The law is pretty clear on a lawyer's ethical duty when he makes statements regarding his clients. The lawyer may neither divulge confidences nor make statements adverse to the client's interests.
The rule is clear enough, but it is violated all the time in innocuous ways. Lawyers go home to their wives and describe the horrifying day they had. They gather with other lawyers in corridors of courthouse or in local watering holes and tell stories about their cases. Arguably, lawyers could be seeking advice from their professional colleagues, thus including them in the attorney-client privilege, but usually they're just telling stories.
In short, lawyers do describe to their friends facts surrounding their cases, and those discussions often evaluate the strength of their cases. Ideally, and most often, they omit the names of their clients, but their listeners are frequently able to identify them. One very famous lawyer routinely jokes about his former client's guilt. Alan Dershowitz said to his criminal law class at Harvard: "If O.J. does it again. ... By that, I mean gets another speeding ticket."
Because few lawyers absolutely observe the prohibition on making statements against their clients' interest, it's often unclear precisely where the practically accepted line is. Part of the reason there's a gap between the categorical prohibition on lawyers' making statements against their clients' interest and the realities of lawyers' lives is enforcement. The odds of a communication between an attorney and his wife ever impairing his client's interest are remote. The odds that a client will ever learn of his lawyer's barroom discussion are slim. So for a lot of lawyers, the rule against making a statement against his client's interest has a practical exception — if the odds are low enough that his statement could harm his client's interest, he or she will often talk.
It's not appropriate, and I don't teach my students that this is acceptable, but for a lot of lawyers it is the reality. And it would be difficult if not impossible to police the actual rule that forbids any negative statement.
Friday, however, Joe Amendola told a crowd of reporters in the Centre County Courthouse awaiting the verdict that he would be shocked if his client was acquitted of all the counts.
This after months of denying Sandusky's guilt. This after an impassioned and excellent closing argument in which he explained how all the alleged victims had fallen prey to investigators' coaching and then sought to cash in.
And, perhaps most significantly, after the judge issued a gag order expressing forbidding anyone in the case from commenting on Sandusky's guilt or innocence.
This wasn't a comment to fellow lawyers who are unlikely to have any reason to communicate the information to others. This wasn't a private communication to his wife. His statements were made in a mini-press conference in the courtroom where his client had stood trial and where the jury could come and announce its verdict at any time. His comments were made to reporters who have the right — arguably the obligation — to report his words to a national audience that has been captivated by this case.
This wasn't a comment that could never harm his client, in other words. There could be a hung jury, necessitating another trial. And there will surely be civil lawsuits. Amendola's comments, which will be heard throughout Centre County and around the country, could easily prejudice his clients' future interests.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, this isn't a comment for which there is no ready enforcement mechanism. It is unlikely that Sandusky will file a complaint with the ethics board. But Judge John Cleland, who maintained very strict control over this trial, issued a specific order forbidding comments on guilt or innocence.
Certainly, he must have anticipated the prosecution's making disparaging comments about Sandusky, but his order didn't allow an exception for Sandusky's lawyer to suggest his own client's guilt. Cleland may well regard this as a breach of the decorum he has worked so hard to maintain. And unlike an ethics board, he has the ability to act swiftly and the power to hold Amendola in contempt.
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