There is an interesting story that has been raging on conservative sites on the Internet but suddenly popped up on national television in a CNN interview. Conservatives are criticizing CNN host Carol Costello for abruptly ending a segment on Tuesday after a guest raised Hillary Clinton’s 1975 legal defense of an accused child rapist. I recently condemned an attack ad against Judge Jane Kelly (a widely respected former public defender) for representing a criminal defendant. The attack on Clinton is equally low grade and unfair.
The case involved the defense of a man accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in 1975. Clinton was a court-appointed attorney for Thomas Alfred Taylor, a 41-year-old accused of raping the child after luring her into a car. The suggestion of critics is that such people should not have court-appointed counsel or more importantly lawyers should not represent them (or face condemnation decades later).
The story drew life from the release of taped interviews where Clinton discusses the case and says that she used a a legal technicality to plead her client, who faced 30 years to life in prison, down to a lesser charge.
Hillary Rodham was just 27 when she moved to Fayetteville and was running the University of Arkansas’ legal aid clinic. Her work at the clinic is highly commendable and this is a standard request for such legal aid lawyers. Clinton later described it as “a fascinating case . . . a very interesting case.”
I think the thrust of the criticism of Clinton is unfair and inimical to the rule of law. It is impossible to believe in the rule of law without accepting core principles of the right to counsel and due process. This attack seeks to demonize lawyers for simply defending accused persons.
There is one aspect of the interview that does frankly bother me. Clinton says “I had him take a polygraph, which he passed – which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs.” She also seems to suggest that Taylor was saved by the fact that the crime lab accidentally destroyed DNA evidence that tied Taylor to the crime. I find that problematic, particularly in suggesting that a polygraph supporting a former client was clearly wrong — and that he was by extension clearly guilty. Clinton could defend these words by noting that Taylor did plead guilty and thus she is not sharing anything confidential.
The former prosecutor has supported Clinton and tried to explain (what should be obvious) that this is a duty of lawyers, particularly when court-appointed. Indeed, the litigation experience of Clinton is a strength in my view to her qualifications as someone who have been exposed (even if on a limited basis) to the criminal justice system.
There is a particularly criticism of a July 28, 1975 court affidavit where Clinton wrote that she had been informed the young girl was “emotionally unstable” and had a “tendency to seek out older men and engage in fantasizing.” However, the job of defense counsel is to challenge opposing witnesses including the accuser. They have a right to make such challenges in asserting their innocence. Clinton did precisely that in objection that the child had “in the past made false accusations about persons, claiming they had attacked her body” and that the girl “exhibits an unusual stubbornness and temper when she does not get her way.”
She also challenged the “evidentiary value of semen and blood samples collected by the sheriff’s office” by questioning the chain of custody — a standard, if not uniform, attack for defense counsel in such cases.
She told the interviewers that her client “plea bargained. Got him off with time served in the county jail, he’d been in the county jail for about two months.”
In the end, Taylor pleaded to unlawful fondling of a chid and was sentenced to one year in prison,with two months reduced for time served. He died in 1992.
This is a case of a court-appointed attorney performing the most important function of an attorney in representing an accused person in a heinous crime. She clearly do so zealously and effectively as she sworn to do in taking an oath as a lawyer. There are many criticisms of Clinton that have been discussed on this blog. I have often joined in that criticism over such things as the refusal to release the transcripts from Clinton’s speeches. However, this is one criticism that is, in my view, beyond the pale — even in this poisonous political environment.
You can listen to the tape here.