Authors: Alan M. Dershowitz
Once, Haskel Levine had been Boston’s most brilliant doctor of law, with an emphasis on “doctor.” In his practice, Levine’s
approach had been more healing than adversarial. Haskel understood that law was a symphony, a blending of many different instruments
and personalities that shaped a system. He did everything possible to avoid conflict, relying on reason, investigation, and
compromise to achieve resolution. He became “counsel to the situation,” in the spirit of his hero Louis Brandeis. But if all
else failed, Haskel Levine, in his prime, was also an awesome advocate in the style of Brandeis. As his student, Abe had subsumed
Haskel’s approach, adding to it his own driving need to win.
Now Haskel’s incredible brain was being diminished by Alzheimer’s. It was horrible to watch. And to make matters worse, Haskel
had become deeply depressed, to the point where he was being heavily medicated. Abe spoke to his mentor every day and visited
him frequently. He found that whether Haskel was in a lucid phase or not, Abe needed to talk to the old man. Whatever Abe
was struggling with would be filtered through Haskel’s ear. It was strange behavior, especially for Abe. Yet it never failed
that after he’d talked things over with Haskel, the answers would come to him—not from Haskel, but through Haskel’s very presence.
It was as if being near Haskel helped Abe to absorb Haskel’s wisdom. When Abe soliloquized in Haskel’s presence, he spoke
a deeper, more honest, and more introspective truth than ever emerged in the presence of others—or even when he was alone.
Haskel was Abe’s superego, his conscience, his Jiminy Cricket.
Not that Haskel would give him answers. Even when he had been in his prime, Haskel didn’t give advice in the traditional way.
He had been the indisputable master of the “Socratic method”—or, as he preferred to call it, “the Talmudic method.” He asked
questions, digging deeper and deeper with each layer. “We are archaeologists of ideas,” he once said. “There is always a deeper
level, with more interesting artifacts. We must continue to dig until we are satisfied with what we have found. Then we must
dig more, because we should never be satisfied.”
Abe had not yet quite internalized all of Haskel’s values. He still needed the reinforcement of Haskel’s physical presence
to bring out the best in him. He was aware that he was insuring for himself that by the time Haskel’s mind was entirely gone,
he would have internalized him completely. Sometimes he wondered if this process of consuming his mentor was morally okay
or not, if in fact he was being selfish by eating up the old man in this fashion.
“You’re the only person I can talk to about certain things,” Abe would say, “because you’re the only lawyer I know who never
had any difficulty being an advocate as well as a human being.” That was true. Abe needed Haskel to bring out the part of
him he was most proud of, and most afraid of. His vulnerable side, his human side. This was a serious potential character
flaw in a tough advocate!
When the phone was still busy at Haskel’s, Abe buzzed Justin Aldrich on the intercom.
“Could you come into my office?”
Justin sat erect on the worn leather chair opposite Abe at the ancient partner’s desk, the desk from Abe’s original street-front
office. John Justin Aldrich was in his early thirties, with straight blond hair, aristocratic in talk and dress. He was everything
Abe wasn’t, which is why he had been hired.
“You know we got Campbell?”
“I knew before you got back from the meeting.”
“I caught Gayle making out the file.”
“Always efficient, isn’t she? You’re to go over there, debrief him, and walk him through the arraignment.”
“Well done, Abe.”
“Now, catch me up on Charlie O., please.”
“We’ve got a complication.”
“What else is new?”
Charlie Odell was a black man in his early twenties who had been convicted of gunning down Monty Williams, a controversial
black politician, as Williams was leaving a McDonald’s in Newark following a campaign stop for reelection to the city council.
Odell, who had a severe overbite that made him appear always to be smiling, was easy to recognize and had been identified
by two eyewitnesses, one white and one black. While Odell had proclaimed his innocence from the moment of his arrest, a jury
had convicted him and the judge had imposed the death penalty.
Abe, who believed in his gut that Odell was innocent of this crime, had taken over the case on appeal on a pro bono basis
and had lost in the state and federal courts. The judge had set an execution date—two months hence. Now the case had taken
several new twists.
