Uproars, Sleaze and Courtroom Life: Jim Parkman Talks to the Courtroom Chronicles

Jim Parkman is the kind of lawyer it's hard for people not to like, no matter what they think of his clients. The colorful and energetic Dothan lawyer is best known for his work as part of the defense team that won exoneration for former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy in a $2.7 billion fraud trial.

I caught up with Mr. Parkman, the legal profession' s equivalent of the Energizer bunny, by phone Thursday to get a few comments on the government corruption trial taking place in Montgomery and the courtroom process in general.

Asked his opinion of prosecution lawyers Louis Franklin and Steve Feaga, Parkman, who has done battle with both men, was overflowing with praise as to their professionalism. Parkman says the two are "very, very good lawyers...very, very professional." In fact Parkman likes both men and says, "Feaga is one of those guys that after the trial you want to just go up and hug him, that's how nice he is."

He says not to mistake the fact that Feaga is huggable with the impression that Feaga is a "soft" opponent. "He's not," says Parkman, "and I like that."

Parkman says having never had an incident in the courtroom with Louis Franklin or Steve Feaga, he was "very surprised" when he heard about Franklin losing his cool in the courtroom He says he "never saw that coming."

"Those uproars in the courtroom play into the defense's hand and their (the defense) saying it was politically motivated," says Parkman.

The Dothan lawyer says he has, on occasion, been known to lose his own temper in a courtroom. "I have lost my temper and I made the correct apology. I knew I was wrong. It ends up hurting you, that's not good."

"It shows the jury this is personal. Personal in this case equates to political and the prosecution is just feeding the defense with ammunition."

But don't think Parkman, because of his connection to Scrushy, was at all happy with Fred Gray's remarks during opening statements that led to Franklin's first explosion. "We've now gotten into personal stuff in the courtroom," remarks the usually affable counselor.

Parkman says opening statements are the time to present to the jury the facts and evidence you're going to show "not who you've represented in other cases. I've got plenty of cases I could tell the jury about, but that's not the purpose of opening statements."

The down-home lawyer says the way the prosecution should have handled Mr. Gray was to "politely stand up and object. The defense knows what you're objecting to." He says when you fly off the handle you're "letting people know you've got a problem with your case."

A lot of folks already have a perception that lawyers and politicians are sleazy, sometimes clients in a case like this can be hurt by that perception. With that in mind I asked Parkman about Fred Gray's repeated use of the phrase "It's Alabama Politics 2006" in Gray's opening statement and how a jury might take it. The attorney's reply was that it could be "dangerous" for the defense.

Although the defense meant in it's opening statement that the defendants are being attacked for political reasons, Parkman says, "What you're actually saying to the jury is that all Alabama politics is 'sleazy.' And, it fits the perception most people have of politicians and lawyers."

So how do lawyers get around the sleaze factor when they're in front of a jury? Parkman says emphatically there is only "ONE WAY, confront the jury with that fact. Admit it to the jury. Confront the perception head on. I'm the salesman. I'm the one that's got to convince them."

He says it's not a strategy or a ploy. He says you also tell the jury this and you tell them "I'm telling you this because I'm going to prove to you I'm telling you the truth." Parkman says being honest at the beginning pays dividends during closing arguments. The jury may not be sure about the case but they'll feel "he has been honest with us" and that can only help.

I asked Parkman if there was a line he would not cross in defense of a client. Does anything go in a courtroom?

"Absolutely not, anything does NOT go. There's nothing wrong with being a zealous lawyer. I don't believe I have ever done anything inappropriate, illegal. It's a fine line at times. You have to know the rules. I have a good faith basis for everything I do. I have a basis, not a guess or speculation." Parkman says when asked he can confidently tell the judge the basis for his actions.

As to this case, Parkman thinks the prosecution may have made a mistake. He says in general "you pick a few of your strongest counts and go with it. In a federal case one conviction does the job so why have 30 or more(counts). Pick 5-6-7-8 and let it go. Enron is a good example, they have six (counts) against Lay."

Parkman says too many counts can backfire on the prosecution. "If I was a prosecutor, that to me is very dangerous. It fits into what the defense says that it's obvious you've got a problem with them."

As to the defense and the relationships between lawyers when there are four defendants, Parkman says often, but not always, the "lawyers will get together and ask, 'Do we have a common defense?" He says the one thing he doesn't want is a surprise. He says each team doesn't have to employ the same strategy; but, if another team is "going to attack my client, let me know so I can be prepared."

I asked Parkman whether or not Mr. Scrushy would have wanted his wife, Leslie Scrushy, to know about a check(the second check from HealthSouth) Scrushy signed for the Alabama Education Lottery Fund, "It makes a lot of sense. He wouldn't want her to know and be upset about it. She's very religious. They're anti-lottery, I'm sure he didn't want his wife to see it...I'm sure she didn't approve of that kind of money going to a lottery fund."

Asked if a client is being hypocritical if they say they have moral objections about doing something then proceed to do it anyway, Parkman turns to the defense spin and says, "No, the key is the money is not going just for the lottery, it's going to fund education, it's not really two-facing."

As to the intense grilling Nick Bailey got from David McDonald, the lawyer who has grilled some witnesses himself, says not being in the courtroom he couldn't speak to specifics. He did say it's "important a jury know these things, know that the witness has been involved in a lot of bad stuff to benefit his own self. It can be very powerful."

Next we turned to a hypothetical:

If there was a prosecution witness that's struggling in life and he's in all kind of debt and borrowing money from God knows who and there's a client who says this witness was one of his best and dearest friends and agrees that he was with this witness a whole lot. Wouldn't it be odd that the client would have no idea of the difficulties the witness was having in his life?

Parkman went to a line I'm sure a jury's heard before: "Let's take something from the Bible if that's okay, Judas Iscariot. Judas hung around the other disciples a long time and they never knew what was going on. Parkman then added another element. How many times have you heard in a divorce, 'I was the last to know he cheated on me or I was the last to know she cheated on me'? Believe me, it can be done."

I of course missed this opportunity to ask Parkman if he was speaking from personal experience. After all, a story goes that at one time a friend of Parkman's had bumper stickers printed and passed around Dothan that read, "Honk if you've been married to Jim Parkman."

I did ask Parkman if he'd had any time to rest after the Scrushy trial in Birmingham. He says, "No, I haven't had a vacation. That's okay. I'm certainly enjoying it, it's fine." Parkman says he's working on "lots of cases."

He's off next week to the Tuscon-Phoenix area on a criminal case, a trip to L.A. (no, not Lower Alabama) to discuss the possibility of work on another criminal case and to a glitzy place far away from the landscape of Dothan, Alabama - Beverly Hills.. He's addressing the Beverly Hills Bar Association - the topic: Keeping it Simple: Presenting Complex Matters to Juries and Courts.

The Courtroom Chronicles will be checking in with the smooth-talker from Dothan on his West Coast swing next week - stay tuned. And as always, thanks Mr. Parkman for taking time out for the Courtroom Chronicles.

Reported by:  Helen Hammons