Alan Dershowitz

updated 07/30/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1990 01:00AM

Like the Blues Brothers, Alan Dershowitz is on a mission from God. He is forever trying to save someone—today it's Leona Helmsley—because he believes that "the zealous defense attorney is the last bastion of liberty." Having enemies juices him too. He pulls out his fat album of hate mail as eagerly as other people go for their vacation slides, and has even taped a few letters to his office door. "You are a demon of evil," reads one. Next to it is a half-burned Israeli flag someone sent him.

In fact, taking everything personally has helped make superlawyer Dershowitz one of the best-known civil-liberties advocates in the country. So one enters his nest at the Harvard Law School expecting to meet an obvious cardiac risk. Instead, he is buoyant. Somehow Dershowitz, 51, is exuberantly leading the charge on Helmsley's appeal of her federal tax-evasion convictions (he got 180 of 188 counts dismissed in May on constitutional grounds), advising on the latest court challenge of convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, the ex-Green Beret in the Fatal Vision case ("I absolutely believe he's innocent"), and plotting the appeal of Rev. Jim Bakker. He is also working on half a dozen other cases, all the while teaching full-time at Harvard. He is consulting on an upcoming movie, Reversal of Fortune, based on his most famous victory, the overturning of Claus von Billow's conviction for attempted murder. Furthermore, he writes a syndicated weekly newspaper column and a regular feature for Penthouse and makes frequent appearances on TV. A friend says he carries on two simultaneous telephone conversations in his office while marching on his exercise treadmill on a sort of crusade to nowhere.

So whatever the breakfast of champions is, Dershowitz eats it. But aside from his unnatural energy level, what makes him so sought after by those looking to appeal a conviction? Says Susan Estrich, the former Michael Dukakis campaign manager who worked with Dershowitz on the Von Bülow case and now teaches at the University of Southern California Law School: "Appellate law is highly intellectual. Your immediate audience is judges. Alan excels because he has both the skills of an academic lawyer and the street-fighting instincts of a great trial attorney. He fights the fight on every single solitary front."

Here is his clamorous defense of Helmsley: "Folks have had a lot of good laughs out of Helmsley. But remember! This is a woman who is being charged with not paying one-third of I percent of her total taxes! A million and a half dollars out of $ 350 million! [The actual figures are $1.2 million out of $59 million.] Here's a woman whose reputation has been totally tarnished by the media and by government leaks, and then a gag order is placed on her!"

Indeed, from Dershowitz's point of view, Helmsley's only shortcoming as a client may be that she is insufficiently odious. He loves defending unpopular people. "The system of justice is only as good as it is toward the worst person," he explains. "Once it begins to compromise there, the slippery slope begins. So because I want that system to be there for you and me, I want it to be there for everyone. Even for, say, a Josef Mengele." Thus Dershowitz has represented porn star Harry Reems, championed William Shockley (the Stanford professor who preached the genetic inferiority of blacks) and unsuccessfully tried to keep notorious nursing-home magnate Bernard Bergman out of jail.

"Alan is stubbornly principled," says Harvey Silverglate, a Boston lawyer who sometimes works with him. "He's opposed to any form of tyranny. People like that manage to alienate everybody at some point." Others believe Dershowitz's strenuous efforts in such cases are not entirely selfless—that he is, in fact, a publicity junkie. He denies it. "I spend most of my time on obscure cases," he says. "I just got a letter from a woman I helped get out of a mental hospital and resettle. I spent months on her case for free."

Still, when Dershowitz says, virtuously and more than once, "I never solicit coverage," it's a big bite to swallow. For years he has been on display all over the TV dial—with MacNeil/Lehrer, Donahue, Downey, Oprah—bristling with opinions like some Constitutional porcupine. He's invited often because, said a Nightline producer, "he gives good talking head." Dershowitz accepts, he claims, because "we have to build a much deeper commitment to civil liberties. I don't think it's enough to persuade five [Supreme Court] justices. I have to persuade Joe Sixpack."

Dershowitz is an ardent champion of free speech. When it comes to the First Amendment, he says. "I'm about as absolutist as you can get and be reasonable. I don't believe people should be prosecuted for pornography or for racist or sexist or homophobic or anti-Semitic statements."

