Jews forgetting presumption of innocence, Dershowitz says

For the first time in his storied career, Alan Dershowitz has begun receiving racist hate mail from Jews.

It all started after he served as a member of the O.J. Simpson defense team.

Jews have taken what Dershowitz calls "an emotional and personal interest" in the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.

"They have forgotten about the presumption of innocence," said Dershowitz, who appeared at the Marin Jewish Community Center recently to plug "Reasonable Doubts," his new book about the Simpson case.

"I have never before gotten racist hate mail from Jews using the `N-word,'" he said. There was "one Jewish dentist in San Francisco who wrote to me on his prescription pad that he hoped I would die of cancer and that the president of Harvard would die of AIDS."

During a prior phone interview, the criminal lawyer, Harvard Law School professor and best-selling author discussed the anti-Simpson fallout. One result is that 25 copies of "Chutzpah" — his 1991 best-seller about Jews in post-World War II America — have been sent back to him with angry notes. He's currently writing a sequel that looks at the future of Jews in America, and expects Jews will remain among his core readership, despite the anger his defense of Simpson has engendered.

"If you loved me before [the Simpson case] and hate me now, you never understood me," he contended. "A black man the other day said he loved me for what I was doing, and I said, `Today you love me, but tomorrow, when I denounce Farrakhan, you may not.' I'm not a special pleader for anyone."

Dershowitz argued that it was "arrogant" to base one's opinion of Simpson's guilt or innocence on media reports, because, he noted, there were actually three Simpson trials: one in the court of public opinion and the media, one in the public trial and one in the behind-the-scenes proceedings.

"I can understand why people who witnessed the trial in the court of public opinion would be outraged," Dershowitz allowed. "But what went on at the behind-the-scenes trial explains why people on that jury would have voted to acquit. Once you hear a close-up view of the quality of the state's evidence you will understand why the jury rendered the verdict it did."

Dershowitz thinks the police tried to frame Simpson but admitted he doesn't know if Simpson is guilty or innocent. "I almost never know," he said about his clients. "But the evidence usually points in one direction or another."

Although he has become famous defending many high-profile, wealthy clients, such as Simpson, Leona Helmsley, and Claus von Bulow, Dershowitz estimated that about 70 percent of his current cases are pro bono. Throughout his entire career, he has averaged a 50 percent pro-bono rate.

Dershowitz's Jewish identity plays a central role in his professional life. Many of the clients he takes on for free are Jews, he said, and he attributed his "ethics and professional zeal" to his Jewishness.

"I'm a lawyer for Jewish causes and I take my Jewishness very seriously."

Dershowitz identified two types of Jewish lawyers. "There are lawyers who happen to be Jews and there are Jewish lawyers," he said, pointing to two Supreme Court judges. "Justice Felix Frankfurter was a justice who happened to be a Jew," he said. "Justice Arthur Goldberg was a great Jewish justice." The late Goldberg was Dershowitz's mentor.

While Frankfurter and Goldberg attained the highest stature in U.S. law, some high-priced, flamboyant attorneys have given the profession a bad name.

But "the law is not a place for people to serve popular opinion," he said. "There's no Nobel Prize in law for a good reason. Lawyers who are too popular worry me. The Bible says you can't serve two masters. I work for my clients and popular opinion be damned."

Turning to Jews who have transgressed laws, Dershowitz rejected "Den of Thieves" author James Stewart's characterization of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken as Jewish criminals.

"They were just criminals who happened to be Jews," he insisted. "Jonathan Pollard is a Jewish criminal."

Dershowitz serves as an unpaid legal adviser to Pollard, who was convicted of spying on the United States for Israel and is now in federal prison. Despite surprising revelations that Dershowitz says will be made public in the next few months, he believes Pollard will not be released from prison because the American Jewish community has not pressed his case hard enough.

"When the Jews want something bad enough, they know how to ask for it," he said.

Although his picture appears over his weekly syndicated column in newspapers across the country, to moviegoers Dershowitz's face will always be associated with that of Ron Silver. The actor portrayed Dershowitz in the film version of his book about the von Bulow case, "Reversal of Fortune."

"He's a good actor," Dershowitz said. "He studied me. He went to my classes and watched video- tapes of my arguments. But," Dershowitz added, " I thought he overdid his performance."