I’ve participated in a lively discussion over on the Newsarama forum concerning the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) and the Gordon Lee case. And when I refer to it as lively, I, of course, mean that the discussion often breaks out into flame wars.
The whole thing takes me back to Usenet circa 1994. I find it to be most peculiar because people who claim to be such extreme free speech lovers seem to have very little patience for anyone else’s free speech when that speech does not agree with their own.
I have been mostly focusing on the policy the CBLDF has of only taking on cases where the defendant agrees not to accept a plea deal in exchange for a lesser penalty. I thought this severely limited a defendant’s options. This is what FindLaw has to say about plea bargains:
The vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through a “plea bargain”, usually well before the case reaches trial. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge than one for which the defendant could stand trial, in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and/or so that certain related charges are dismissed. For both the government and the defendant, the decision to enter into (or not enter into) a plea bargain may be based on the seriousness of the alleged crime, the strength of the evidence in the case, and the prospects of a guilty verdict at trial. Plea bargains are generally encouraged by the court system and have become something of a necessity due to overburdened criminal court calendars and overcrowded jails.
I believe the CBLDF’s no-plea bargain policy causes cases to continue far longer and cost far more money than they really need to. For example, the Gordon Lee case. This case is currently in its third year and has cost $80,000. It hasn’t yet even gone to trial. The CBLDF asks for people to donate more money because the case will cost at least another $20,000.
That’s a lot of money for someone being charged with two (2) misdemeanors. Especially when the facts in the case are not in dispute. Gordon Lee does not deny that a 6-year old child was given an adult comic book featuring nudity and obscenities. His defense is that giving a child a comic book featuring nudity and obscene language shouldn’t be illegal and that the Georgia law making it illegal is wrong.
The other day I decided to email the CBLDF and ask them if it was true. Did they have a policy only to take on cases where the accused agreed not to accept a plea deal? The next day I received a response from Charles Brownstein, Executive Director of the CBLDF.
Since Charles Brownstein posted his reply on the Newsarama forum, I feel free to post it here as well:
Dear Mr. Rottman,
Thank you for your interest in the Comic Book
Legal Defense Fund.
It is the Fund’s policy to offer legal support
to cases accepted by the Board of Directors, and
our legal support is contingent on the defendant
having an affirmative not-guilty plea, and that
they do not opt to plea bargain.
The reason for the latter is because the Fund
does not set out to participate in creating
precedent that will be harmful to the First
Amendment rights of other retailers. A plea
bargain is a conviction that can be used as
precedent in other cases.
This policy simply formalizes a reality.
Retailers who would actively seek a plea bargain
from the outset wouldn’t be contacting the CBLDF
in the first place, because they wouldn’t be
incurring extensive legal bills. It is those
retailers who are not guilty of the crimes for
which they are accused, and who intend to make a
stand to prove their innocence, that ask for
support from the Fund.
Naturally, it is always the client’s choice to
do what is best for him or herself, and the
CBLDF respects that. Should a client accept a
plea bargain, the Fund does not withdraw or
require reimbursement of the funds spent on the
case. But it is our position that we exist to
protect the First Amendment rights of both the
defendant and the industry at large. The best
way to defend other retailers against later
legal prosecution is to see a case through to
trial wherever possible, so as to ensure that a
harmful precedent is not set by a plead
I hope that this speaks to your concern and I
thank you again for the interest in the Fund.
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
271 Madison Ave
New York, NY 10016
He mentions that the CBLDF does not require a client that accepts a plea bargain to reimburse them for the funds spent. The inference is that this is something they could do if they were so inclined to do so. I maintain that it is not. They do not have the power to do this. A defendant cannot be penalized for looking out for their own best interests. This certainly includes not going to prison. Sometimes a defendant’s best option is to accept a plea deal, especially when it means not going to jail. A defendant that takes assistance from the CBLDF may very well feel obligated not to take a deal even though it is clearly in their best interest.
When a defendant faces the possibility of going to prison, their priority should be to themselves and their own freedom. It should not be to the legal precedent the plea bargain may or may not cause. It’s not like any of the board members of the CBLDF have to worry about going to prison.
I honestly cannot understand what the CBLDF is trying to prove in this case. It’s not as though anyone is trying to ban comic books that show nudity or contain obscene language. The prosecutor’s contention is simply that comics such as this shouldn’t be given to small children. I totally agree.