First, Charlie Odell had developed prison psychosis. He had literally gone crazy on death row and had to be given massive
doses of Thorazine, Librium, Valium, and other antipsychotic drugs just to keep him from banging his head against the brick
walls and killing himself. How ironic, Abe thought. The state wants to kill Charlie. Now Charlie wants to kill himself. So
the state has to stop him from killing himself so that they can kill him. The Supreme Court had ruled that a condemned man
must be cured of his insanity before he can be executed, so that he could understand the nature of the punishment.
Now apparently fate had thrown them another curveball.
“So what’s the latest?”
“I went to law school with a woman named Nancy Rosen,” Justin said. “She was one of Haskel Levine’s students during his last
couple of teaching years. Her parents were wealthy New York real estate people. Predictably, she rebelled, became a radical,
and went to work for Bill Kunstler. She didn’t get along with him, so she opened a storefront law office in Newark.”
“Another baby boomer who rejected the silver spoon in her mouth?”
“Don’t stereotype us, Abe. I drove a cab to get through law school. The spoon was silver all right, but it had tarnished a
long time ago, and we didn’t have enough money to polish it. Poor
trash, my mother calls us. Poor but proud.”
“So what about Ms. Rosen?”
“Well, you’re not going to believe this. She called me to say that she knows who killed Monty Williams but she can’t tell
us because it was told to her by a client and falls under the rule of confidentiality.”
“My God, Justin, can’t you plead with her? We’re talking about life and death.”
“I begged her to reconsider. Her exact words were ‘My client’s life is also on the line. I have to protect my client even
if he’s guilty as sin.’”
Nancy Rosen was right under the rules of legal profession, of course. But she was wrong, Abe thought, a hundred percent wrong,
according to the rules of decency and morality.
“Please, Justin, get her to think about it.”
“I can only try, Abe. Meanwhile, I better get over to Campbell’s hotel. I’ll check in later.”
Abe nodded absently, absorbed in the situation Justin had just presented to him. How much influence could Justin have over
a former classmate? He tried to put himself in the young woman’s position.
Abe needed Haskel’s wisdom—or at least his presence—to help him make some tough decisions about the Charlie O. case. It was
almost twelve weeks to injection day, and in the world of legal remedies, twelve weeks was a blink of the eye. The fact that
Haskel’s phone was still busy was a good sign. Perhaps it meant that the old man was having a good day.
Briefcase in hand, Abe left the office, flinging himself into the cool March air. He walked briskly, covering the half mile
to Haskel’s house in seven minutes. Abe always had been somewhat frightened by Haskel’s home. It was almost exactly the opposite
of his own—closed off, stuffy, the windows covered by heavy drapes. After Jerome, the home companion, let him in, it was clear
that illness was hanging in the air, advancing toward its ultimate destination.
When Jerome took Abe into Haskel’s study, the older man was quite alert, poring over the
with his glasses pushed up on his forehead in the old way he had that made Abe’s heart hurt. How often had he seen his mentor
with just those same glasses pushed back up on the great dome of his head.
Haskel motioned for Abe to move closer to his desk chair. There were so many books and periodicals in Haskel’s office that
he arranged them in stacks like giant toadstools on the floor. Abe usually ended up seated on the ancient mahogany desk, his
back against the room’s lone window, facing Haskel. Above Haskel’s large head were a series of old oil paintings of bearded
European rabbis. “My inspirations,” Haskel would call them. Now Abe leaned toward the elderly man, who whispered, “Abraham,
can I confide in you?”
Haskel always insisted on calling Abe by his full biblical name, though Abe clearly preferred the shortened, more American
version. To Haskel, Abe would always be Abraham, since the mentor thought it appropriate to his protégé’s confrontational
legal style. “The patriarch Abraham was, after all, the first defense attorney in recorded history,” Haskel had long ago told
Abe. “He argued with God in defense of the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
“Yeah, but he lost,” Abe had replied.
“It’s not a disgrace to lose an argument with God,” Haskel had replied. “You’ve lost to some lesser opponents.”
As Abe recalled that story, he placed his hand on the old man’s shoulder and nodded. “You can always confide in me, Haskel.”
Haskel whispered in his ear, “I don’t always take all the medicine they give me. Sometimes, when I feel like being myself,
I hide the pills under my lips and flush them down the toilet later.” Haskel then put a gnarled finger to his mouth, removed
the pill Jerome had given him earlier, and crushed it with surprising strength into powder. “This makes me feel a little more
in control of my life. Is there anything so terrible about that? Who, after all, am I cheating?”