In theory, then, Dershowitz strongly supports the right of others to insult him; that's life in the media bear pit. But in practice his behavior toward the press has sometimes been quite different. Staffers at both Boston Magazine and Manhattan, inc. say Dershowitz threatened them with libel actions, and Darcy Frey, who wrote a piece about Dershowitz for The American Lawyer, says, "Before the article even appeared, he contacted us. Putting up these red flags, saying I will call it premeditated malice if you say this or that. He was trying to edit the story before it came out. It was a libel threat, clear as day."

Dershowitz acknowledges that he threatened lawsuits against Boston Magazine and Manhattan, inc; he denies it in the case of The American Lawyer. But he adamantly defends his actions. "I believe the Constitution gives journalists the right to make an honest mistake. But I also believe there's no Constitutional right to run something you know to be false." He maintains that both those magazines printed deliberate errors of fact. In all three cases, Dershowitz wrote letters of strong complaint, which the magazines published. He did not sue.

Even so, his behavior is "somewhat inconsistent with the image he projects," says New York University law professor Stephen Gillers. Professor Geoffrey Hazard Jr. of Yale is more severe. "Have you considered he's a monumental hypocrite?" he asks. At the very least, Dershowitz is hypersensitive to attack. "I'm a post-Holocaust Jew," he says. "I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. Every outsider does."

Dershowitz first acquired that attitude in the crucible and cradle of an Orthodox Jewish enclave, Brooklyn's Boro Park. His was a lower-middle-class childhood—his father sold dungarees wholesale—but culturally rich. He still gets together with friends from the old days.

"I was a very happy kid," he says. "Very athletic, very funny. A popular kid. I was always the designated fighter of my group. If we were set upon by people from outside the neighborhood, it was expected of me to be the one to get the bruises." Hal Jacobs, one of the old gang, doesn't recall that part ("I can't remember one scuffle he got into"), but all agree that Dershowitz was rambunctious in school and, as he readily admits, a terrible student. "It was a religious school," he says, "and I was rebelling." Silverglate says Dershowitz is still dogged by the insecurities of his childhood. "Alan was not slated to be a great success when he was a kid," he says. "He was a disciplinary problem. In some ways I suppose he still is. He almost didn't go to college."

He did squeak into Brooklyn College, however, and after that his ambition was galvanized. But before he graduated from Yale Law School in 1962, he got a faceful of anti-Semitism. "I was first in my class," he says, "editor of the law journal, and I was rejected by 32 out of 32 Wall Street firms for a summer job. That certified me as an outsider."

After graduation, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and later, at 28, became Harvard Law School's youngest full professor ever. He never left and is a popular teacher. But he also enjoys heckling the Waspy old-boy network both at Harvard and in the larger legal community. "Some of my friends tried to become insiders," he says. "White Anglo-Saxon Hebes. I could never be that. I love being an iconoclast." So he keeps rancorous feuds going with various prosecutors and routinely lashes out at judges for back-room dealing or incompetence.

After a long day of being obstreperous, Dershowitz recharges at home with his second wife, neuropsychologist Carolyn Cohen, 39, and their 6-month-old daughter, Ella. He already has two grown sons. In 1975, when he and his first wife, Sue, divorced, Dershowitz won custody. "The toughest job I ever had was to suddenly bring up two active, volatile teenagers," says Dershowitz. "It was very difficult and very gratifying." Elon, now 29, and Jamin, 27, remain close to him. "As intense as he is in his work," says Elon, "that's nothing, to the way he treated us. It was very positive and very kind." Not that the law was ever far from his father's mind. "Instead of stories when I was a kid," says Elon, "he'd give me legal hypotheticals. This was when I was 5 years old. I'd be in bed. He'd say, 'Person A is walking down the street, predisposed to having a heart attack. Person B is drunk, driving a car....' "

Jamin went on to become a lawyer. Elon served as co-producer for Reversal of Fortune, due to be released this fall. It makes a fabulous tabloid tale: A reptilian aristocrat is accused of twice trying to murder his wife, Sunny, with insulin injections, leaving her instead in an irreversible coma. His ostensible motives: a $14 million inheritance and the promise of a new life with a soap opera star.

