The Murderers' Defender

A lawyer stands up for "the little guys"

Why do this, people ask. Why work so hard? Cohen admits that people sometimes question his "motives and values." Years ago, he was representing two skinheads charged with murdering a Vietnamese high-school student, when a rabbi called to ask, "What's a Jewish lawyer doing defending Nazis?"

Cohen did not answer "making money." There was more to it than that. In his mind, he was not defending the Third Reich but only a couple of outcasts. He grew up in Queens, the son of shopkeepers. Many in his extended family were slaughtered in the Holocaust, and the two things that really formed him, he says, were his hatred, first, for the "fucking Nazis," and then for the "fucking bullies" in the schoolyard fights. It was in law school at Texas Southern that he turned his attention to the accused. Cohen saw them not as bullies but as people who are generally poor, uneducated and not so bright — "little guys" who are suddenly thrust into "this police culture" of suspicion and interrogation, "overwhelmed by the strength and resources of the state." "Even back in the schoolyard, when the big guy was beating up on the little guy," Cohen explains, "the little guy might have deserved it, but I was always for him. I was always for the underdog. And that's who I am," he says. "I'm the guy who's for the underdog."

Cohen describes himself as "one small attorney taking on a very big bureaucratic system." "And do I like that fight? Yes, I love it," he says. "I wake up every morning looking forward to going to work, sort of like the mujahideen."

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

Sure, 90 percent of his clients are probably guilty, he figures, and "some of them are completely immoral." But it's like Cohen told the rabbi: Every defendant has the right to a lawyer. It's one of "the essentials of democracy." The prosecution must be opposed, or "it becomes a dictatorship," he says. And the innocent go to prison, too.

"Sometimes, every now and then, someone's telling the truth," Cohen says. "Every now and then, by God, they are innocent," and he believes Qureshi to be such a case.

Prosecutor Linda Garcia did not return a call from the Houston Press. But Cohen was outraged that the case was even brought to trial. The evidence was "so weak," he says. And, "How could the state do this, destroy someone like this, with this sort of evidence? It comes right back to why I do this work."

Cohen immediately began taking Garcia's case apart. An injury-to-a-child charge usually doesn't carry a great burden of evidence to gain a conviction, he knew. The photos alone would likely have done it. They were "really quite horrible," and fearing a jury's emotional reaction to them, Cohen chose a trial by judge. Before Judge Wilkinson, he then began asking what these pictures really showed. They showed a "blood-red penis," that's all. And where had these pictures been printed, Cohen asked the boy's father — and had they perhaps been enhanced? Certainly, the nurse practitioner who examined the boy had seen no cause for a police report. As for little John's accusation, "What can I tell you," says Cohen, "about the testimony of a two-year-old boy?" The boy said, "David hurt my dina," but he never varied his phrase or elaborated on it. He spoke automatically, according to Cohen's expert witness, as if expecting a reward. So Cohen closed in on his point: He determined that little John had been going through potty training and suggested that what we had here was some sort of irritation — a case of diaper rash, ­essentially.

For his closing argument, he held aloft a blue belt. It was the notorious "dragon belt," the one the father had testified was probably the weapon against his son, based at least on the word of his five-year-old daughter, who hadn't been there. To test this theory of the prosecution, Cohen called forth Qureshi's ten-year-old daughter and, presenting her with the belt, instructed her to whip the mannequin before her. The belt had metal at each end, and Cohen's purpose, he explained later, was to show that a beating would leave no blue marks upon the dummy but would certainly have caused serious injuries to a child that would have been visible to the nurse.

As the girl thrashed away at the dummy, the lawyer went for broke. "Come on!" Cohen urged. "I want you to hurt that little baby. Hit him in the groin! Is that how you hurt a little one? Is that how you put black and blue on him?"

"Objection!" cried Garcia.

"Sustained!" said the judge. But Cohen had raised his reasonable doubt. The judge excused himself to his contemplations and returned a moment later to announce Qureshi not guilty of injury to a child. Members of Qureshi's family were elated; Cohen patted his client on the back. And then the judge announced further that, regarding the failed drug test, the defendant had violated probation on a previous charge of delivering cocaine and would serve not less than two years in prison.

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