Attorney: Controlling Information Is Key to Protecting Incarcerated Athletes

Nov 20, 2009

By Jason Bacaj
“The Perfect Storm: The Intersection of Sports, the Law and the Media” was one of the more appropriately named panel discussions at a sports law symposium at Washington and Lee University on Nov. 11.
After all, a “perfect storm” is exactly what attorney Christopher Lyons, a panel participant, told Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donté Stallworth he needed if he was to get through his DUI manslaughter case and quickly get back on the field.
Criminal cases of high-profile athletes attract the attention of the national media. By the end of the trial, every fan has an opinion. And when the result is favorable for the athlete, as it was in the Stallworth case, many say the athlete received preferential treatment because of his status.
“I vehemently disagree with that,” Lyons said. “There’s a spotlight on the case and so everything you did was scrutinized. Everything was done in the public.”
The presence of an ever-vigilant media adds another dimension to the case, another relationship to manage, said Larry Woodward, attorney for Michael Vick and Allen Iverson. Controlling the release of information is the most effective way to handle the glare of the media spotlight. When an athlete misspeaks in the process of a trial, that statement can develop a life of its own in the blogosphere, creating momentum and swaying public opinion, sometimes leading to greater punishment.
“Confessions are good for the soul but seldom good for the body,” Woodward said.
But the 24-hour news cycle can work in favor of the athlete. In the Stallworth case, people were on the street recording his field sobriety test and taking pictures of the accident scene with cell phones, which was helpful for the defense, Lyons said.
If the relationship is cultivated and managed well, the media helps the defense in other ways, too. Woodward said that a reporter once tipped him that a blog was advocating for people to gather dog feces, mix them with water in a plastic bag to throw at Vick as he left the courtroom.
The relationship between a criminal defense attorney and the press, Woodward said, can be neatly summed up with the Bob Seger lyric, “I used her, she used me, neither one cared.”
For all the media hoopla surrounding trials of star athletes, the cases are resolved in a court of law, not the court of public opinion. The prosecution working against Stallworth did not have an airtight case, and he agreed to a plea bargain to serve 30 days in jail, serve 10 years probation and do 1,000 hours of community service. An out-of-court settlement was also reached with the family of the victim.
When a player conducts himself professionally on and off the field, it factors into how the court treats him. Stallworth, for example, had made many charitable contributions prior to his incident this summer.
“It helps if you’ve got a client with a good background, but it matters what he’s charged with,” Woodward said. “What you do is more important than what you say. What other people say about you is more important than what you say about yourself.”
Being a high-profile athlete does have its perks though. As the Stallworth’s civil case was wrapping up and the settlement finalized, Lyons said the lead prosecutor was planning to file another suit, full of inflammatory language. But if Stallworth could get him an authentic, signed Patriots jersey from the team’s undefeated 2007 regular season, the prosecutor said he wouldn’t file.
So while preferential treatment is a subjective term, one can objectively say that winning comes before everything else for sports fans.
“If he can help your team, they’re willing to forget anything,” Lyons said.


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