NEW YORK (JTA) – If I had not defended Jeffrey Epstein and gotten him a favorable plea deal, it is unlikely that I would have been the subject of the recent hit piece in The New Yorker, not to mention be accused of sexual misconduct by two of Epstein’s alleged victims. Indeed, my first accuser told The New Yorker that she accused me because “Jeffrey got away with it, basically. And Dershowitz was one of the people who enabled that to happen.”
In other words, because I did my job well – getting my client the best result possible – I have now become a target of efforts to destroy my reputation and career.
This is not the first time in my long career as a defense attorney that this has happened. In my first major case, I defended a member of the Jewish Defense League for making a smoke bomb that killed a Jewish woman from a wealthy family. I won the case, but as I wrote in my book “The Best Defense,” the family refused to contribute further to Harvard law school unless I was fired. The law school refused, and all contributions ended.
When I helped successfully defend O.J. Simpson, my speaking engagements dried up. And when I defended films alleged to be obscene, there were protests and pickets.
The Epstein case has been the worst of all. It reminds me of my college years, during which I defended the right of Communists – whose views I despised – to speak at Brooklyn College and was called a Communist.
There are several categories of defendants I will not represent. The first are fugitives who are seeking to escape justice. The second are career criminals who commit crimes for a living. I also don’t generally defend anyone for a second alleged crime.
But despite slings and arrows, I will continue to represent the most unpopular, the most despised, the most controversial and even the most indefensible clients.
I get my inspiration from the biblical Abraham, who defended the sinners of Sodom; John Adams, who defended the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre; Abraham Lincoln, who defended numerous controversial clients, some guilty, some not guilty; and my friend and mentor Leonard Boudin, who represented hated Communists during the McCarthy period.
I have participated in legal systems in which lawyers are punished for representing enemies of the state. When I defended Soviet Jewish refuseniks, our team had difficulty obtaining local counsel in the Soviet Union because they feared reprisal. The same is true in China today and in many other repressive regimes.
America is different – at least in theory. Our Sixth Amendment demands that every accused be afforded the right to counsel, but too many defendants are denied zealous representation because lawyers fear economic and political reprisal. Lawyers who were part of the Epstein defense team have had their contributions to political candidates returned. Others have been threatened with loss of business. This is a dangerous development, reminiscent of McCarthyism.
The other reason why the right to a defense is only a theory is that many poor people are denied effective counsel. That is why I have had a policy throughout my career of defending half of my clients on a pro bono basis.
Our Founding Fathers – and as a result, our American legal system – relied on jurist William Blackstone’s proclamation that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than for even one innocent person to suffer by being wrongly convicted (a similar sentiment to Abraham’s negotiation with God about the sinners of Sodom).
Most criminal defense lawyers defend mostly guilty defendants, because we live in a country where most people accused of a crime are in fact guilty. In order to keep it that way, we must vigorously defend every person accused of a crime.
In other words, I defend the guilty in order to protect not only them, but in order to assure that innocent people are not brought to trial and put through the personal agony that such a legal process entails. If criminal defense lawyers were to refuse to zealously defend the guilty, then more and more innocent people would be brought to trial.
Being a criminal defense lawyer, particularly a successful one, is not the way to popularity. But it is the way to a just system of law.