The decision by the dean of Harvard College to not renew the appointments of two faculty deans because one of them is representing a reviled criminal defendant is “outrageous and an affront to the fundamental principles of criminal justice necessary for any free and democratic society,” says Toronto criminal lawyer John Rosen.
The determination to not renew the appointments of law professors Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., an accomplished lawyer and the director of Harvard’s criminal-law clinic, and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, a lecturer at the Harvard Law School, was announced by Dean Rakesh Khurana on May 11.
The decision came after student outrage over Sullivan joining the defence team of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, scheduled for trial in September in Manhattan on rape and related charges, the national news agency says.
“The position of the students and the cowardice of the administrators are untenable and represent a growing trend in our society that undermines the fundamental principle of western criminal justice,” Rosen, founder of Rosen & Company Barristers, tells AdvocateDaily.com.
Sullivan and Robinson have been the faculty deans of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s residential houses for undergraduate students, since 2009 and were the first African-Americans to hold those positions in Harvard’s history, Reuters reports.
After he joined Weinstein’s defence team in January 2019, many students expressed dismay, saying Sullivan’s decision to represent a person accused of abusing women disqualified the professor from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students, The New York Times reports.
The news agency says student protests began with the spraying of graffiti on Harvard’s buildings, which read “Our rage is self-defence” and “Whose side are you on?”
An online petition calling for Sullivan to resign included an assertion by one student that it would be repugnant “to accept a diploma from someone who for whatever reason, professional or personal, believes it is OK to defend such a prominent figure at the center of the #MeToo movement.”
Members of the Association of Black Harvard Women said in a public letter addressed to Sullivan: “You have failed us.”
Faced with a student sit-in and a lawsuit sparked by a clash between protest leaders and staff, Harvard administrators “buckled to the pressure,” turning their backs on a foundational principle of the justice system, Rosen says.
“Any and every accused person is presumed to be innocent of the charge, and is entitled to have their guilt or innocence determined in a fair and public hearing, with the benefit of a fearless and independent counsel of their choice, by an independent and impartial tribunal,” he says.
Rosen, who has litigated more than 300 murder cases in his five-decade career, including representing serial killer Paul Bernardo, says it comes down to equality.
“I treat everybody the same, no matter what the charge and so should the courts,” he says. “If someone is high profile, that puts more pressure on me, but I approach it the same way.”
Representing people who have already been convicted in the court of public opinion can be difficult, Rosen says, noting the recent controversy regarding Sullivan.
However, he says, the right to a fair trial is underpinned by the idea that people who appear before the courts are treated equally, no matter their income, social status or public profile.
“The president of the United States should get the same trial as the person everybody thinks is a monster.
“But to have a fair trial, every accused is entitled to be represented by a competent and independent lawyer. To punish the lawyer for accepting the retainer demonstrates gross ignorance about the fundamentals of criminal justice,” says Rosen, who cautions those who casually deprecate the basics of the justice system, because they may have to depend on those tenets one day.
“If they find themselves, or someone close to them, in jeopardy, then they will have to rely on the fairness of the system, including finding a fearless advocate who cannot and should not be punished for representing any accused person,” he says.
“Don’t ever say, ‘It’s never going to happen to me,’ because it might. Then where will you find a lawyer if they are too afraid of personal consequences to accept controversial retainers?” Rosen says.