The art of defending high-profile clients

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

As a white-collar criminal defense lawyer, Ira Sorkin has represented clients charged with all sorts of crimes, including Syrian arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar, who was convicted of selling weapons to terrorists.

But he never got any backlash about the people he agreed to defend until he took on a client named Bernie Madoff.

The personal attacks and death threats against Sorkin and his family were constant and vicious.

In an email to one critic, Sorkin suggested that the man read the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The man replied: "I knew you'd use that defense!"

Sorkin was one of five defense attorneys who spoke about navigating high profile cases during the 2011 Bench/Bar Conference sponsored by the Federal Bar Association, Eastern District of Michigan chapter and held April 28.

The panel was moderated by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald E. Rosen. In addition to Sorkin, participating attorneys included: Charles Babcock, counsel for Oprah Winfrey; Anthony Chambers, counsel for Umar Farock Abdulmuttallab; William Jeffress, counsel for Scooter Libby; and Robert Morvillo, counsel for Martha Stewart.

U.S. District Court Judge District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds provided a judicial perspective.

Chambers said the public tends to believe that where there's smoke, there's fire, which is why he believes the defense must make a statement soon after the allegations are made.

"You can't live with the media. You can't live without them. So you have to deal with them," said Chambers, whose office is in downtown Detroit.

Chambers believes in forming relationships with reporters and remaining aware of what information is out in the media, because that's what perspective jurors are being told.

"They're doing their jobs.," he said of reporters. "They're going to report the story, they're going to report the case, with or without your comments."

The lawyer's concern is whether or not they're accurate, and the only way to impact that process is to have communication with both the print and electronic media.

The time for comment is before the trial, he said. During the trial, he said lawyers should seal their lips and let the process take its course.

Jurors in high profile cases must return to their homes at the end of the trial, knowing that their friends and neighbors may despise the defendant, said Jeffress.

"That's a terrible problem," he said, adding that the federal court in Houston had no business trying the Enron case there because of the strong reaction of residents there.

Robert Morvillo said that clients in high profile cases face a higher presumption of guilt.

The media loves to focus on negative facts, and the public loves to read about it, he said. Then, once it's out, other media pounce on it.

For a look at the devastation caused by the assumption of guilt in a high visibility case, Morvillo suggested that the audience read Stuart Taylor's book "Until Proven Innocent," about the three innocent Duke lacrosse players who were "slaughtered by the media."

To combat the negativity in the Martha Stewart trial, Morvillo set up a website and invited her many fans to post supportive messages on it.

He also negotiated an interview with Stewart and Barbara Walters, placing strict limits on what she was allowed to discuss -- which included anything about the cases. During the interview, Morvillo was in the next room wearing earphones, ready to stop the questions when Walters got too close to the topic.

Sorkin said neither the public nor the press fully understand what defense attorneys do, which is one reason he doesn't mind talking to -- and educating -- the press.

He added that he'd love to see an organized push by the bar to educate the public, as well.

Several attorneys referred to the difficulty of keeping jurors away from social media and Google.

Edmunds said some jurors now seem unable to refrain from using electronic media during a trial even when strictly forbidden from doing so.

Published: Thu, May 5, 2011