Taking on the media

La Cañada resident and former deputy district attorney Walt Lewis said it took him about four years to complete the writing and editing his book, “The Criminal Justice Club” but the reality was that he had been preparing to tell this story for most of his professional life.

“I've been collecting statistics since the 1970s,” Lewis said. “I was waiting for somebody else to write this book, but they didn't.”

Lewis served as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney from 1968 to 2000 and in those years he prosecuted cases from murder to white collar crimes. In his book he takes the reader from his beginnings as a young liberal ACLU member and civil rights demonstrator to his role as a conservative prosecutor.

“My main goal of this book is to educate the public,” Lewis said. He added that he was surprised how little the public knew about the actual workings of the justice system but admitted that he too fell victim to the same misconceptions when he was younger. He got most of his information on the justice system from the print media and television.

“I grew up watching 'Perry Mason' and 'The Defenders' where the D.A. was always the bad guy,” said Lewis.

He joined the district attorney's office because he wanted to see what the other side of the courtroom was like. What he found surprised him.

“I found statistics like those [convicted] in first degree murder in 1976 served the average of 10 years and three months,” he said. “Only people who saw the statistics, which I would imagine would be the very few, would know about this.”

Because he felt that the jury was the true power behind the criminal justice system he continued to be disturbed by misleading reporting on several cases.

His book is a look at the legal system from a prosecutor's point of view. It is critical of the media who, Lewis writes, “does a poor job of giving the public accurate information about how the system works.” His criticism is backed by extensive research and validated through examples of articles, specifically those published by the Los Angeles Times.

Lewis asserts the media may not actually lie about the cases they cover, but they omit important facts, which can lead to a biased look at the issue.

An example given in his book concerns Bill O'Reilly, talk show host on FOX network, when he called for the defeat of Judge Harry Rapkin in Sarasota, Fla. because he didn't revoke the probation of Joseph P. Smith, who was eventually convicted of kidnapping and murder of an 11-year-old girl. The media reported that days before the child's murder, the parole officer had requested Smith's parole be revoked. What was not reported, said Lewis, was that the parole violation was due to Smith being $400 behind on his court-appointed payments.

“Smith could not be put into jail unless the D.A. proved he had the money and refused to pay,” Lewis said.

Lewis explained that would require the district attorney to send out investigators to find if Smith really had the money and most offices do not have the money or time to send out investigators. He added that if the judge had found him in violation he could hold him for only a few days, not months or years. “So everybody piled on this judge. He may have been a terrible judge in other respects, I have no idea, but in this case he was following the law.”

Lewis added that large newspapers and networks, like the LA Times and FOX, have legal departments that are supposed to research stories that are being reported, however many pertinent points are not conveyed to the public.

Another prime example he discusses is the way the media handles the term “circumstantial evidence,” he said.

“The talking heads on TV and writers keep saying this and I can't believe that no one has ever told them that greatest case for a D.A. is [one with] circumstantial evidence,” Lewis said. “And, when the talking heads keep saying this, someone should ask them what other type of evidence is there. They [most likely] wouldn't have a clue. The only thing they have ever heard of is circumstantial and the word 'only' is almost always placed before it.”

Lewis explained that the other type of evidence is called “direct evidence,” which involves an eyewitness. He said this is often not the best evidence, because the attorney is dependent upon a person who may have seen the suspect for a short while in a tense situation. He points out that circumstantial evidence includes fingerprints and DNA.

Although in his book he does point out several articles in the LA Times that are misleading, he does give the paper its due when an article is well researched.

Lewis admits that he knows this is going to be a controversial book because he is taking on media giants, but says he tried to be fair in his analysis. He has not yet heard from anyone in the media, but has had some very positive reaction from his colleagues.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley ordered several books and then sent an e-mail to Lewis. Cooley wrote: “Retired Deputy District Attorney Walt Lewis makes his case about failures and weaknesses of the criminal justice system. This is a must read by those in and out of the system who want to make it work. Probably the best insight into California's penal and court system that has come along in a long time. A story that only could have been told by someone of Walt Lewis' prosecutorial experience.”

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