David Yellen: Rep. Gary Condit's legal strategy
David Yellen is the Dean of the Hofstra University School of Law, and his main area of expertise is criminal law.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, David Yellen, and welcome.
DAVID YELLEN: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining us.
CNN: How has Rep. Condit's legal team handled the case involving Chandra Levy?
YELLEN: Well, he has a superb lawyer in Abbe Lowell, and although I know many lay people won't understand why the lawyer has been giving the advice he has, from a lawyer's standpoint he has handled it exactly correctly. One thing you have to understand is that a lawyer who is representing someone who might become a criminal defendant has to be very careful. Even if your client tells you he is innocent, that may not be the case, or there might be complications. So, you have to be extremely cautious about what your client says, particularly in public.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there anything that Condit's legal team has not done that should be done to help the investigation?
YELLEN: That's a very hard question to answer. According to the police, Congressman Condit has been extremely cooperative with them. They don't seem to think that he has failed to provide any information that they'd like. I know the family feels otherwise, and that's understandable. But in terms of evidence, there's been no indication that he has any evidence that he hasn't supplied.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Isn't having a lawyer in itself feeding the spin that Condit murdered this girl?
YELLEN: Oh, certainly not. Any time that someone is going to come into serious contact with the police, they ought to have a lawyer. Someone who is not a lawyer doesn't understand their rights, how an investigation works. Although I have no idea if Congressman Condit has anything to do with Levy's disappearance, we've seen some pretty high profile cases lately, most notably after the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, when Richard Jewell was alleged to have been the bomber. He went through a lot of horrible treatment by the media and the FBI. So, even innocent people under suspicion need lawyers.
CNN: Are there any special concerns when dealing with a case that in the public eye?
YELLEN: Oh yes. This case is totally different because it's in the public eye in many respects. Number one, it certainly wouldn't have received the level of attention it has if Congressman Condit hadn't been involved. His position is much more complicated because of his public role. For him to have acknowledged having an affair with an intern to the police is much more damaging to him than to a private citizen who would have been in a similar situation without the media and public interest. At the same time, there are some allegations that the police have treated him with kid gloves because he's a congressman. I think there's something to that. If he weren't a Congressman, they wouldn't be going to such great lengths to say that he's not a suspect, when in fact everyone knows that they're considering whether he has any role in her disappearance. In addition, since he apparently offered to let them search his apartment, I think they certainly would have done that, and should have done that, had he not been a congressman.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why is there so much tap dancing around the request for Congressman Condit to take a lie detector test?
YELLEN: Lie detectors are very troublesome. They're put to great use in employment situations, but no courts authorize the admission into evidence of lie detector results unless the parties agree. That's because it has not been proven that lie detectors are accurate enough to meet legal standards for admissibility. So, except in very limited circumstances, no lawyer would allow his client to take a lie detector test in a situation like this. If Congressman Condit took the test and passed, I don't think it would really get him off the hook much with the public. If he took a test, and the results were inconclusive, which shouldn't be taken to mean anything, that would be played up in the media as evidence of guilt.
CNN: Why might police search Congressman Condit's apartment if he is not a suspect?
YELLEN: It depends on what you mean about him not being a suspect. Any time someone disappears and the police discover that they've been involved in an extra-marital affair with someone, that other person will be a suspect, whether they call them that or not. I think what the police have meant, is that currently they have no evidence suggesting that the congressman was involved in her disappearance. But I think to you, me and everyone else in the country, he's a suspect. Now, to get a search warrant, the police need much more than a mere hunch. But when someone consents to a search, police don't need any further justification at all.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is Congressman Condit getting "special treatment" from the Washington, D.C. police? If he were just Joe Citizen, would he not have been interrogated more?
YELLEN: Yes, I think that's right. He might complain that the case is getting a lot more attention because he's a congressman, and that's true, but if he were not a congressman, you can be quite sure that the police would have tried to interrogate him intensely, even making accusations that they didn't have any real basis for, just to see if it would shake him. All you have to do is watch a police show like NYPD Blue to know what I'm talking about.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there any grounds for civil proceedings against Condit by Levy's parents?
YELLEN: Not at this point. There's no evidence that he was involved in her disappearance; he didn't commit any violation of law as far as they're concerned by having an affair with her; he had no obligation legally to acknowledge the affair. So no, they have no legal claim at this point.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How about hauling him on obstruction of investigation charges?
YELLEN: That's certainly a possibility. I'm sure the police and prosecutors will look into that, particularly with the allegation that the congressman tried to get Miss Smith to sign a false affidavit. But even that, if true, isn't clearly obstruction of justice because it has to be on a material matter, and we're a long way from establishing that the congressman having another affair is material to Miss Levy's disappearance.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What percentage of missing person cases that go on for more than two months are eventually solved?
YELLEN: I don't know the exact percentage, but it's certainly true that the longer a case like this goes on, the less likely it will be solved, and the more likely that if it is solved, it will be because they'll find that the victim has been killed.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Could one discount the suicide theory altogether?
YELLEN: I don't think anyone is discounting it altogether, but it certainly seems extremely unlikely given what we've heard about Miss Levy's state of mind, the manner in which she disappeared, and the fact that the vast majority of suicide victims are fairly quickly found.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does Chandra Levy's body have to be recovered before the Levy family can sue Condit in civil court?
YELLEN: You don't need a body for either a criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit. There have been some high profile murder cases recently where no body was ever recovered. But, you do need substantial evidence.
CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
YELLEN: I think people can't understand why an innocent person might act the way Congressman Condit has. Again, I have no idea whether he has anything to do with Miss Levy's disappearance, but it's quite easy to imagine that when he first heard she was missing, he chose not to reveal his affair because he knew the damage that would do to him personally and politically, and, if he has nothing to do with her disappearance, he was hoping she would turn up shortly. Once caught in that situation, it would take a lot for him to come out and reveal the affair. It doesn't mean he's acted at all admirably, but human nature being what it is, someone who has an affair with his own intern is not likely to voluntarily reveal that kind of damaging information.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today.
YELLEN: Thank you all for the very interesting questions.
David Yellen joined the CNN.com chat room via telephone from New York, and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Tuesday, July 10, 2001.
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