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Monday, September 1, 2008
Secret lies

Alton Logan, 54, recently walked out of a Cook County, Illinois jail in the USA, after serving 26 years of a life sentence for murdering a security guard, when two lawyers revealed that a client had told them 26 years ago that he had committed the murder. Andrew Wilson confessed that he had shot the security guard to death in 1982 but refused to let the attorneys reveal this information till after Wilson’s death.

The two attorneys, who were public defenders, wrote down details of the confession in an affidavit and locked it in a metal box. Wilson died of natural causes in November 2007 whilst serving a life sentence for the murder of two police officers. In January 2008, the two lawyers testified in court on Logan’s behalf about their former client’s confession.
The lawyers, according to strict legal ethics, were not entitled to reveal the information that was given to them by the client in confidence. Information given to an attorney in order to be able to obtain legal advice is protected from disclosure. Legal professional privilege is regarded as a rule of law needed in order to preserve attorney/client secrets. If lawyers were to talk about the things said to them in confidence, there would be a breakdown in the criminal law system. It is ironic, however, that lawyers who learn things about money laundering and tax evasion are obliged by law to speak out but there is no equivalent law when someone is languishing in jail.
One wonders whether the two lawyers were justified in not doing something more than they did. In the first place it is hard to see what their client was seeking legal advice about. One of the lawyers said that their client Wilson “kind of chuckled over the fact that someone else was charged with something he did”. If Wilson was not being charged at the time he spoke to the lawyers, what legal advice was he seeking that justified their silence? At least after a period, when there could be no connection made to Wilson himself, the public defenders could surely have gone to the authorities and said that they had heard such a confession even if they could not give details of the client or other surrounding circumstances.
In the meantime Alton Logan has to go through another trial because a retrial has been ordered not an acquittal. The evidence first has to be led before he can be freed.
This sort of situation has other ironies as well. A Texas man who was recently acquitted on DNA evidence after serving 27 years in prison for murder of his girlfriend could have been released earlier if he had admitted his “guilt”.
You cannot do away with the law of professional privilege. We do need to find a way of avoiding serious consequences to the innocent whilst at the same time preserving the rights of the guilty. By Patrick Bracher, Deneys Reitz
Deneys Reitz clients include major industrial and commercial corporations, mining houses, parastatals, government departments and financial institutions. For more information please visit www.deneysreitz.co.za.

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:21.8 1st September, 2008
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