. “Either I think some great injustice has occurred and by raising public awareness or it I think that might help in some way. Or I’m defending their reputation.”
While much of his online following stems from the Syed case, Brown has been using his platform to draw attention to other cases.
Earlier this month, Brown shared the story of Lloyd Hall, a client who was released from prison July 14 after being locked up for 34 years under Maryland’s “three strikes” law, which classified Hall as a violent offender even though his predicate offenses were not violent.
“That was a case to me that’s just as important as the Syed case,” Brown wrote.
Brown deliberately didn’t publicize the case before Hall was released in case there was a setback.
“Once we did win, I wanted the world to know and Lloyd wanted the world to know. So, I was in a fortunate position to be able to do that,” Brown said.
Brown also uses his blog to clear the names of clients who are arrested but the charges are subsequently dropped. Brian Parker, for example, was indicted in federal court only for prosecutors to drop the case. But Parker’s indictment was publicized, so Brown used his blog to clear his client’s name. That post is one of the most-read, non-Syed items on Brown’s website. It’s also the first thing that comes up when someone searches Parker’s name online.
“It might seem like a small thing but to Brian Parker, that’s something that’s really important to him and has helped him get on his feet and today he’s incredibly successful,” Brown said. “I think that because now we can have greater control over the message that we put out there through social media, we need to consider using it. I’m not saying you will use it, but you need to consider it and determine whether it will benefit your client.”
While it may seem unusual for a defense attorney to be publicly sharing updates about his clients’ cases, for Brown, it’s a chance to use his skills from his prior career as a journalist. Brown was a reporter for 10 years and nominated for Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Balkans before he made a career change and went to law school.
When he tweets or writes, he dons the “journalist cap” by sharing timely information to a large audience. He admitted he is not objective but tries to toe that line when necessary.
“If you look at the blog post I did about Lloyd Hall, I kind of did it in a journalistic style. If you write something in a completely partisan manner, people are not going to take it seriously,” Brown said.
Brown remains very selective about taking post-conviction cases; it’s about 25 percent of his practice but is the part that has put him into the limelight. Having an active online presence has helped. Brown has gotten national cases from people finding him on social media. Typically, it’s a son or daughter of someone whose dad has been charged or convicted of something and finds Brown on Twitter.
“I’ve been retained on a couple of national cases under those circumstances. That’s good for business.”