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An Imperfect, Courageous Attorney


A Review of A Book By the Lawyer Who Defended One of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombers

By NOAH LEAVITT


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Friday, Dec. 19, 2003

Imagine this scenario: You are an idealistic young attorney who dreams of being the next Clarence Darrow, a "valiant defender of the underdog." Yet, in your daily practice as a New York public defender you handle a stream of low-level criminal cases and grow frustrated with your inability to make a difference in your clients' lives or in the welfare of your community.

One day, late in the afternoon, your phone rings. You learn from the caller that you have just been assigned to defend a man accused of an act of terrorism which would have destroyed the tallest building in the United States -- a crime which, had it been successful, would have killed thousands and radically changed the physical landscape of New York City and the psychic landscape of all Americans.

It is every lawyer's dream. Or nightmare.

Defending Mohammad, Justice on Trial is a memoir by the lawyer -- Robert E. Precht, now a dean at the University of Michigan Law School -- who found himself in this very situation. Precht defended Mohammad Salameh, the man who rented the explosive-filled yellow Ryder van that detonated beneath the World Trade Center in 1993.

This is a remarkable book. There are plenty of books on the market in which lawyers heap praise upon their careers -- demonstrating that time and time again they made the right decisions, came up with the perfect legal arguments, and orchestrated the most sophisticated courtroom strategies. In sharp contrast, however, Precht presents himself as an imperfect, flawed human being trying to grapple with a difficult situation not of his own choosing. His book underscores the human, psychological elements that always play a large role in any legal conflict. As a result of Precht's candid self-reflection, the reader is able to relate to the author rather than simply view him as a legal demi-god.

An Engaging Narrative of the Legal Proceedings After the First WTC Attack

In addition to Salameh, three other men were also charged in the 1993 bombing. In 1994, they were convicted. Each was sentenced to 240 years in prison. In 1998, the final appellate court decision in the case, which affirmed the convictions, was issued.

Precht describes the entire progress of the case, and his narrative moves along quickly and seamlessly. Although the book covers a period of several years, it is easily read in one sitting.

The years of legal proceedings are filled with lurches, surprises, mistakes and problems. Witnesses change their stories. Crucial evidence goes missing. Other New York terrorism cases intrude on Mohammad's. Tactical blunders derail trial strategies. The press presents the Muslim defendants in a highly unfavorable light. Anonymous informants leak crucial facts to the opposing parties. This is not an easy case.

A Judge Alleged to Be Biased Against the Defendant

Precht focuses special attention on the judge, U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Duffy of the Southern District of New York. Precht depicts Duffy as biased -- repeatedly siding with the prosecution by, for instance, "denying all of the defense's pretrial motions, blocking our attempts to have a more searching screening of potential jurors, and overruling our objections to the parade of victim testimony."

Midway through the trial, Precht recounts, Judge Duffy calls the defense team into his chambers to say that two of Mohammad's co-defendants had met with the government to try to work out guilty plea agreements, and to encourage Mohammad to do the same. Judge Duffy told Precht, "I think your client will be convicted… I'm fairly certain he did it."

At that point, Precht considered moving for Judge Duffy to recuse himself from the case, but never filed the motion -- an omission that Precht calls, in retrospect, a "terrible mistake" and his "biggest regret" in the trial. Indeed, one of the most engaging aspects of the book is the author's willingness to criticize his own decisions and to present alternative approaches to the litigation.

Illuminating a Tension Within the Lawyer-Client Relationship

An especially engrossing element of the book is Precht's attention to the dynamic between himself and his client.

Under the ABA's Rules of Professional Conduct a lawyer is required to abide by a client's decisions regarding the objectives of the representation, but only needs to consult with the client as to the means by which they are pursued.

Put another way, the attorney may override his client as to strategic decisions if he does so with his client's best interests in mind. But at the start, at least, Precht did not override Muhammad as much as, in retrospect, he feels he perhaps should have.

Precht was a young lawyer who knew the case was "a great break for my career," and came to like his client, at least initially. (Later, after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, however, he came to see him as a "hardened, brutal killer.") Accordingly, Precht reveals, he may have spent too much time trying to win his client's approval. Thus, he did not challenge Mohammad at crucial points in the litigation. And many times, Mohammad ignored Precht's instructions -- such as his direction not to speak to the press.

In contrast, when a second defense lawyer was assigned to help with the case, Precht observes that, "he spoke his mind and didn't hesitate to disagree with Mohammad." And, somewhat wistfully, Precht realizes that, "Mohammad seemed to appreciate [the other lawyer's] bluntness."

Precht, however, began to speak to the press himself -- seeing the case as a podium to "allow me to re-create myself into the lawyer I'd always dreamed of becoming." On several occasions, his boss berated him for talking to the media even though the prosecution was constantly speaking to the media and several anonymous informants were also frequently leaking questionable information.

Precht now recognizes these admonitions were appropriate: He was too caught up in the drama and ego-satisfaction of his work. He also chronicles another source of inner conflict: He was confused, horrified, and sometimes disgusted by the crimes of which his client was accused. Finally, Precht is candid about legal mistakes he made, including citations to bad precedent, that demonstrate he fell far short of an ideal advocate - a Clarence Darrow, for example.

A Book With Potentially Broad Appeal

Precht's honesty about his shortcomings, his openness about his missteps, and his acknowledgment of legal avenues not explored remind the reader that lawyers are human beings and not mere technicians or automatons within our justice system.

As a result, this book is important reading for anyone who works or wants to work in America's legal arena. It reminds us that our justice system depends on the skills and talents of every single individual actor on every side of a dispute. It also reminds us of the close - sometimes inseparable -- interaction between an attorney's private life and professional life.

This book should appeal to many different audiences. It offers practicing attorneys the chance to study a complex trial unfolding before them. It offers young lawyers and law students a chance to learn about the realities and ambiguities of defending unpopular clients. It offers an informed, accessible account for non-lawyers who want to understand how terrorism prosecutions take place. And it offers interesting insights for any reader who seeks a thoughtful discussion of the challenges the U.S. legal system will face as more and more terrorism cases appear before our courts. Precht is a courageous teacher and we will all gain from heeding his many lessons.


Noah Leavitt, an attorney, is the Advocacy Director for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago (www.jcua.org). The views expressed here are his alone. Leavitt can be contacted at nsleavitt@hotmail.com.

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