Friday, September 21, 2007

Nowak's Spin Doctor

Legal "spin doctor" Marti Mackenzie (Professional Profiles, Inc. photo)

We chided former astronaut Lisa Nowak when she (successfully) petitioned a Florida court for removal of her ankle monitoring bracelet. The device was installed as a condition for her release from jail, after that infamous confrontation with a romantic rival at the Orlando airport.

Captain Nowak claimed that the bracelet was an inconvenience, limiting her ability to exercise and play with her kids in the pool. She also complained about the cost, approximately $105 week. Surely someone who makes close to $150,000 a year could afford the ankle bracelet, we surmised, particularly when it kept her out of jail.

In the end, the judge agreed with Nowak, and the monitoring device was removed. And, we now understand why that nominal cost may have been a concern for Captain Nowak. In addition to her high-powered (and expensive) attorney, Donald Lykkebak, Nowak has also retained a well-known New York public relations specialist, Marti Mackenzie, to handle the "spin" side of her defense. Ms. Mackenzie, a one-time state director for the ACLU, specializes in high-profile court cases.

Mackenzie doesn't work cheap, either, and she's now serving as the official mouthpiece for Team Nowak. She distributes statements on behalf of her client, handles queries from the media, and is working to tilt media coverage in favor of Lisa Nowak (good luck with that one). According to her website, Ms. Mackenzie is finishing a book on spin and the modern justice system, entitled "Courting the Media: Public Relations for the Accused and Accusers." We don't plan to read the book, but her ACLU days make Ms. Mackenzie an ideal spokesman for Lisa Nowak. Since the ACLU can justify--and even support--many forms of aberrant behavior, defending a diaper-clad astronaut, intent on kidnapping her rival, should be a piece of cake.

In a "sample" chapter from the book (posted on her firm's website), Mackenzie claims that her efforts helped a convicted killer avoid the death penalty; more astonishingly, her fees in that case were paid for by the taxpayers of Florida, after a public defender successfully petitioned to court to add a p.r. specialist to the defense team. Her former colleagues at the ACLU must be very proud, indeed.

However, in this era of "celebrity justice," Nowak's decision to hire a spin doctor is a shrewd move, indeed. The disgraced former astronaut understands that a skilled defense lawyer, aided by an equally competent "image" specialist, can go a long way toward an acquittal, or at least, a hung jury. In the case of Lisa Nowak, Mr. Lykkebak is already hammering away at the credibility of police officers who handled her arrest.

During a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday, Lykkebak accused interviewing officer Chris Becton of "sloppy work," charging that he never read Nowak her Miranda rights, bullied her into allowing a search of her BMW, and relying on audio tapes with poor quality. Mr. Lykkebak has asked the court to throw out much of the pre-trial evidence, including the arrest interview, and evidence seized from Nowak's car.

Captain Nowak has said almost nothing outside the courtroom, and that's (obviously) by design. The AP reports that Ms. Mackenzie carefully vetted Nowak's brief public statement last month, when she apologized to her former lover (ex-astronaut William Oefelein) and his girlfriend, Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. She also pleaded for privacy and told reporters she probably wouldn't speak again.

As the trial approaches, you can expect Ms. Mackenzie to echo themes laid out by the defense team: Nowak was temporarily insane when she confronted Shipman; cops and prosecutors have a vendetta because of her status as an astronaut, and the infamous diapers found in her car had nothing to do with that marathon drive from Houston to Orlando.

It will be instructive to see how the press plays along with that campaign. Meanwhile, as AP writer Travis Reed noted in his account of Wednesday's hearing, the state of Florida has its own "image" problem, trying to remind the press, the public and potential jurors that Lisa Nowak was in control of her actions. In his testimony at the pre-trial hearing, Officer Becton characterized Captain Nowak as a "cunning subject who wheedled for information — not a ragged, sleep-deprived prisoner."

“I would ask her a question. She would either completely and totally avoid the question I was asking or she would ask another question,” Becton said. “It led me to believe that I was dealing with someone who was extremely intelligent, very controlled, and basically smarter than I was.”

Did we mention that Lisa Nowak, a naval aviator, has been trained in resistance and counter-interrogation techniques? While Officer Becton is clearly trying to defend his "bust," we tend to believe his claims that Captain Nowak was in command of her faculties in that interview room, and trying to deny information to the police.

But, if recent, high-profile cases are any indication, that bit of information will be largely forgotten in the run-up to trial. The fate of Lisa Nowak will be (largely) decided in the court of public opinion, where spin doctoring is more important than many of us would believe. We're not predicting that Nowak will be acquitted on all charges, but she's certainly taking steps to shape public perceptions, and with it, the potential jury pool.

To accomplish that goal, Ms. Mackenzie will have to pull out all the stops, but she's certainly up to the task. And, with that in mind, we don't believe that Nowak will maintain her silence before the trial. You've got to believe there's an "exclusive" interview with Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric or People magazine in the works, providing a forum for Captain Nowak to tell "her side" of the story, and crank up the spin a little bit more.

No wonder she views Mackenzie's services as a "better investment" than that ankle bracelet.


Unknown said...

Captain Nowak will probably get a very light sentence for her crime.
Allow me to be frank for a moment (no pun intended).She was going to kidnap, torture and kill that woman and try to be back in Texas before anyone noticed she was missing. When faced with the reality of her fantasy she choked and missed her window of opportunity. Thus her whole plan collapsed like a house of cards. She choked. Some astronaut.
Now, this sounds cold hearted and maybe it is but going by my exposure to people in the human spaceflight program, they pride themselves on not choking. After this is over, her only friends are going to be the producers throwing money at her to be on their Reality TV shows.
Just my 2 cents.

Cerulean Bill said...

" Since the ACLU can justify--and even support--many forms of aberrant behavior..."

There are phrases that make me stop reading a blog post. But this is one of the few times that I stopped because I was so delighted by the accuracy of the phrase that I wanted to pause to relish it....

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