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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Dial M for . . . wire fraud?

There was a great article in Sunday’s New York Times about how the drop in the crime rate in New York City has affected writers of crime fiction. Crime in all categories is down to record low levels. In 2007 there were only 494 homicides in the city – the fewest on record since reliable statistics became available in 1963. New York City, once the murder capital of the world, is now the third-safest large city in the U.S., after Honolulu and San Antonio.

Some crime writers maintain that the real crime rate has little to do with popular perception, and that the image of New York in the bad old days will never fade. Others have adapted by focusing on terrorism or trying to infuse financial crimes with suspense. But Donald Bain, author of the “Murder, She Wrote” book series, is nostalgic for the grittier days, when the wise guys connected to Vincent “Chin” Gigante would interrupt their sidewalk card game to escort his daughter safely home from the subway. Times have changed, indeed.

When I began my career in 1981 as a young Legal Aid lawyer trying cases in the South Bronx, the crime rate was truly astronomical. Lawlessness was epidemic and affected many facets of daily life in the city. On the other hand, I got lots of experience as a criminal trial lawyer. An often overlooked collateral consequence of the laudably low crime rate today is that young lawyers, be they prosecutors or public defenders, just don’t get to have the same number of courtroom face-offs.

A strong, experienced defense bar helps to preserve our constitutional rights. Seasoned defense lawyers can breathe precious life into the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to counsel because we are practiced veterans. Novelists can invent crimes, but lawyers can’t invent cross-examination skills. It takes practice, and lots of it.

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