The reverser of fortunes

May 14, 1999

It's said that only the rich and guilty hire him, but it is the refuseniks and poor immigrants that lawyer Alan Dershowitz remembers. Now he's addressing another subject close to his heart - the Holocaust. Tim Cornwell reports.

Alan Dershowitz is wrapping up the century with a novel, Just Revenge. It tells the story of a 75-year-old Harvard divinity professor who discovers that the man who murdered his family during the Holocaust is alive but dying of cancer. The professor constructs a high-tech method of revenge and is then put on trial. "It becomes America's great Holocaust trial," Dershowitz says proudly of his fictional creation. "Other countries have had such trials but we have never had one in America."

The subject combines Dershowitz's expertise in law, his close familiarity with the criminal mind and his self-described Jew's remembrance of the Final Solution, which claimed the lives of his mother's entire family in Europe - "close to 100 victims that we know of". Of a dozen books, he says, it has been the hardest to write.

There are distinct disadvantages to being probably the best-known criminal defence lawyer in America, a Harvard law professor, a best-selling author and a regular on Geraldo Rivera's TV show. One is that when Dershowitz joins a case, people are apt to assume the defendant is very rich and very guilty. That is why, he says, he never sought to represent Bill Clinton in his travails with Monica Lewinsky. Instead, he contented himself with pouring scorn from the sidelines on both Clinton's pursuers and his defence team - the former for "sexual McCarthyism", the latter for allowing the president to be trapped in a perjurious denial of forbidden sex.

At 60, Dershowitz regards his finest hour as his work on behalf of Soviet refuseniks, Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union during the cold war but were denied the right to emigrate. He represented two on death row and dozens of people in prison, in particular the human rights activist Natan Sharansky, released to the west in 1986 after nine years in a Gulag. "That was probably the most rewarding part of my career," Dershowitz says. "Probably the other is saving people from death row in the United States."

The case that made him a household name, however, was indubitably that of Claus von Bulow, the Danish-born aristocrat convicted in 1982 of trying to murder his wife, Sunny, by injecting her with insulin. The motive was said to be her $75 million fortune. With the help of his Harvard law students Dershowitz not only got the conviction overturned and von Bulow acquitted in a retrial, he went on to write a best-selling book on the case. Reversal of Fortune was made into a hit movie (starring Jeremy Irons as von Bulow, Glenn Close as Sunny, and Ron Silver as Dershowitz).

America, a country where the law is elevated to a civil religion, has a love-hate relationship with its celebrity defence lawyers. They are both lionised and vilified. Part of the reason that Dershowitz's clients are often seen as guilty is that usually they have been convicted: Dershowitz is an appellate specialist. It is a field where he stands almost alone: there are a handful of nationally known trial lawyers, but Dershowitz commands the field on appeals. Von Bulow, O. J. Simpson, boxer Mike Tyson, TV preacher Jim Bakker - Dershowitz has defended them all. He appears routinely under headlines such as "Helmsley Hires Harvard Ace" (Leona Helmsley, the hotel queen that everyone loved to hate), and "Milken Hires Civil Rights Lawyer" (Michael Milken, fallen junk-bond king).

He is an unmissable quote-meister and talking head, not to mention a columnist for Penthouse magazine. Every story, reporters in his home state of Massachusetts joke, should end: "Alan Dershowitz was unavoidable for comment."

Chutzpah, the title of his 1991 best-seller, is Dershowitz's stock in trade. In the book, he called on American Jews to display more chutzpah, and insist on first-class status as US citizens. He defines the word this way: "To the perpetrator of chutzpah it means boldness, assertiveness, a willingness to demand what is due, to defy tradition, to challenge authority, to raise eyebrows. To the victim of chutzpah, it means unmitigated gall, nerve, uppityness, arrogance, hypocritical demanding. It is truly in the eye of the beholder." The classic illustration is the youth who murders his parents and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.

Dershowitz grew up in Brooklyn as an Orthodox Jew. Though now very much a sceptic, he says: "The God whose existence I doubt is a Jewish God, the God I argue with is a Jewish God, I regard myself as very Jewish, but very sceptical."

