Law: The Lawyer of Last Resort

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Proudly overzealous, Alan Dershowitz fights the "cheat elite"

When Claus von Billow appeared in Newport, R.I., last week to hear himself sentenced to 30 years in prison, he had a new lawyer on his team, a slight, bespectacled fellow with reddish brown, frizzy hair, seen by some as a cross between Woody Allen and Bozo the Clown. But Von Bülow knows that Alan Dershowitz, 43, is no joke. He got the Harvard law professor out of bed at 7 a.m. six weeks ago to ask him to handle his appeal. Why Dershowitz? To be sure, he is smart, energetic and an expert in criminal law, but so are others. What made Dershowitz the right choice is that he has become, perhaps, the top lawyer of last resort in the country—a sort of judicial St. Jude—the mouthpiece, or patron saint, of hopeless cases. Says Dershowitz: "I play the devil's advocate in court, sometimes representing true devils."

Devils or not, Dershowitz has been called into cases, often on appeal, by a long list of people in serious trouble. Among them are Nursing Home Operator Rabbi Bernard Bergman ("the meanest man in New York," suggested the Village Voice), Patricia Hearst, F. Lee Bailey, a few alleged Mafiosi, Soviet Dissident Anatoli Shcharansky and Deep Throat Star Harry Reems. Now, in addition to helping Von Bülow, Dershowitz is likely to take on the appeal of Jack Henry Abbott, the inmate-writer who was convicted of manslaughter after Author Norman Mailer and others had helped to get him paroled. The "devil's advocate" does not always win; in fact, he often loses. As he explains in his book, The Best Defense, to be published this month by Random House, "The Perry Mason image of the heroic defender of innocent victims of frame-ups or mistaken identification is television fiction."

Dershowitz readily concedes that few of his clients are innocent. He writes: "I do not apologize for (or feel guilty about) helping to let a murderer go free—even though I realize that someday one of my clients may go out and kill again." To him, that is an unavoidable byproduct of the "process of challenge needed to maintain the freedoms we have." In pursuit of this goal, Dershowitz will put the government on trial, trick witnesses, use the press—in short, he will try anything right up to the edge of being unethical. "I am proud to be regarded as overzealous on behalf of my clients," he says.

The system he is fighting, in his view, is "corrupt to its core." While his book is primarily an entertaining gloss of his most intriguing legal battles, Dershowitz lays out his case against criminal justice in a furious ten-page introduction. The system is "built on a foundation of not telling the whole truth," he claims. Even respected members of the profession are part of what he labels the "cheat elite," who doctor facts to produce the results they want. They include not only police and prosecutors, he says, but defense attorneys and judges as well.

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