Wednesday, June 5, 2002
Public Defender Seeks to Change Office’s Image With Possible Television Deal
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
It may come as a shock to the television-viewing public, but real-life deputy public defenders drive nice cars.
While prosecutors are portrayed on TV as squeaky clean “suits” who confidently stride into court and wrap up their cases in a half-hour or hour-long episode without breaking a sweat, public defenders are more likely to be played by actors in crumpled suits who rush into court late and are sometimes indistinguishable from their indigent clients.
That is exactly the image the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office wants to combat. The office’s chief, Michael Judge, wants to make his case in the same venue that gave public defenders “bad rap” in the first place: primetime television.
“I think the media, through movies and television, have done a horrible job of portraying the job we do,” Deputy Public Defender Nan Whitfield said.
On May 21, the county Board of Supervisors gave the go-ahead for the Public Defender’s Office to draw up an agreement between the office and television producer Jay Bernstein and his company, Jay Bernstein Productions, to turn over the exclusive media rights to what goes on inside the office.
Pre-Production Under Way
The contract between the two sides still has to be hashed out and approved by the Board of Supervisors, but representatives from Bernstein’s office said plans for a drama television series based on the stories of Judge’s deputy public defenders and their cases is in pre-production.
The Public Defender’s Office was approached by Bernstein a few months ago about the possibility of a deal and representatives of the office saw the project is an opportunity to enhance the image of public defenders, Chief Deputy Public Defender Robert E. Kalunian said.
“We do have a PR problem,” he said.
Deputy public defenders represent only indigent clients who cannot afford to provide a lawyer for themselves, a stigma that tends to extend to the lawyers who represent the indigent, Whitfield said.
“This could potentially be a good opportunity to educate the public about what we do,” Alternate Public Defender Janice Fukai said, noting the prevalence of positive images of district attorneys in movies and television shows.
But while the idea of juicing up the image of its attorneys may be tempting for the office, there is a danger of just reinforcing the public’s view.
“I think a TV show would want to cater to the public perception and not to the truth,” Whitfield, who handles capital cases, said.
Bernstein, who is known for his work on CBS’ “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer,” did not return calls for comment, but spokesman Edward Lozzi said the producer wants to show the “positive side of the public defender.”
In a show that could be billed as the office’s version of Jack Webb’s “Dragnet”—which built its shows around case files of the Los Angeles Police Department—Judge will have discretion to decide which cases are the “most spectacular or interesting” and turn them over to Bernstein, Lozzi said.
A spokesman for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who brought the motion before the board, said Bernstein’s reputation as a producer of many television series and made for television movies dating back more than 20 years speaks for itself.
“This could really happen,” Joel Bellman said. “He’s not just talking.”
Several notable names are expected to star in the series as criminals and deputy public defenders if it is picked up by a network, Lozzi said.
“Farrah Fawcett is going to be one of his stars,” he said.
Kalunian said the project is still in its very early stages and he said it is a possibility that it would be a made-for-television movie and not a series. The amount of control Judge will have over the content of the show and other details will have to be worked out in negotiations, but there will probably be some theatrical license over the material, he said. But whatever that license, the names of the people involved in cases handled by the Public Defender’s Office will be changed and identities will be protected, Kalunian said.
This is not the first time the county has agreed to have the real-life drama of its departments played out on the small screen. The long-running television show “Baywatch” was based on the county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors, and Emergency and Rescue 8 were patterned after the county’s Fire Department.
Deputy public defenders were not consulted by office higher-ups before talks between Bernstein were initiated, but Whitfield said she has the utmost confidence that Judge would make the decision will the client in mind.
“I don’t think he would sell out our clients’ interest in an effort to negotiate a deal for a TV show,” Whitfield said.
While the contract may be a few weeks off, and the show or movie even further off than that, that has not stopped attorneys in the office from contemplating who should portray them. Whitfield already has someone picked out.
“If it can’t be Halle Berry, then there’s no negotiations,” she quipped.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company