Demjanjuk’s Chief Defense Counsel, O’connor, Contests His Firing

John Demjanjuk’s American lawyer, Mark O’Connor, said Sunday he would continue to serve as chief defense counsel for the suspected war criminal despite his dismissal by the Demjanjuk family last month.

“I am personally responsible for the life of this man,” O’Connor said at a press conference here. He said he felt it was his “moral and personal responsibility” to defend Demjanjuk unless relieved of his duties by the court. He said the Ukrainian-born former resident of Cleveland, Ohio, accused of being the Treblinka death camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible” was not fully aware of the consequences when he signed a letter June 30 firing O’Connor on grounds of “incompetence.” “He was a man who was totally crestfallen, a man who was confused,” O’Connor said, indicating that the family is responsible for changing the defense team a month before the case for the defense is to be presented in Jerusalem district court. The trial is presently in recess.

The Demjanjuk family retained O’Connor’s two associates, Israeli lawyer Yoram Sheftel and John Gill, an American. It added another attorney, John Broadley of Washington, D.C., to the defense team.

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O’Connor was sharply critical of his two assistants, particularly Sheftel, whom he accused of having “connections” with the prosecution. He said he would disclose the facts if his dismissal is upheld by the court. The court is expected to discuss the firing on Wednesday.

Tension and disagreement was evident among the defense lawyers since the trial opened last February 16. They appear to stem from personality clashes, how to use the limited defense budget and who would be featured in media coverage.

O’Connor claimed that Sheftel recently visited the U.S. and Belgium without informing him and concealed documents which O’Connor had assembled over the five years since he agreed to represent Demjanjuk. He said he had tried to fire Sheftel, but that the Demjanjuk family objected.

In the five months since the trial opened, Demjanjuk has been identified by more than a score of Treblinka survivors as the brutal guard who operated the gas chambers. He was also identified from photographs by former SS man Otto Horn, who gave testimony in West Berlin last month.

Nevertheless, the defense has succeeded in creating an element of doubt. It insists Demjanjuk was a German prisoner of war during the time he is alleged to have been at Treblinka. It has tried to discredit witnesses, questioning their memory of events more than 40 years ago, and has alleged that key prosecution documents are Soviet forgeries. “I am the one who cares for John Demjanjuk,” O’Connor told the press conference. “Where are the other lawyers who claim to be leaders of the defense? Where is John Gill, whom I brought to the defense? Where is Yoram Sheftel, whose services I hired? Has any of them visited Demjanjuk in jail, has any of them shown any interest in the fate of this lonesome person?”

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