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L.A. Lawless

"It is not only a great honor, but also a great challenge, for an advocate to aid this tribunal in its task."

--Defense counsel Hans Rolfe, Judgment at Nuremberg

Poor Abby Mann. Somebody's cribbed a page from his screenplay. A few weeks ago, Edward Medvene announced he would defend Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic at his war crimes tribunal in The Hague. (General Ratko Mladic, the other main defendant, will be tried separately.) Perhaps inevitably, the Los Angeles lawyer sounded as if he were trying out for Judgment at Nuremberg. " You have to do what you think is right," the former federal prosecutor, 65, told The Los Angeles Times. "I just think it's the highest calling to represent someone that so many people have prejudged." Similarly, he told The New York Times that he took the case "because of the immense challenge it affords." What he wouldn't and still won't say is how much he's getting. Then, having fed the dailies their soundbites, Medvene and his co-counsel, banking specialist Thomas F. Hanley III, declined to speak further, including for this article.

L.A. was a natural place for Karadzic to shop for a lawyer. Shame is scarce, and well-off, well-groomed attorneys have had their own Steven Bochco TV series. Medvene's firm, Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, one of the leading entertainment firms in the city, has a long record of representing the movie studios. Medvene himself is also on the Ronald Goldman family's team in the civil suit against O.J. Simpson, a claim that gives him a certain Tinseltown cachet.

Reportedly, when a go-between first approached him about taking Karadzic's case, Medvene insisted on meeting him first. The lawyer then received several phone calls from Karadzic, and in late June he and Hanley, who belongs to a firm with commercial connections in the Balkans, boarded a flight to Belgrade. From there the men drove five hours to Pale to meet with Karadzic. After two days of meetings, Medvene agreed to take the case.

Despite some experience with unseemly clients--in the 1980s, Medvene defended Ruben Zuno Arce, who was accused of arranging the 1985 kidnap-murder of a U.S. drug agent, as well as Gary Hart's money-man David Stein, tried on charges of campaign finance violations--much of his career has been an exercise in true-blue liberalism. A quarter-century ago, he won a landmark case that mandated busing in the L.A. schools--a decision that spawned a generation of white anxiety and right-wing victories at the polls. More recently, he successfully defended the right of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission to go after junior-grade Craig Livingstons in the city bureaucracy.

"He's one of the really terrific trial lawyers in town, an exceptional cross-examiner, extremely dedicated and a fighter," says attorney Richard Mosk, who's known Medvene since the early '60s. "He's had some family tragedies and has overcome them. He's a traditional liberal." On the Karadzic case, Mosk has sympathy for his colleague's position. "You get asked questions like Would you represent Hitler?' and those are tough questions. If you represent a defendant in a capital case in this country, or a serial killer, the Karadzic case is just an extension of that. Or at least that's one way to look at it. I see nothing wrong with representing him, nothing inappropriate."

Yet the Karadzic case can't be so easily dismissed with a restatement of the liberal, lawyerly commitment to representation for all. Michael J. Bazyler, professor of international law at Whittier College of Law in L.A., says he absolutely wouldn't defend Karadzic. "Every defendant, no matter how heinous the crime, is entitled to representation," he says. "But they're not entitled to be represented by me." The son of Holocaust survivors, Bazyler says, "I could not put my feelings aside." But Bazyler is hardly alone in these sentiments. Several practicing attorneys, Jewish and Gentile, said off- the-record that they would have refused such a case. "I wouldn't have defended Hitler, either," said one.

While Medvene certainly believes that Karadzic deserves representation, he isn't shy about publicity either. His historical propensity to turn up in high-profile litigations is probably no accident, and it would be in character for him to try to redeem his personal fifteen minutes of fame after a spell outside the limelight. As he told the L.A. Times: "It's a chance to participate in history."

Medvene has forged ahead with two arguments in Karadzic's defense, both of which, in true lawyerly fashion, skirt the moral issues involved. First, in a motion filed before the three-judge tribunal in The Hague on July 5, Medvene argued that the publicity surrounding the case had deprived Karadzic of due process--in effect, that because the press has screamed about Karadzic's role in the Muslim genocide, he shouldn't be held accountable for it. This argument suggests that the tribunal judges, who sit without a jury, aren't the blank slates the defense would like them to be.

But that kind of thinking, as they say in L.A., falls one taco short of a combo plate. "The tribunal was painstakingly set up, with all kinds of due process guarantees," says William Walker, an attorney with Coudert Brothers, a firm specializing in international law. "There's a lot of careful selection that went into picking the judges. This tribunal is going to be trying Serbs, Croats and Muslims, too. They are pursuing warrants from all three sides." Adds Bazyler, "These judges are not sitting from countries that were the victims of what the Serbs and Croats did. The judges on this tribunal do not take marching orders."

Medvene's second argument speaks to precedent: " The doctrine of command responsibility for war crimes has never been used before against a civilian political leader," he told The New York Times. Again, the logic is not universally embraced. "You don't need to be wearing a uniform to be an international war criminal," says Bazyler, who's currently representing a Jewish torture victim in a suit against the government of Argentina. "It's not a question of military versus civilian. It's a question of people who were in power. There's nothing in international law that says only military officials can be tried." Had Hitler lived, would he have been spared trial?


Jan Breslauer writes for The Los Angeles Times.

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By Jan Breslauer