When John Kerry Was a Lawyer

In anticipation of the newest attack ads on John Kerry, I encourage everyone to read Jeffrey Toobin's portrait of Kerry in the May, 2004 New Yorker.

Given his background in the antiwar movement and progressive politics, Kerry might have seemed like a natural for a public defender’s office. “That’s a stereotype of the worst order and a total knee-jerk reaction,” Kerry told me during a recent conversation about his legal career. “I always had a prosecutor’s mind and a prosecutor’s bent. It was always what I wanted to do, even in law school. There was a rule in Massachusetts that allowed law students to prosecute misdemeanor trials in front of six-person juries, and I got an unbelievable amount of experience before I even graduated.” For a politically ambitious young lawyer like Kerry, especially one who was known only as a protester, it also made sense to earn a law-enforcement credential.

After leaving the DA's office, Kerry opened a private practice, for a while.

In 1979, John Kerry and a colleague at the D.A.’s office, Roanne Sragow, opened the firm of Kerry & Sragow, at 60 State Street, in downtown Boston. Sragow, who was born in New York and grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, graduated from Tufts and Boston College Law School, and was one of the star assistant district attorneys during Kerry’s tenure in Middlesex County.

Private practice does not a criminal defense lawyer make:

Kerry’s background as a prosecutor made criminal work unappealing to him. “I took a court appointment once in a criminal case, and I realized I just didn’t want the guy out on the street,” Kerry told me. “I knew he was guilty. It takes a certain kind of makeup as a lawyer to dedicate yourself to having someone like that out on the street. I know our system says someone has to represent everyone, but I just couldn’t do it. I went to the court and asked them to take me off the case.”

They did take some court appointed cases, and one of them is the one that the anticipated new "Willie Horton" ad will bash him for -- most unjustifiably. The case involved a defendant named George Reissfelder. Reissfelder was serving a life sentence for murder, which happened during a robbery gone bad. While in prison, he got a one day furlough and escaped. After 3 years as a fugitive, he was caught in Florida and sent back to finish his life sentence. At the time of his recapture, he tried to pull a gun on a cop, and Florida got 15 years from him for it.

But, Reissfelder was innocent of the initial robbery/murder. After returning to prison in Massachussetts, a judge appointed him a lawyer for him to assist him in proving his innocence. That lawyer was Roanne Sragow, John Kerry's partner.

Learning of her involvement, John Zamparelli, the lawyer who represented Silky Sullivan at trial, appeared at her office one day and said, “As God is my witness, the cops knew it, the prosecutor knew it, the judge knew it—this guy Reissfelder was not guilty.”

Sragow was the lead attorney and Kerry assisted. Together, they were able to prove Reissfelder was innocent.

On June 21, 1982, Sragow and Kerry appeared in a Boston courtroom with ten witnesses at a hearing to request that Reissfelder receive a new trial. A Boston detective testified that he had told an officer on the case that he had heard that others, not Reissfelder, committed the crime, and was told, “Don’t rock the boat, kid. We’re all set.”

Kerry travelled to Florida in order to persuade the authorities there to drop the case stemming from the time that Reissfelder was an escapee. On the day of Reissfelder’s release, August 30, 1982, two weeks before the Democratic primary, Sragow, Kerry, and the former inmate, who was now forty-two, were photographed having a beer together in Quincy Market.

Kerry should be praised, not castigated for his representation of the wrongfully convicted Reissfelder. The case also shaped his views on the death penalty.

Kerry has often cited the Reissfelder case as a reason he opposed the death penalty. He has modified his opposition in recent years, and he now supports the execution of convicted terrorists. “George wasn’t a great guy—he had done some things wrong, that was part of the problem,” Kerry said. “But he didn’t commit murder. His case convinced me of the mistakes that are made, that the system had made mistakes and what can happen in an overzealous prosecution.”

Later in 1982, Kerry was elected Lieutenant Governor. In 1984, he was elected to the Senate. The rest, as they say, is history.

As to Reissfelder, he never received a dime for the years he spent unjustly imprisoned because Massachussetts law did not allow it. He was later reported to have become involved in cocaine trafficking, and in 1991, was found dead in his apartment from cocaine-poisoning.

So portraying Kerry as the great liberal out to free the guilty by whatever trick possible, is just not true. It's a lie.

Kerry’s years as a lawyer seem to have taught him a more explicitly political lesson as well. Like Bill Clinton, he has used tough-on-crime positions to offset an otherwise predictably liberal profile. Not coincidentally, one of the few major bills that Kerry has passed grew out of Clinton’s proposal to add a hundred thousand officers to police departments around the country. Kerry’s approach may be unapologetically big government—more cops, more prosecutors, more victims’ services....but the goal is decidedly mainstream.

Personally, I wish Kerry were more liberal when it came to criminal justice issues. But he's light-years beyond the draconian, purely punitive approach of the Ashcroft-Bush Administration.

So, if and when the the right releases the regurgitated and reconstituted Willie Horton ad, know that it's a misprepresentation.

The first ad will expose John Kerry’s role in securing freedom and parole for would-be cop killer who escaped a Massachusetts prison during a furlough, just like Willie Horton!!! ....The first ad will feature John Kerry’s role as a private attorney in 1982, when he secured freedom and parole for his client George Reissfelder who pled guilty to attempted murder of a police officer, bur never served his 15-year sentence because Kerry successfully secured his parole. The parole was in Florida because Mr. Kerry’s client had escaped during a furlough, just like Willie Horton. Once a free man, thanks to John Kerry, Kerry’s would-be cop killer client brazenly continued his life of crime as part of a Mafia-controlled drug ring.

You can watch the video here. Perhaps the most galling aspect is the suggestion that Kerry was responsible for obtaining Reissfelder's furlough, enabling him to be in a position to pull a gun on a cop in Florida. Kerry wasn't even appointed to the case until years after both incidents. Know that what Kerry did do was help free an innocent man serving a life sentence for murder. He did it with dedication, pride and at Massachussett's abysmally low court-appointed rates.

Update: Read this Boston Globe story for details of the Mass. case and the Florida case.

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