Firebrand lawyer Alan Dershowitz plans two Boise-area appearances

Dershowitz shares thoughts on passion, controversy and a successful life for attorneys.

krodine@idahostatesman.comMay 7, 2013 

  • DERSHOWITZ IN THE TREASURE VALLEY

    “A Conversation with Alan Dershowitz” starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 18, at the Egyptian Theatre in Downtown Boise. The event, moderated by 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Trott, includes a reception. Tickets cost $25 for one or $40 for two and must be purchased via the website collegeofidaho.afrogs.org. Proceeds will support the College of Idaho’s new Howard Berger-Ray Neilsen Chair in Judaic studies through a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

    Earlier that day, Dershowitz will speak at the College of Idaho’s graduation. Ceremonies start at 10 a.m. outdoors in the Caldwell college’s Morrison Quadrangle and are expected to last a little more than two hours. Admission is free.

He’s written 27 books, signed on with some of America’s most controversial murder suspects and weighed in on cases from the Salem witch trial to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Two New Yorker cartoons, a New York Times crossword puzzle and a Trivial Pursuit question have used him as a topic.

Now Alan Dershowitz is headed for the Treasure Valley to share his thoughts with students, lawyers and others who’d like to get in on the conversation.

“I see everything I do as part of teaching,” says Dershowitz, a Harvard University law professor for the past 49 years.

Whether in a classroom or a public lecture hall, Dershowitz gauges success by getting his audience “thinking or talking about issues they haven’t thought about or talked about before, or thinking or talking about the issues in ways they haven’t before.”

In Boise on Saturday, May 18, he plans to talk about whatever is interesting to him and his audience at that moment. Recently he has spoken out in national media about the Amanda Knox case — “people were confusing the fact she may not be legally guilty with her angelic face” — and last month’s Boston Marathon bombing, which he says raises issues of federal versus state jurisdiction that could determine whether prosecutors seek the death penalty against the surviving suspect.

WHY IDAHO?

This will be the first Gem State visit for Dershowitz, 74, who told the Statesman he accepted this invitation because of who invited him, and why.

“Steve Trott asked me,” he says. “Whatever Steve Trott asks me to do, I do.”

Trott, the Boise-based senior judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, “has been coming to my classes in Harvard for close to 30 years … (giving) a brilliant lecture on how prosecutors prepare for cases,” Dershowitz says.

Trott will moderate “A Conversation with Alan Dershowitz,” an interactive evening presentation at the Egyptian Theatre.

Proceeds will go to the College of Idaho’s new endowed chair in Judaic studies — the first such position in the Intermountain West. That’s another key reason Dershowitz, a Zionist who has been critical of some Israeli policies, is coming.

“I have written about the need for more Jewish education and programs to learn about the Jewish heritage,” he says, adding he was surprised to see such an endowed chair crop up in Idaho, which has a “small but vibrant Jewish community.”

College of Idaho history professor Howard Berger says Dershowitz’s participation is a coup for the college and “a testament to our successful development of awareness of Jewish studies at the College of Idaho.”

“Professor Dershowitz is the biggest name we’ve had on this campus since I’ve been here,” says Berger, a 30-year veteran of the college.

CONTROVERSY AND CLIENTS

Dershowitz will be the featured speaker at the Caldwell college’s graduation ceremonies, also on Saturday, May 18. He will receive an honorary doctorate — one of about a dozen he says he’s accepted over the years.

“I used to get a lot until I worked on the O.J. Simpson case,” he says. The offers totally stopped for a few years after that, and then they picked up again. Then when I became very active on Israel, it stopped for a bit.”

He says he loves taking on controversial issues, but “it’s not what people want at a graduation.”

At the College of Idaho commencement, he plans to discuss the strength fostered by bringing together different cultures. At his later talk in Boise, topics will be more wide-ranging, and he will take questions from the audience.

Among the emerging issues in the law, he says, are gay rights, immigration and America’s position in the world.

Dershowitz has made headlines opining about most of the contentious legal developments of the past few decades.

And he has championed high-profile defendants whom many have found wildly unsympathetic — including Simpson, the former football star accused of killing his wife who enlisted a legal “dream team” that ultimately helped him win not-guilty verdicts on two murder charges in 1995.

Among the first high-profile cases Dershowitz took on was the 1983 appeal of socialite Claus von Bulow’s conviction on a charge of trying to kill his wealthy wife. The conviction was overturned two years later,, and Dershowitz’s book “Reversal of Fortune” was turned into a movie that featured actor Ron Silver as Dershowitz.

“He certainly played me well as a lawyer, but I’m a much better basketball player” than the movie suggested, he says. Dershowitz “really got upset” with the actor’s “endlessly dribbling” in a basketball scene.

A varsity basketball player in high school, he says he can still beat his 17-year-old grandson in a game of H-O-R-S-E, a basketball variation, thanks to a “deadly corner shot.”

“My success on the court is as important to me as my success in court,” he says.

PASSION AND BALANCE

A common thread in all of Dershowitz’s pursuits, he says, is passion.

He says his father “was a brawler who couldn’t stand the idea of bullies and taught me to … look out for the underdog.”

Wealthy, successful people can be underdogs, he notes, and that’s how he sees Simpson, because “the entire country is against him and thinks he’s guilty.”

Deciding to take a case is not a matter of believing the defendant is innocent, Dershowitz says.

“I start out every case with the presumption of guilt, just like a doctor should start out with a presumption of illness” while figuring out the situation, he says. “We live in a fair country where innocent people generally aren’t charged, but it does happen.”

He says his chief advice to lawyers and law students is to “try to balance a career of doing good and doing well.”

“Making money is a good thing, if you strike the appropriate balance,” he says. “Fifty percent of my cases are pro bono (no fee).”

“I see lawyers in the corporate world who spend their lives doing extraordinary, productive things,” he says.

When former students come back to Dershowitz years later, well-paid but unsatisfied, “I tell them, do something different.”

“You can’t live for the weekend,” he says. “TGIF is one of the worst expressions ever. It should be Thank God It’s Monday, or Tuesday.”

The key, he says, is to find work you look forward to.

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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