What Happened to the Lawyers Who Represented the “Bad Guys”?
Criminal cases often capture the public imagination, especially when the alleged crime is especially heinous or the defendant very well-known. The lawyers who handle these cases often achieve an amount of fame themselves, whether or not their clients are ultimately cleared.
Depending on their clients’ public perception, lawyers may face ridicule for their role in defending them – though they just as often go on to find work with equally prominent employers. Below, we look at the lawyers who represented three high-profile figures, and how their careers developed as a result.
The “Dream Team” – O.J. Simpson
Billed “The Trial of the Century”, People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson captivated national attention not only due to the defendant’s celebrity status, but also the role played by Simpson’s lavishly paid “Dream Team” of attorneys. Tasked with convincing a jury that there was reason to doubt that Simpson had murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, the assembled attorneys were each well-known as professionals prior to the case and became household names as the trial was broadcast to over 95 million people.
The team was led first by Robert Shapiro, then by the flamboyant Johnnie L. Cochran, whose refrain: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” – arguing that bloody gloves found on Simpson’s property were invalid as evidence due to their size – endured long after Simpson’s acquittal. Cochran earned up to $5 million for his work on the Simpson case, expanded his law firm to fifteen states and made regular talk show appearances.
The remainder of the Dream Team went on to achieve varying levels of success. Robert Kardashian, who had been Simpson’s personal friend and reactivated his license to practise law specifically to represent him, did not take on other clients and became largely eclipsed by the reality TV success of his ex-wife Kris and their children. DNA specialists Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld co-founded The Innocence Project, which has used DNA evidence to overturn hundreds of wrongful convictions.
One of the few surviving members of the team is F. Lee Bailey, famed for his cross-examination of LAPD investigator Mark Fuhrman. In the early 2000s, Bailey was disbarred in Florida and Massachusetts for alleged misconduct in handling a client’s case, and eventually filed for bankruptcy. He has referred to himself as a victim of “the O.J. curse”, believing that his role in the case played a part in his subsequent shunning by several state bar associations.
Laurence Lee – Jon Venables
Jon Venables and his co-defendant Robert Thompson, both aged 10, were tried in 1993 for the murder of 2-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool. Both the brutality of the killing and the age of the then-unnamed suspects caused outcry in the UK, as it emerged that Thompson and Venables had left school, lured Bulger away from his mother and tortured him before leaving his body on a railway.
Laurence Lee received the call to represent Venables after his arrest on 18 February, initially believing it to be a case of simple truancy. Though he soon became convinced of the boys’ guilt, Lee represented Jon Venables in court and pushed for a “not guilty” plea when the prosecution would not accept a charge of manslaughter alleging Thompson as the prime mover. Lee described the case as “a living nightmare” but did not regret taking it on. “A criminal lawyer who refuses a murder case, no matter how gruesome, shouldn’t be practising law. Simple as that,” he told The Guardian. “And if you’ve got ambition, of course you’ll take it on.”
Venables and Thompson were both found guilty of killing Bulger, becoming the UK’s youngest convicted murderers, and were issued with new identities. Lee initially faced difficulty continuing his work after the trial’s conclusion. “For a long time after the case, I never went to work,” he said. “No case could tempt me back into court – until the bank manager phoned up and said ‘You’d better do some work’.” Lee continues to practise law, helming his own Liverpool-based firm. In 2018, when it emerged that Venables had again been arrested for downloading and distributing child pornography, Lee made headlines by coming out in support of waiving Venables’ anonymity.
“A criminal lawyer who refuses a murder case, no matter how gruesome, shouldn’t be practising law. Simple as that.”
Starr and Dershowitz – Jeffrey Epstein
Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz had both achieved notoriety in their careers before their work for Jeffrey Epstein. Starr was known as the independent counsel who compiled the Starr Report, which publicized the graphic details of President Clinton’s affair with a White House intern and formed the crux of impeachment proceedings against him. Meanwhile, Dershowitz had been a member of O.J. Simpson’s famed Dream Team and had built a reputation as a lawyer who would doggedly represent powerful men accused of sexual misconduct, once infamously describing a woman raped by Mike Tyson as “hardly the naïve virgin she pretended to be.”
The two men came together in 2008 as part of the defence team for Epstein, who was accused of the statutory rape of numerous girls. Though the charges arrayed against him might have resulted in a life sentence, Epstein was ultimately offered a non-prosecution agreement that Starr and Dershowitz helped to negotiate. Pleading guilty to one charge of solicitation of prostitution, Epstein was sentenced to eighteen months in a county jail and released after thirteen.
Starr and Dershowitz’s fortunes dipped somewhat following the case. Though Starr became president and chancellor of Baylor University in 2010, he was fired six years later as a report found that the school had not done enough to address serious rape allegations against athletes, which had involved at least seventeen women. Dershowitz was accused by one of Epstein’s victims as having participated in her abuse and, though the case never went to trial, resulted in a diminished media profile for some years. Following the 2016 election, however, Starr and Dershowitz made regular appearances on Fox News – reportedly winning the favour of President Trump, who then hired them both for his impeachment defence team.