Bar News - October 21, 2015
Opinion: ‘Battlestar Galactica’ Lawyer Shows How to Change Perceptions
By: Tony Sculimbrene
Atticus Finch (pre-Go Set a Watchman) is an easy and worthy icon for lawyers and especially public defenders. But if there is one fictional lawyer I really enjoyed (besides Vinny from the surprisingly accurate My Cousin Vinny), it is a character named Romo Lampkin.
Lampkin, played by character actor Mark Sheppard, is a public defender in the updated version of Battlestar Galactica. His dubious ethical choices make him less icon-worthy than Atticus, but his shining moment is truly an amazing commentary on what a good lawyer can do.
Lampkin’s client, Baltar, is a former leader of a colony of humans. When the aliens (inevitably) invade, instead of valiantly leading a resistance against them, Lampkin calculates the odds, sees the obvious benefit to himself, and surrenders the entire human race. Even in the show it was depicted as a deceitful and cowardly act. Eventually the humans (inevitably) escape and, once they do, they capture Baltar and put him on trial.
The rage against Baltar is palpable. He is seen as a traitor against all of humanity. There are many attempts on his life. The audience, for more than a year’s worth of shows, is taught to dislike Baltar, to want his undoing, and to enjoy when he suffers for all of the suffering he had caused.
The trial starts and the prosecution’s opening is devastating. Fact after fact after fact condemning Baltar comes out. The audience, both in the show’s trial and the actual TV audience, conditioned to hate Baltar, has a sense that he is about to get his due.
Then, Romo Lampkin begins his opening. He calls to the judge by name and tells the judge that he’d like to change his client’s plea to guilty. He tells the panel of judges and the audience that his client’s guilt is obvious, especially after hearing all that the prosecutor laid out. He doesn’t dispute the facts. Baltar did surrender. He did give up and let the aliens conquer humanity. But then Lampkin does what all good lawyers do – he changes the perspective. The facts remain the same, but their meaning and implications are different. He lays out his facts. Humanity, while enslaved by alien masters, survived, unlike the first encounter with the aliens that wiped out the vast majority of the human race. The previous leader, Baltar’s rival, had led the failed and deadly battles with the aliens, but after Baltar’s surrender, virtually no one died. But, as Lampkin points out, people want justice and when the mob wants justice, what difference do facts make?
This speech, for all its theatricality, is quite effective. Lampkin breaks the spell of hatred against Baltar. In just a few seconds, Baltar goes from traitor to a leader that had no other choice. Lampkin goes on to (inevitably) win the trial, and Baltar is released from custody.
In many cases, most of the facts aren’t all that much in dispute, but the audience’s perspective of them remains malleable. In those cases, the ability to show things in a new and different light is tremendously helpful. I have had cases in which the State’s opening is very powerful. Our opening needs to level the field, change the jury’s perspective. The State says it was stalking, but the victim’s house is on the defendant’s route to and from work. The State says it was a domestic assault, but there is a divorce pending and the parties are fighting for leverage in a custody battle. Facts remain, but perspective and meaning shifts.
Lampkin’s opening is a perfect example of this. Understanding the facts and being meticulous with them is crucial in front of a jury. Using those facts and changing perspectives is something that wins trials. Lampkin may not be my lawyer idol, but he is great fun to watch – just like the very best trial lawyers.
Tony Sculimbrene is a public defender in the Nashua office of the NH Public Defender. His views are not necessarily those of his employer.