He began his career with blue-chip credentials: editor of the law journal at Yale, short-listed for a Rhodes scholarship. He was respected as quiet, conservative and studious, emerging early as a protege of the criminal law faculty. But later a transformation took place, said one former classmate. A new Dershowitz emerged, flamboyantly outspoken, with moustache and wild curly hair.

He has been at Harvard Law School since he was 26, currently teaching courses in first-year criminal law, on "Tactics and ethics", and on "Thinking about thinking". Among his fellow lawyers and law professors, few disagree that he is one of the quickest thinkers in the trade, but they wince at his client list and his powers of self-promotion. Peter Arenella, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, says Dershowitz is a gifted appellate lawyer, but has never produced the heavyweight legal scholarship that his talent promised. Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor and a regular television pundit, calls him a "gadfly", with an almost obsessive allegiance to civil liberties, free speech and individual rights. "He generally challenges the conservative and law enforcement-oriented view in our society," Rothstein says, even when this involves the "most despicable and obviously guilty defendants".

If the Simpson case was the US "trial of the century", it was only appropriate that Dershowitz joined the team. He was recruited in a phone call placed to Tel Aviv, according to American Tragedy, the book considered one of the more authoritative sources on the Simpson defence. Simpson lawyer Bob Shapiro had worked with him in the trial of Christian Brando, Marlon Brando's son, who was accused of murder.

"I want the three greatest trial lawyers I know," Shapiro told him, flatteringly, "including you for your genius in constitutional law." Dershowitz came on board the Simpson team for a reported fee of $350,000, though he now insists he was paid much less. At first he covered the case, as he often does, by speakerphone and fax from his East Coast office: later he flew into California on weekends. His rule with cases is that they never cut into his teaching time.

One of the questions jurors were asked as they were vetted was whether, if they knew that Dershowitz was on the case, they would assume that Simpson was really in trouble. Dershowitz's main task was preparing an appeal that was never necessary. He conducted his most public defence of Simpson on the TV talk shows.

But the case illustrated what even his detractors agree is an immensely agile and imaginative legal mind. He was the first on the Simpson team to predict, accurately, that prosecutors would sell their story to the jury as a domestic abuse case, in which Simpson was the wife batterer who progressed to murder. The Simpson case, Dershowitz says, came to symbolise "in the minds of many people, a guilty person getting off".

And while the vast majority of white Americans considered Simpson guilty, the Jewish community took the issue particularly hard, because one victim, Ron Goldman, was Jewish. For a time Dershowitz got the silent treatment at his local synagogue, he says, and for the first time received Jewish hate mail. Four years later, his association with the case has begun to wear off.

Two recent stories from the state of Pennsylvania illustrate the ironies of Dershowitz's case load. In one, Dershowitz led an unsuccessful appeal for his latest wealthy client: John du Pont, a massively rich scion of a US industrial dynasty, convicted of the 1996 killing of an Olympic wrestler (in front of several witnesses). Dershowitz led a team of 11 lawyers seeking to ameliorate du Pont's 13-to-30-year sentence. He was beaten by a low-paid law professor and part-time prosecutor, Laurie Magid.

Dershowitz argued brazenly that Pennsylvania needed to bring its insanity laws into line with other states; his points were singled out for squashing by a three-judge panel and Magid was lavishly honoured in the local press for "Beating The East Coast Dream Team". Ironically, she had borrowed a leaf from Dershowitz's book, hiring her law students as her helpers at $7 an hour to wade through boxes of arguments.

Another case from Pennsylvania, however, captures the other side of Dershowitz's practice. Half his cases, he says, are pro bono, taken on without payment. Antuan Bronshtein, a Moldovian Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union, was convicted in a 1991 execution-style slaying of a jeweller. Scheduled for capital punishment in April 1999 he refused all attempts to appeal his case for two years. He told his mother that in a "society of lies and injustice", he needed an attorney like Dershowitz, but he did not have the money.

A local Rabbi passed a news article reporting Bronshtein's comments on to Dershowitz's Harvard office: before long the professor was on the line. "The Bible says thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour," he said. Appeal papers were soon filed: local prosecutors did not contest a request for a stay of execution and Bronshtein's date with death was at least temporarily put on hold.

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