Lawyer who was fired from Harvard for representing Harvey Weinstein gives CLE on unpopular clients
Everyone deserves a lawyer to defend him or her, but what about when that person is the symbol of the #MeToo movement?
Professor Ronald Sullivan briefly lost his job at Harvard Law School after a group of students protested the fact that he represented now-convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein.
On Thursday, Feb. 27, Sullivan was the guest of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association where he talked about the experience, what he learned, and the importance of the Sixth Amendment, which he says is under attack.
“Ron Sullivan is truly an amazing attorney,” said KCCBA President Christopher Wright. “He writes about the intersection of criminal law, democracy and race; he represented Aaron Hernandez in a double murder case and got an acquittal, he represented the Michael Brown family in their litigation against the City of Ferguson even after the feds dropped the ball on that one; and he has secured the release of more wrongfully convicted people than anyone else in the history of the U.S., about 6,000.”
A Morehouse College and Harvard Law School graduate, Sullivan opened his lecture by talking about the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees rights at trial, including the right to have an attorney in a criminal defense case.
He explained that lawyers have a duty to live up to this standard and expressed concern that if lawyers are bullied or intimidated, they’ll stop fighting for people’s rights.
“People always quote Shakespeare, ‘kill the lawyers first,’ but if you read the text, they wanted the lawyers gone because they enforced the rules and they wanted to get rid of them so they can run amok,” Sullivan said.
“But for lawyers, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to Harvard Law School,” he continued. “But for lawyers, I wouldn’t be standing up here now. I’d be in the back, fixing food or getting ready to clean up.”
Sullivan recalled all of the things that happened to him when Harvard students found out that he was representing Harvey Weinstein — they protested his office, spray-painted and vandalized his house, conducted sit-ins and refused to engage him in a discussion at all. He wasn’t mad at the students, though; he was mad at the college which caved in to the pressure to fire him.
“Students will be students,” said Sullivan, who then recalled his own participation in a two-week sit-in when he was a student at Harvard in the 1990s. “What was most troubling was the response from Harvard College, the leadership of the college …The better way to have dealt with that would have been to treat it as a teaching moment, rather than to cave in to the loudest voices in the room.”
The advice he gave to defense attorneys in the room who have unpopular clients is to focus on the jury. He said that he represented Aaron Hernandez because nobody else would and during the trial he presented a theory that he admitted might have seemed unsavory to the general public. But a lawyer’s duty, he said, is to the client, and the argument needs only to be tailored to the 12 people in the jury box.
“In practice, there is a certain alignment when you have to make difficult arguments,” Sullivan said. “You’re not making them for argument’s sake; you are trying to convince the 12 people in the box.”
Sullivan still works at Harvard Law School, where he serves as the Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and is the director of the Criminal Justice Institute. In 2009, when he was named master, now known as faculty dean, he was the first African American ever appointed to that position in the school’s history.
During the event, the KCCBA also awarded Brooklyn Law School student Karra Puccia with its Justice Ruth Moskowitz Scholarship. The $2,500 reward is given each year to a BLS student interested in a career in criminal justice.
“We try to support and encourage law school students who are interested in criminal law,” said Wright. “She has really excelled during Brooklyn Law, has interned at every DA’s Office except Staten Island at this point, has a 3.5 GPA and has a real interest in criminal law.”
The KCCBA’s next CLE will take place on March 26. At that event, attorney Michael Ross will lecture on ethics. The group is currently selling tickets to its July 8 CLE that will take place at Yankee Stadium. There were 100 tickets available and they’re said to be going fast.
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