Lawyers who deserve to be celebrities

Greg King.
Greg King.

In the murky game we call the legal process few real heroes emerge. I am interested, then, in how defence lawyer Greg King has become a celebrity, which in the world of publicity - the acknowledged yardstick of merit - is the next best thing.

We haven't had much of a cult of celebrity lawyers here, unlike in the United States, where they write boastful books about their successes and fill TV slots regularly as tame experts, keeping their profiles up while swelling their bank accounts. It's all about winning, which as anyone with half a brain knows is not the same thing as determining the truth.

I don't mean to rob Mr King of his glory. He ran a remarkable defence of Ewen Macdonald, recently found not guilty of killing his brother-in-law, Scott Guy. The public, we're told, was not wholly impressed by that outcome, but it was a win nonetheless.

Coroner Garry Evans.
Coroner Garry Evans.

I was impressed with what I saw of Mr King's manner in court, rising to hammy Shakespearean at times, accompanied by dramatic gestures, which look especially nifty in lawyer's robes. Doubtless he was sincere; he certainly shouted a fair bit; but, equally doubtless, he knew the camera was on him.

While Mr King seems to be the darling of my colleagues, his status would be rather different in America, where there are many more trial lawyers of great ability, and many points of view expressed.

In that country there is full and open debate on every aspect of a criminal case from the start.

Prosecutors are considered just as important and interesting as trial lawyers, and their wins are praised accordingly. They don't have one hand tied behind their backs the way they do here, where our law doesn't allow for so much freedom of information, and they're expected to be shadowy figures for reasons to do with some notion like professional dignity. Compared with them, trial lawyers like Mr King are bathed in light in this country. His own TV series is the icing on the cake.

I don't blame Mr King for any of this. He can get away with it, after all, and getting away with things is the essence of the law as we know it, but in this country it's a one-sided game with few checks and balances. He who dares gets to hold the mike. 

I do have a hero in the legal system just now, though. It's coroner Garry Evans, who last week presented his findings, after an inquisitorial investigation, into the case of the Kahui twins. He laid the blame for their deaths on their father who, as we all know, was tried and found not guilty of their deaths.

As with the Macdonald case, not everyone applauded that result at the time. The public will have its whims, despite being regularly chastised by lawyers in a lofty way for not admiring the elegance of their game.

Mr Evans, also a lawyer, is now 71-years-old, an age at which nobody gets gushing poolside interviews from eager journalists and few people even get noticed. And what is remarkable is that he lost his job five years ago, for being good at it, it seems. He was hastily reappointed a week later, after a public outcry.

Mr Evans, the least flashy man imaginable, is the courageous, if unphotogenic, conscience of the system. As a 2007 report put it when he was dumped, he'd been a thorn in the side of negligent authorities, "controversially taking the lead on issues such as suicide, highway fatalities and hospital failures".

Kapiti emergency trauma doctor Chris Lane had this to say at the time: "He's just a very wise man. You put 10 men in his position and 10 men wouldn't have done the job he's done. He's been a tremendous voice for the public conscience."

You don't get higher praise than that, or more deserved - yet you wouldn't recognise Mr Evans in the street. Somehow that makes him all the more admirable.

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