The Murderers' Defender

A lawyer stands up for "the little guys"

In the 179th Criminal Court, in the courtroom of Judge Michael Wilkinson, it had become a matter of record that a Continental Airlines manager, picking up his two-year-old son from day care last January, noticed something "a little different" about the boy.

"John" was ordinarily vibrant and friendly, it was said, but on that day had rushed to his father's leg, looking as though he'd been crying. In the car, the boy exhibited a "blank stare." He wouldn't speak when spoken to. Not until they were at home in the bathroom did the father discover that his son had been injured: The genital area was as "red as a tomato."

John could not explain why, and so the father had called the day care. The day care was the small, north Houston apartment of a mechanic, his wife (a fast-food worker) and their three children. The wife could not explain what happened. That night, John's mother snapped pictures of his injury, and the next day, a nurse practitioner documented that his penis was indeed red and possibly bruised. Afterward, the father found additional markings on John's buttocks, stomach and the front and back of his legs. And then, peeping into his son's day bag, the father thought he finally "saw the answer to what happened."

Alan Cohen will represent anyone who can pay him.
Alan Cohen will represent anyone who can pay him.

In the bag was a pair of urine-soaked pants stained with blue. The blue marks on the pants were said to correspond with the red marks on John and, thus, to have convinced the father that his son had been beaten. The father surmised that it had been done with a blue yardstick; his five-year-old daughter, who was sometimes kept by the mechanic and his wife, suggested that the weapon was perhaps a blue belt with a dragon buckle. In any case, young John, under questioning, finally had uttered that "David hurt my dina," and, on this basis, John's parents had gone to the authorities and the authorities had plucked the mechanic from his family and deposited him in the Harris County Jail.

Bruhan Qureshi, a Pakistani immigrant who allowed himself to be called David Koresh, was then charged with injury to a child and (marijuana having been found in his system) with violating probation on a previous drug conviction. Prosecutors were prepared to lock him up for 30 years, but for a limited time only they were willing to settle for ten — a mere decade of Qureshi's life — if he would only save them the trouble, and the taxpayers the expense, of a trial.

Members of Qureshi's family desperately searched for another way — and over the Internet, soon came across a Web site, www.affordablecriminaldefense.com, urging the accused to "remain silent!" A felony conviction "can drastically affect the rest of your life," the ad went. "You can't afford to take chances, but you can afford to contact Houston criminal defense attorney Alan Cohen." He accepts Visa and MasterCard, "and payment plans are available."

Cohen was soon striding into the judge's chambers, rejecting the prosecutor's deal and announcing that his client would proceed to trial. That's when the state's case began to fall apart.

There are many diligent lawyers in this squabbling town who are "dull as shit," according to Jim Skelton, who's a kind of village elder in the criminal-defense community. And there are flamboyant lawyers who don't know shit, he goes on, and whole armies of lawyers who don't give a shit. But Alan Cohen is the "real, true lawyer" who "really cares" about his clients, Skelton says. "He walks the walk."

Back in his little office, in an office hive near the Galleria, Cohen sits behind his desk — balding, middle-aged, camouflaged in lawyer gray — talking about these prosecutors who carry "a tambourine in one hand and a cross in the other," as though what they do is "all for Jesus," he says.

It's no secret that Cohen will represent anyone who can pay him. "How selective can you be with fucking child rapists?" he asks. Accused wife-beaters, robbers, murderers — "it's like a fucking zoo," the people who come to see him. What he charges, Cohen won't say — only that the rate varies with the difficulty of the client. The clients can be quite difficult. "They'll look you in the face and swear they didn't do it," Cohen says, and that explains why the lawyer always consults behind closed doors — so he can call his client "a fucking liar!"

For example, Cohen says, "you have a grandfather come in here, saying his granddaughter wanted him to French kiss her — and you want to jump over the table and slap him in the head! You tell him, 'Do you honestly expect the jury to believe your six-year-old granddaughter wanted you to fuck her? You're a goddamned fucking liar! You're fucking crazy, and you'd better cop it right here, or they'll send you to prison for 30 years, not for the crime you committed but because you're so fucking full of shit!'"

Cohen takes a breath. "It's disgusting, some of the things they tell me," he says, and "you have to listen to this filth." But "I just try to do the best I can." Not long ago, Cohen secured the freedom of a client in "an absolutely brutal rape" case and hopes to do the same soon for a man accused of molesting a five-year-old girl. The sexual assault cases are "very interesting," he admits "quite honestly." "Intellectually, they make me think of very creative defenses, and I like that," says Cohen. Most of his work, in fact, he considers "an intellectual exercise" — though in a courtroom reenactment, he did break his tailbone recently and fractured a hand defending a prostitute's protector who was accused of murdering a john.

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