Defending Masters of the Universe in White-Collar Cases

It isn’t a crime to be rich, but defending the rich often brings its own set of issues.

Ashish S. Joshi and Andrew Bossory

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“A $90,000 area rug, a $35,000 toilet, a $3,000 ashtray, and a $1,400 trash can! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, look at the wildly extravagant lifestyle of this defendant. His office redecorating bill came to an astonishing $1 million,” snarls the prosecutor, pointing at the successful chief executive officer of a major company, on trial for alleged financial improprieties having nothing to do with his office décor. The defense attorney cringes, and the CEO is not quite sure what to do. Grin? Shake his head in disbelief? Look embarrassed? Be apologetic? For what, being successful?

In a white-collar case, the government loves to shine the spotlight on corporate executives’ pay and perks, and for good reason. Research based on surveys about state and federal white-collar-crime trials found that jurors feel “betrayed” by the personal excesses that are believed to be behind America’s current economic strife. Julie Blackman, Ellen Brickman & Corinne Brenner, “Can White Collar Defendants in Securities Fraud Cases Get a Fair Trial?” (e-book, Feb. 3, 2010). One potential juror stated that she believed rich people who wanted to get richer were committing a crime. Although she was excused for cause, her comment speaks volumes about attitudes toward white-collar defendants. The researchers conclude that “the reflexive ascription of criminality to the wealthy and the powerful may be the last bastion of acceptable prejudice.” Id. at 2. 

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