The trial was a Roman circus. First Von Bülow was convicted in 1982; then his conviction was reversed, based on Dershowitz's appeal, in 1984. He was found not guilty at his second trial. Dershowitz has been sunning himself ever since in this triumph, even though, on close review, it had some troubling aspects unlikely to appear in the movie.

There was the nasty brouhaha, for instance, surrounding Dershowitz's publication of a book about the case while Von Bülow still faced a $56 million civil suit filed by his stepchildren. A New York federal judge ruled that the book waived Von Bülow's attorney-client privilege and that hostile lawyers were thus free to question Von Bülow and his attorneys about their conversations. That ruling was sharply narrowed on appeal, and Dershowitz indignantly denies he "disserved the interests of my client." But another of Von Bülow's lawyers called publishing the book "absolutely outrageous."

There is also a nettlesome question about how Dershowitz's team handled the affidavit of Father Philip Magaldi, a Roman Catholic priest from Providence, R.I. Dated Sept. 30, 1983, this document corroborated statements made by one David Marriott. Among other things, Marriott claimed he had delivered drugs and needles to Alex von Auersperg, one of Sunny's children, at the Von Bülow home, and that some of the drugs were for Alex's mother. The testimony was intended to raise the possibility that Sunny could have injected herself with drugs, but Marriott was not, on his own, a credible witness. "What made him trustworthy," says Dershowitz, "was that a respected priest supported his story in detail."

So important did Dershowitz consider what he called this "dramatic new evidence" that he made it the first point in his appeal. But Father Magaldi has since stated under oath that a crucial sentence in his affidavit supporting Marriott's claim ("Alex said it [the drug delivery] wasn't all for him and that he was even giving some to his mother 'to keep her off my back' ") was inserted without his knowledge. It turns out there were two versions of Magaldi's affidavit dated that day. The first was signed by Father Magaldi that morning in the Providence office of his lawyer, William Dimitri, and sent off to Dershowitz in Massachusetts. The second, virtually identical, but with that critical sentence inserted, was brought to Magaldi's home late that same evening by Dershowitz associate John MacFadyen and a local notary.

"It surprised me when they showed up at the door with this thing," says Magaldi, now a parish priest in Texas. "I just presumed the thing had been retyped." MacFadyen says he pointed out all changes to Magaldi and read the revised affidavit aloud. Magaldi doesn't remember it that way. "I did not read it thoroughly like I should have," Magaldi says. "I was not aware of that change. If I'd caught that, I'm sure I would have said something about it." Magaldi had removed that sentence from an earlier affidavit drawn up in August because "I didn't remember him [Marriott] telling me that."

Dershowitz vehemently denies any impropriety. "There's no question that change [in the affidavit] was made in my office," he says. But he insists Magaldi "called us and indicated that he wanted to change the affidavit. I didn't talk to him directly, but somebody on my staff did. [Magaldi said] that he did not want to speak to his lawyer." The former secretary who says she typed the second affidavit remembers talking to Magaldi on the phone several times that day about changes. An exhaustive canvass of the lawyers and legal assistants working with Dershowitz that day, however, has failed to find anyone else who remembers such a call coming in. "It would have been a topic of discussion around the office," says one of the legal assistants, "I don't think it happened that way." Though Father Magaldi says he considers Dershowitz "a trusted friend," he is certain that "I never called anybody. Before God, I do not remember any such thing."

Magaldi's lawyer, William Dimitri, who did not learn about the change until several years later, remains displeased that the affidavit was changed without consulting him. "As far as I was concerned, it was inexcusable that something like that would happen," he says. "This was not a minor occurrence." Dershowitz dismisses Dimitri as "one of the old-boy network in Rhode Island. You get points there for attacking me," he says. As always, he is quick to see a conspiracy and to personalize the dispute. For Dershowitz, the law is not an abstract system of ideas so much as it is the arena for his own special brand of legal roller derby—a bruising blood sport in which every adversary is assumed to be mean or treacherous. It is this special animus, even more than his intellectual skills, that fuels Dershowitz and makes him such a formidable advocate.

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