“You’re cheating yourself, you’re cheating me, Haskel,” Abe pleaded. “They’re miracle drugs. They really do make a difference.
You’re entitled not to suffer.”
Haskel shook his head vehemently. “It’s my decision, not yours or anyone else’s. I’ll think about what you said, but it is
very important for me to make the decision. Do you understand?”
Abe nodded—how could he not agree?
“So, tell. It’s about Charlie O.?”
“How do you know?”
“Because you came to see me in the middle of a workday. You do that only if it is something important. And I know that the
most important case you have now is that young man on death row.”
Abe was astonished at the things Levine remembered, compared with the things he let go. It seemed as though his diseased memory
still had a very refined selectivity about it. Haskel could forget that he was eating cereal in the middle of breakfast. Yet
he could instantly remember the most painful case of his protégé’s career.
Haskel and Abe had previously discussed Charlie’s prison psychosis. Now Abe filled him in on Nancy’s phone call to Justin.
“Your Mr. Charlie faces the same struggle I do. People want to keep him alive, so he can die when
Haskel’s eyes were changing focus, and Abe knew any minute he would be lost. He had learned that if he sat quietly for a few
minutes, his mentor would sometimes snap back. As he watched Haskel, he noticed a stain on the old man’s pants. Haskel was
struggling against the dementia trying to overpower him—a battle he could sometimes win by recounting stories from his youth
in Vilna, where as a twelve-year-old yeshiva student he had mastered the Jewish sacred texts, as well as calculus, geometry,
“Have I told you about the trip my father and I took to Berlin before the war?” Levine’s father was a melamed, a simple Hebrew-school
“About the swimming lesson?” Haskel asked, then continued without giving Abe a chance to reply. “My father wanted so much
for me to attend the University of Berlin. We traveled there. As it happened, Hitler was giving a speech that day.”
Haskel had told Abe a number of times about this trip, painting a spooky picture of himself and his father in their side locks
and dark clothing as they were taunted and spat upon by Nazi hoodlums. They had stayed long enough to hear Hitler speak, then
he and his father had taken the next train back to Lithuania.
“On the ride home, my father asked me this question: ‘According to Jewish law, what are the three things a father must teach
his son by the time he becomes a Bar Mitzvah?’ Well, I was frightened by the hoodlums, but not so much that I could not answer
this question, since it had been ingrained in me. ‘First Torah; then a trade’—and the third, which had always fascinated me—‘to
“‘And which is the most important?’ my father asked me. The correct answer, I thought, was Torah, of course, because it includes
everything. So then my father asked, ‘But what is the most important mitzvah in the Torah?’ The answer, I knew, was
—the obligation to save life.
“Then my father smiled at me and asked: ‘Which of the three obligations comes closest to the saving of life?’ Without answering,
I smiled back at my father, signaling to him that I understood what he was telling me. By then my father had already taught
me Torah. He had directed me toward a profession. But that day in Berlin he taught me how to swim. I remember his words exactly.
He said, ‘Never swim against the current; always look for dangers beneath the surface; and always anticipate a change in the
weather.’ This was my father’s way of gently telling me I would not be going to Berlin—that the climate, the weather, was
wrong there. And so he sent me here. And you know the rest of my story.” As indeed Abe did.
Haskel’s father had sent him first to study in Boston at a Jewish high school and then on to Harvard and Harvard Law School.
After one year at the law school, Haskel volunteered for the United States Army, served as a translator near the front, and
made heroic efforts to locate his family. After the war he found out that they had all perished at Treblinka. Haskel returned
to Harvard, completed his degree, served as a law clerk to Justice Felix Frankfurter, and began his brilliant career at the
bar. In his spare time he taught trial practice at Harvard, wrote three books about jurisprudence, learned half a dozen more
languages—each one of which he spoke with hardly a trace of an accent—and cultivated flowers, a hobby that Abe believed kept
Haskel more firmly grounded than most of his colleagues. In his late thirties he married Estelle, the widow of one of his
colleagues and a woman several years his senior. They had no children.