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.

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."

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.

Qureshi trudged back to jail then, his family sat slumped on the courtroom bench and Garcia quietly packed her bags. Later, Cohen said he was delighted by the verdict but never really knows who's innocent and who goes on to commit other crimes. You just move on, he said.

"You say, 'Have a good life. If you need me again, you have my card.' And you move on."

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