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  • Cameron Fiske

Remembering the Legendary Lawyers of Yesterday


There is one Canadian and three American lawyers who I wanted to acknowledge today as having made a major, and at times colorful contribution to the field of litigation. Some of them are still in practice and some are not. Three are criminal lawyers and one was a general practitioner/civil litigator whose philosophy of “always hitting back” lives on to this day.


Edward (“Eddie”) L. Greenspan:


In many ways Mr. Greenspan began his storied career in July 1973. It was at this time when Christine Demeter was murdered and her wealthy husband Peter Demeter first fell under suspicion as a suspect in her slaying. In August 1973 Demeter was charged with hiring a hitman to kill his wife to collect insurance funds. A sensational murder trial in November 1974 revealed details of mistresses and elaborate plots. While the millionaire land developer Demeter was ultimately convicted, his lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, who was barely 30 at the time, almost pulled off a legal miracle (R v Demeter, 1975 CanLII 50). At the time, there certainly were some who believed Demeter was innocent (such doubts having ended when Demeter went on to be convicted of several additional crimes and plots in the 1980s). Following the Demeter trial, what followed was an extraordinary career of wins at trial and appearances before the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada. Former Nova Scotia Premier Gerald Regan certainly owes Mr. Greenspan his life. Regan was acquitted of several sex related charges in the late 1990s.


I still think that Mr. Greenspan’s performance at Conrad Black's fraud trial in Chicago in 2007 was extraordinary indeed. Lord Black initially faced 17 charges. Three were dropped before trial and one during the trial. The jury acquitted Lord Black on 9 of the remaining 13 counts leaving him guilty on only four charges. Mr. Greenspan's objection to the honest services fraud theory of the prosecution at trial (and preservation of appeal rights) would ultimately lead to two more charges being thrown out against Lord Black after the US Supreme Court would go on to limit the powers of prosecutors to use the honest services fraud statute to obtain a conviction (limited to bribes and kickbacks Black v United States, 561 U.S. 465 (2010). It was a tough case against a formidable foe in the United States Justice Department and Lord Black was almost cleared on all charges.


Bruce Cutler:


Next up is legendary New York City criminal defence lawyer Bruce Cutler. Known for his fiery cross-examinations; he defended Mob boss John Gotti, the so-called "Teflon Don" back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cutler first began representing Gotti in 1985 after the then Gambino mafia captain had been charged with assault in one case and indicted on racketeering and murder charges in another. After the rub out of Don Paul Castellano, Gotti became the head of the Gambino crime family. This thrust Cutler into the spotlight. Gotti was acquitted in the first assault case after the key witness recanted. Gotti was then acquitted in the racketeering case in March 1987 after an eight-month trial which even featured Cutler slam dunking the so-called rancid indictment that Gotti faced in the garbage (a demonstration that took place in front of the jurors). In 1990 Cutler won another major acquittal for Gotti on charges related to the shooting of a union official. Gotti was now dubbed “the Teflon Don” as none of the charges stuck and Cutler's cross examinations of mob witnesses was now the stuff of legend (United States v Cutler, 58 F 3d825). In the end, Gotti was convicted in 1992 at a fourth trial on murder charges but Cutler did not represent him in that case as he had been disqualified. We will never know whether Cutler could have pulled off a fourth straight acquittal. Gotti died in prison in 2002.


Roy M. Cohn:


This New York City lawyer, Roy M. Cohn, who died in 1986, was one of the toughest in the business. He served as the junior lawyer to Joseph McCarthy during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. Naturally, Cohn was fiercely anti-communist. After his years with Senator McCarthy, he went on to practice in several areas of law in the State of New York. He later represented current US President Donald J. Trump after President Trump was sued along with his father Fred C. Trump. The lawsuit, brought on behalf of the United States, was over alleged unfair housing practices (United States v. Fred C. Trump and Donald Trump 1973). It was Cohn who apparently coined the expression "always hit back"—which appears to be the cornerstone of Trump’s philosophy when dealing with adversaries. It was Cohn's theory that if an adversary hits you, you must not show any sort of weakness but rather you ought to hit back with even greater force than your foe hit you. Hence why Trump and his father counter sued the United States in 1974. It may well be that this philosophy, as developed by Roy M. Cohn, plays a larger role in all of our lives, as per the current political climate, then one would think. (see Donald J. Trump, The Art of the Deal).


Leslie Abramson:


Without a doubt, Leslie Abramson has always been my favorite trial lawyer. Her representation of Erik Menendez at his first double murder trial in 1993-1994 was brilliant. For those who do not remember them, the Menendez brothers brutally murdered their parents with a shotgun on the night of August 20, 1989 in Beverly Hills, California. Erik was 18 at the time and his brother Lyle Menendez was 21.


The murder trial in 1993 was the beginning of reality television. In fact, the Menendez trial was covered gavel to gavel by Court TV. It was pure theatre. The brothers often wore sweaters over pastel coloured suits to appear more youthful and Ms. Abramson came off as both a protective mother figure, and fearless courtroom advocate for Erik Menendez.


At trial, the brothers alleged that they had been sexually abused by their parents. The defence seemed implausible at first. However, Abramson's advocacy and the brothers own excellent testimony turned a long-shot into a near victory. The brothers almost convinced two juries that they had acted in what is known in California as "imperfect self defence." Approximately 12 of 24 jurors voted for manslaughter over murder (and few opted for murder one). Unfortunately for the brothers, a second trial two years later would not prove as successful. Their defences of abuse were limited by court rulings, and they were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996 (at least they avoided the death penalty). While they were ultimately convicted, given Ms. Abramson’s tireless, sincere, and compelling advocacy, one cannot help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, the first-degree murder verdicts were excessive.

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