Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma loved being a reporter; he just wanted a deeper dive
Published in 2022 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine on September 27, 2022
In 1992, decades before he’d take on the Drug Enforcement Agency as a criminal defense attorney, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma had a source leak him a DEA file linking a prominent Mexican politician to drug trafficking and the murder of a journalist.
Just 24 years old and a few months into his job as a reporter at an English-language newspaper in Mexico City, the Boston native wrote it up and submitted it to his editor three days before its subject would be elected governor of Puebla. The paper’s publisher, a friend of the candidate, blocked the story. When Margulis-Ohnuma turned around and wrote about the experience in a scathing New York Times op-ed, he was fired from the paper and invited to the presidential palace for a friendly chat about their differing views on a free press.
“So I lasted about four months,” says Margulis-Ohnuma. “They asked me to cover politics and then didn’t like the way I covered it—which was to be pretty aggressive about finding scandalous things.”
He went on to spend three years at the New York Daily News, where he broke a story about Councilman Larry Seabrook diverting public money to pay for his political campaigns. He once climbed a fire escape with a photographer to peek into the window of an unoccupied apartment kept by another councilman to claim he lived in the district.
“I like to go where the action is,” he says.
Eventually he decided that the action was in the legal profession, where he could spend more than the 24-hour news cycle on a topic. “There was a real continuity between what I did as a reporter and what I do as a lawyer,” he says. “I think if you’re being ethical in either role, you’re aware of your own biases. Your client as a reporter is your reader, and your client as a lawyer is your literal client, and each one you have to be open with; you have to not go too far. With reporting, there was this tension not to exaggerate things to try to make a good story. With clients, it’s to be up front and open with them.”
Not that there aren’t differences. “As a reporter, you’re always begging people to talk to you. It’s really frustrating,” he says. “As a lawyer, people have to talk to you.”
Now, for example, he gets to question police involved in corrupt activities and get their statements on the record. “Criminal defense is telling your client’s story in an honest but sympathetic way,” he says. “A lot of times we do that in journalism.”
Some of the most compelling stories of Margulis-Ohnuma’s career have been his work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, such as Tony Yarbough. In 1992, Yarbough came home and found his mother and 12-year-old sister brutally murdered; after he reported the murder, he was convicted of the crime. In 2014, DNA testing definitively linked that crime to a man who committed another murder while Yarbough was incarcerated. “The entire prosecution was absurd,” Margulis-Ohnuma says of the initial case. “It took 22 years to convince the DA’s office and judge in Brooklyn to see it that way.”
As a lawyer, Margulis-Ohnuma tries to be the kind of legal translator he wished he’d had as a reporter. “I felt misled by lawyers when I was a reporter, so I’m very careful not to do that,” he says. “I tend to have good relationships and get good press for my clients as a result.”
Example: In 2015, The New Yorker detailed his case defending Idriss Abdelrahman a Malian man charged with trafficking cocaine across the Sahara desert for Al Qaeda.
“They set this poor tribesman up to make it look like he was an Al Qaeda terrorist,” says Margulis-Ohnuma. An undercover informant posing as a Lebanese businessman told Abdelrahman he was going to pay him $20 million to drive a truck full of cocaine. “There was a truck, but there was never any cocaine, and there was nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The DEA wanted to say ‘Al Qaeda controlled the desert and this is proof of it.’ He pled on the second day of jury selection to material support and ended up basically getting time served because the judge didn’t buy it either.
“He’s home with his family now”
Margulis-Ohnuma is still working on cases in which he says the DEA exaggerates culpability of his clients. “I feel like I’ve been battling the DEA for 30 years,” he says.