Balloon Family Attorney: Dizzy or Well-spun?

HandcuffsRecent news stories, most notably those in The New York Times and on NBC’s Today Show, have taken particular note of the comments of David Lane, the attorney representing Richard Heene (Balloon Dad) regarding the upcoming, perhaps inevitable, arrest of Mr. Heene and potentially his wife (who is being represented by a different attorney).

Mr. Lane’s comments are best summarized by one of his talking points (because that’s what it is, let’s not kid ourselves) in his interview with the Today Show — “Do not do the perp walk for media consumption and arrest these people in full view of their children. That’s child abuse.”

Wow.  My gut reaction to this was very negative (in a PR sense).  The current sentiment (based on the Times article) is that the charges the couple potentially face are “conspiracy to commit a crime, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and attempt to influence a public servant.”  Contributing to the delinquency of a minor is a far cry from child abuse.

So why in the world would this man’s attorney be the first (or at the very least the loudest) to use the term child abuse.  Seemed like an amateur mistake.  As a spokesperson you never really want to be the first one to use language with that kind of baggage.  Pretty true all around, even on television :). . . .

and for your viewing pleasure, a quick West Wing clip covering the topic.  The relevant part starts at 1:45 and ends at 4:30 with an important part around 2:22.

To sum up, in non-West Wing terms, the press secretary mentions the phrase sub poena when questioned by the 4th estate over allegations of drug use among White House staffers.  A journalist-friend admonishes her (privately) for being the first to use the phrase and putting it into play.  Journalist ends up being right and sub poena is above the fold in each of the next day’s papers.

So why in the world would Mr. Lane toss out such a heavy word.  Even though it wasn’t referring to the charges his client could face, it puts the word out there, makes people think about it.  There’s no winning it would seem.  Or is there?

As mentioned, it seems like an amateur mistake, but Mr. Lane’s bio shows that he’s no amateur. NYC Legal Aid, NAACP Lecturer, taught at University of Colorado and University of Denver law schools, “Certified by U.S. District Court for accepting federal criminal appointments including death penalty cases at trial, on appeal, and in post-conviction.”  He’s got game.

Perhaps more bizarre is that this entire dialog is based on Mr. Lane’s plea that Mr. Heene not be arrested in front of his children because it would amount to “child abuse.”

There are so many aspects of this that appear to be a problem —

1) It’s plainly NOT child abuse.  If anything it provides an education of actions and consequences.  The state thinks your father did these things, they are going to arresting him, he’s going to cooperate, make bail, be home tonight, then there’s going to be a trial, etc.  This is the way our justice system works.  It’s not Judge Judy (we know the family is well acquainted with reality TV).  Speaking as a father, would it be lousy?  Of course.  Traumatic for the kids? Perhaps (but really only if I fought or didn’t brief the kids on what might happen). Child abuse — no.

2) There are better ways to accomplish the same goal. This is Larimer County, CO.  A county of just over a quarter a million people spread out over 2600 square miles (by comparison, the NYC counties are 8 million spread out over 309 square miles).  Can’t we all agree there are (at least) two better ways to ensure the kids are not subjected to seeing their father arrested:

a) Ask quietly and nicely.  This is the biggest thing to hit Larimer County in a while.  Ask nicely, there’s no need to try to embarrass the sherriff.  If the sheriff comes barging in Elian Gonzalez style anyway you’ve got a fantastic PR-win.  Particularly if you also take the time to …

b) Get the kids out of Dodge until the arrest happens or it blows over.  Send them to stay with a relative, bring grandma (aunt, uncle, whoever) over and when there’s a knock at the door send the kids to the basement to play, keep the TV off for the rest of the day so they don’t see dad kidnapped by aliens taken away by deputies and get on with it.

Both of these seem simpler than talking to the Times or the Today show and throwing around the phrase “child abuse”

Except … Mr. Lane has game, he knows most readers and viewers are only going to remember that the term child abuse was used.  They won’t remember that it was the attorney of the father that used it.  Or that he used it referring to what the sheriff would be doing to the kids if he arrested their father in their presence.  The average media-adled viewer will remember “child abuse” and assume it’s a term that was being leveled at the yet-to-be charged Mr. Heene.

Then the balloon bomb drops — when the charges are formalized and all the arrests made, what we’ll have, in a worst case scenario regarding this particular matter, is Mr. Heene charged with child abuse, which the public has already been prepared for, or the lesser offense of contributing to the delinquency of a minor which will seem harmless in comparison.  At that point Mr. Lane can take the microphone and explain how his client in no way abused his child as borne out by the charges that have actually been brought.

There’s also the added benefits of tainting the jury pool in Larimer County.  You can bet there’s at least one person out there who’s read the articles, or seen the news, and when asked during Voir Dire what they think of Mr. Heene, is going to say, “Oh, he’s a child abuser” which won’t even be one of the charges on the table.

Excellent play Mr. Lane.  Are you sure you don’t want a part of our business?

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  • Ah, Cog, thank you for some West Wing in my morning! I disagree (respectfully, of course) with your theory regarding the reason behind Lane's use of the word child abuse.

    According to CNN, authorities are reportedly concerned about the safety of the three children and spoke at length with the mom about domestic violence and the children's safety. This story hasn't really surfaced as a headline yet and by associating the phrase with the police department, Lane could be taking the leap first in hopes of taking any child abuse heat off of his clients.

    I'm not sure if either motive will be completely effective. This family is going to be under scrutiny and followed for some time. It's going to be hard for them to do anything without a photo being taken, including visiting the local court house to pick up a warrant.

    On a side note, why didn't Heene or Lane just call the Sheriff's Department to see if there was an outstanding warrant? He could have turned himself in and none of this would have been an issue.

  • Hey Brenda –

    Thanks for the comment. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out regarding what charges are filed and the response. Though using the phrase in reference to what the police might do certainly (I hope) came with much forethought into making it a rallying cry.

    As I understand it, as of yesterday, no warrant had been issued. Lane is/was apparently concerned that the warrant will be issued and his clients won't be given the opportunity to turn themselves in before deputies come knocking on the door. Seems a bit farfetched to me. Even in a worst case scenario there are better ways to have the children not be exposed to any more of the media circus than they already have.

    Thanks again 🙂

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  • Ah, Cog, thank you for some West Wing in my morning! I disagree (respectfully, of course) with your theory regarding the reason behind Lane's use of the word child abuse.

    According to CNN, authorities are reportedly concerned about the safety of the three children and spoke at length with the mom about domestic violence and the children's safety. This story hasn't really surfaced as a headline yet and by associating the phrase with the police department, Lane could be taking the leap first in hopes of taking any child abuse heat off of his clients.

    I'm not sure if either motive will be completely effective. This family is going to be under scrutiny and followed for some time. It's going to be hard for them to do anything without a photo being taken, including visiting the local court house to pick up a warrant.

    On a side note, why didn't Heene or Lane just call the Sheriff's Department to see if there was an outstanding warrant? He could have turned himself in and none of this would have been an issue.

  • Hey Brenda –

    Thanks for the comment. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out regarding what charges are filed and the response. Though using the phrase in reference to what the police might do certainly (I hope) came with much forethought into making it a rallying cry.

    As I understand it, as of yesterday, no warrant had been issued. Lane is/was apparently concerned that the warrant will be issued and his clients won't be given the opportunity to turn themselves in before deputies come knocking on the door. Seems a bit farfetched to me. Even in a worst case scenario there are better ways to have the children not be exposed to any more of the media circus than they already have.

    Thanks again 🙂