The value of zealous lawyers

April 21, 1995|By Bill Thompson

ALAN DERSHOWITZ has been called "the lawyer of last resort" and "the patron saint of lost causes." He has represented some of the most controversial figures of our time: Leona Helmsley, Michael Milken, Jim Bakker, Mike Tyson, Claus Von Bulow.

Lately, Mr. Dershowitz has been representing that most controversial and most public figure of them all: O.J. Simpson.

The renowned attorney and Harvard law professor was in Fort Worth last week mounting a spirited defense on behalf of one of the most maligned classes on the planet: lawyers.

Talk about your lost causes.

Criminal defense attorneys, Mr. Dershowitz said, don't win a lot of popularity contests.

He wouldn't have it any other way.

Mr. Dershowitz has been to countries where criminal defense attorneys are popular, he said in a speech for the Fort Worth Speakers Forum at Texas Christian University, and those countries are not places where most Americans would care to live. They most assuredly are not places where most people would care to be accused of a crime.

Our nation's adversarial system of justice is a key element in the "great experiment" that is American democracy, Mr. Dershowitz

said. The price of maintaining that system sometimes seems high, he reminded us, but it is well worth it.

We know what the price is: Because the Constitution of the United States guarantees the presumption of innocence and a fair trial for individuals accused of a crime, guilty people sometimes go unpunished.

Nobody likes to see that happen, not even the lawyers who are party to it. It's the downside of a free society.

But Mr. Dershowitz calls the defendant's right to a "zealous defense" a constitutional insurance policy against government oppression.

Criminal defense lawyers are the "last bastion" between liberty and tyranny, he told the crowd at TCU.

Lawyer talk, you say? Easy for him to say? What would you expect from one of those Harvard law professors, one of those legal gunslingers who makes a mint trying to keep criminals out of jail?

OK. Valid point. But hold on a minute.

If it's easy for a hotshot lawyer to sing the praises of hotshot lawyers, it's just as easy for those of us who have never been accused of a crime to scoff at the idea of a "zealous defense" for each and every individual who is accused of a crime.

Most people seem to agree with the prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson trial that Mr. Simpson killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. But just for the sake of argument, let's assume that Mr. Simpson is not guilty.

Let's assume that Mr. Simpson was at home, sleeping or practicing his golf swing, at the moment the killings were committed.

Let's assume that Mr. Simpson's lawyers are correct when they say that police and prosecutors never bothered to look for the real killer or killers, and that they deliberately or accidentally mishandled evidence in a way that falsely implicated Mr. Simpson.

We've all heard those who contact the O.J. highlight shows on TV, complaining about Mr. Simpson's "dream team" attorneys and the "red-herring" theories and half-baked alibis those lawyers toss around in court. But what if the theories aren't red herrings? What if the alibis aren't half-baked?

Is anyone naive enough to believe that police and prosecutors have never railroaded a suspect in a murder case? Does anyone believe that an innocent defendant has never been convicted of a crime?

It could happen to O.J. It could happen to you or me. The possibility that Mr. Simpson is innocent may be a long shot, even a pipe dream. But he has a right to challenge the prosecution's evidence. He has a right to present the jury with even the most remote alternatives to the state's contention that he is a vicious killer.

We keep hearing people complain that the Simpson trial is taking too long, that Mr. Simpson's fame and fortune have given him an unfair advantage in fighting the charges against him. That is exactly the wrong concern.

What we ought to be concerned about is that a defendant has to be a celebrity or a millionaire in order to mount a vigorous defense when charged with a crime. Is it supposed to make us proud to know that if O.J. were some average Joe accused of slitting his ex-wife's throat, he would have been convicted months ago, with barely a question raised about his guilt or innocence?

I don't think so.

We shouldn't be complaining that O.J.'s lawyers are putting up too much of a fight. We should be complaining that too many lawyers don't put up any fight at all.

Like the man said: Lawyers aren't supposed to be popular. They're supposed to be the last bastion between liberty and tyranny.

Bill Thompson is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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