CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox Network, The Today Show, Good Morning America…his legal expertise is sought-after whenever a high-profile case hits the headlines. Whether it’s a celebrity who lands in the slammer after too much partying, a Capital murder case, or someone who has pushed the boundaries of the law and gotten caught—Knecht makes the difference between “not guilty” or serious jail time. Here he shares some thoughts on procedure, enforcement and why offenders are usually—if not always—presumed guilty rather than innocent.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Knecht’s family lived under persecution of the Nazi regime, before escaping to America where his father, a physician had to re-establish a medical career. It takes determination and hard work not only to become an attorney, but to stay on top—something that Knecht learned growing up. His family then moved to California where he attended Black Fox Military School, in Los Angeles then Hollywood High. After graduation he enrolled at USC, then headed to Southwestern Law School where he worked part-time as a law clerk for the L.A. County District Attorney’s office. Knecht served as District Attorney in charge of the Beverly Hills Judicial District and taught search and seizure at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. It was his early affiliation with famed attorney Harry Weiss (grandfather of all Los Angeles criminal lawyers) that led him to the defense side of the law. Over the years, Knecht has been called on by more than one headliner when they crossed the line of legal reason. From Robert Downey Jr., David Crosby, Dennis Hopper and Ryan and Tatum O’Neal to Andy Garcia, Heidi Fleiss, Robert Blake and beyond…there are few attorneys who have been both Prosecutor and Defense Attorney and know the law and how the system works better than James E. Silverstein.
More than one headline has police or D.A.’s altering the truth or manipulating the law to better a case. What’s the deal?
“D.A.’s do not lie under oath as they rarely take the stand and cases of those who have been untruthful are quite rare. There have been cases outside of Los Angeles where prosecutors have been reprimanded for failure to disclose evidence that could have exonerated a defendant at trial. The LAPD Rampart scandal brought to light and convinced skeptical jurors that ‘their finest’ are not as perfect as once believed. And the LAPD and D.A.’s office has paid the price ever since. As for police lying and manipulating the truth: unfortunately it can occur and we as counsel for the defense are able to see it a little more clearly than those who are not involved. Those who do stretch the truth eventually develop reputations that live with them.”
Does someone who can’t afford a big time attorney have the same chance as someone who has the big bucks to pay?
“It depends on what you’re comparing his/her chances to. Obviously he/she has a better chance in our system than in third world nations and even in major democratic powers. There are countries that invoke the death penalty in narcotics cases, cane you for vandalism, have no bail system or rules regarding timely arraignments and trials. In this country a defendant who can’t afford a lawyer is given a public defender or a court appointed lawyer in a case where his/her life or liberty are at stake. However, it’s becoming very difficult especially in death penalty cases to get the funding to properly defend these cases. Our country has a good system of justice, but it’s being chipped away at every year. Law and order is a political issue and you can only chip away at our system so long before we make our- selves vulnerable. As far as criminal cases, a good criminal defense attorney is the only thing between you and your liberty. There are three things that the State can do to punish you: take away your life, take away your freedom or take away your money and property. A good criminal defense attorney stands between you and losing what is most precious to you.”
Can a public defender adequately serve and protect the needs of their clients?
“Public Defenders are also counsel for the defense. Some are very competent, especially the old timers who have a lot of trial experience. Some of our best judges and criminal attorneys used to be public defenders. But they have a heavy calendar and represent about 90% of the criminal defendants in Los Angeles County—the majority of those are in custody because they can’t afford to post bail. Public defenders are overburdened and sometimes do not have the time for all the handholding necessary in private practice not only of the defendant, but also of his/her family.”
What improvements do you think the justice system could benefit from?
“That peace officers are required to have minimum two years of college; and later a full college degree should be required. Likewise we need to raise their pay scales accordingly and then make law enforcement a real profession rather than just a job. We also need to weed out recruits with psychological and personal problems. In California a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist can’t carry a gun, but a high school graduate who goes to a police academy for a few months can. Power is an easy thing to abuse and we have to be far more careful who we entrust it to. Also, police crime labs be taken out of law enforcement’s control and run by the private sector to ensure competence and fairness to the defendant and avoid the fiasco we saw in the Simpson case as well as other cases. Crime is a function of social and economic conditions. We should address the causes of crime by developing effective social programs and education, drug abuse treatment and employment. These things have a track record of effectiveness. Rather than building more prisons we should invest our criminal justice dollars in rehabilitative programs.”
Is anyone ever ‘presumed innocent’?
“Presumed innocence is an idea we would like to believe exists in this country, but in many ways it’s fictional. If the media does not favor a defendant, it’s difficult to shield that person from bad pre-trial public opinion which determines ongoing guilt regardless the outcome of a trial. For purposes of posting bail, you are usually if not always presumed guilty.”
By Suzanne Takowsky