The Guy on the White Horse
Civil rights pioneer and criminal defense expert David Rudovsky has fought injustice for more than 30 years
Published in 2006 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 26, 2005
Updated on October 21, 2016
Bruce Godschalk was 27 years old and working as a landscaper when detectives came to his parents’ Radnor Township, Pa., house and asked to speak to him.
“My mother told them I was visiting with a friend, so they found me at my friend’s house and said they just wanted me to go to the police station so they could ask me a few questions,” says Godschalk, now 45.
He went with them and never came back.
Within hours, Godschalk, whose rap sheet had consisted of possession of a small amount of marijuana and a DUI, had confessed to two rapes that took place in King of Prussia, Pa., in the summer of 1986. At his trial, police testified that Godschalk had mentioned information only the rapist in the crimes could have known, and one of the victims identified Godschalk’s mug shot from his marijuana arrest as that of her assailant. Though he recanted his confession, which he claimed the detectives had browbeaten him into taping, Godschalk was convicted of both rapes and sentenced in May 1987.
He spent the next 15 years in jail. He insisted that a test of the physical evidence would prove he wasn’t the rapist, but post-conviction DNA testing wasn’t available until 1992. And when it did become an option he needed a lawyer to convince the district attorney to release the evidence. That wouldn’t be easy.
“Who’d believe someone who confessed to two rapes?” Godschalk says.
Then he got a visit from a mild-mannered lawyer from Philadelphia named David Rudovsky.
Rudovsky was born in Jamaica, Queens, and raised in a home that was filled with social debate. “There was always a political discussion in the house, and that interested me,” he says. “Like many people in New York in the ’20s and ’30s, my parents had a reaction to the excesses of capitalism, an unfair society, racial discrimination, those kinds of issues.”
Norman Glickman, who met Rudovsky on a playground in sixth grade and who today is a professor of public policy and economics at Rutgers University, recalls being a guest of the Rudovsky household.
“His father, who was an intellectual, was always passing books on to me when I was in eighth grade, books by such authors as the psychologist Norman Brown, books I’d never be able to begin to read,” he says. “After dinner there’d be political discussions going on, which set a tone for David’s life where he was involved in the notion of social justice. The family had solid intellectual battles, and David held his own.”
Rudovsky graduated from Queens College in 1964 and enrolled in New York University Law School. Living in Greenwich Village, Rudovsky soaked up the social ferment of New York in that era. During the summer after his first year of law school he went to Albany, Ga., to intern for legendary civil rights attorney C.B. King.
“We had a number of disturbing experiences,” Rudovsky says. “We had a cross burned where we were staying, and there was always a low-level fear in the office. There wasn’t a day that went by where there wasn’t some crisis over a civil rights issue. It opened my eyes to the degree of oppression in the South at that time, and to the possibility that legal responses to those kinds of conditions might make a difference.”
King’s fortitude in the face of an overwhelmingly racist system had already made him famous. A black man, he had been beaten by Sheriff Cull Campbell while visiting a client at the county jail three years earlier. White judges refused to call him Mr. King. And when he asked for water at one late-night court proceeding, he was brought a bucket and a ladle.
“It was a matter of his trying to practice law in a place that was hostile to everything he stood for,” Rudovsky says. “He doggedly stayed in there. He couldn’t represent everybody, but he helped hundreds or thousands of people in his career, and he was the one person who stood between a repressive state and a lot of very vulnerable people. He left an enormous impression on me.”
Returning to New York, Rudovsky finished law school in 1967. After graduation he spent three years as a fellow at Penn Law in one of the first clinical legal studies programs in the country, under the direction of Tony Amsterdam. He also worked at the Philadelphia Public Defender’s office. In 1971, he and David Kairys, whom he knew from the clinic, decided to start a firm that would specialize in civil rights, civil liberties and criminal defense.
“We figured we’d give it a shot and see where we were after six months,” Rudovsky says. “Neither of us had family responsibilities or the debts that kids coming out of law school have today.”
The firm went to work handling some of the most pressing civil liberties and governmental-abuse cases in the country. Rudovsky represented anti-war protestors, victims of police misconduct, minorities claiming racial discrimination — and six months turned into more than 30 years. In one of his earliest cases, Mitchell v. Forsyth, he successfully refuted the assertion of President Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, who argued for absolute immunity for governmental officials who wiretap.
“It’s interesting with the debate now on surveillance and electronic spying, that you can go back 35 years and the same issues were around,” Rudovsky says.
Submitting a brief for the government in that case was a young attorney named Samuel Alito.
“I once debated him before the Federalist Society,” Rudovsky remembers, noting with a chuckle that this may not have helped him when he would appear before Alito in federal court. “I never got his vote on a case.”
Rudovsky’s firm, known today as Kairys Rudovsky Messing & Feinberg, staked out a reputation for pushing cases with the potential for social impact. One was a joint lawsuit Rudovsky and the ACLU filed in 1996 representing the NAACP who alleged civil rights violations by Philly cops. The litigation resulted in the enactment of many substantial changes, involving the internal-affairs division’s methods, the use of force restrictions, racial profiling policy and more — a “whole universe of police procedures,” Rudovsky says.
Carlton Johnson, former chief deputy solicitor of the city’s civil rights unit, says it was a case that showcased Rudovsky’s ability to work with all sides to come to a satisfying conclusion.
“This is where Rudovsky is at his best,” he says. “The settlement agreement was less about litigation and more about collaboration. That’s the true value of Dave Rudovsky, finding common ground to reach a resolution even though you’re technically in litigation. He’s the guy on the white horse.”
His colleagues marvel not just at his skill but at the range of cases he ably handles.
“We do pretty much the same thing, he just does it better,” his partner Paul Messing says. “He’s the consummate trial lawyer. I’ve co-counseled cases with him, I’ve watched him, I’ve learned from him. Just like everyone else in these parts, it’s hard not to be in awe of just how versatile he is. He moves effortlessly from civil rights to criminal defense.”
And he does it all with well-known charm and a soft-spoken sensibility.
“I can say without hesitation that I’ve never seen him lose his temper in 35 years, inside the courtroom or outside of it,” Messing says.
That preternatural calm lends gravity to Rudovsky’s reflections on his evolving relationship with the legal system.
“I started out thinking we’d create more change — the product of being young and idealistic,” he says. “But everybody engaged in this kind of work long enough realizes change is slow and that you have to fight for every change you can get. Martin Luther King talked about the arc of history bending toward progress. Well, maybe in the long run, but it won’t do that unless people work for it.”
Today he still handles cases that place him in the center of controversy. He’s representing detainees at Abu Ghraib and recently argued a suit that the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where Rudovsky teaches a criminal law course, brought against the Department of Defense (DOD) about recruiting on campus. The Supreme Court ruled in March that the DOD may recruit on the campus of any university that accepts federal dollars, a decision that Rudovsky found disappointing but not surprising.
“I expected the decision to be negative,” he says. Still, “it was an issue I felt was important, and it raised some vital First Amendment issues.”
He’s also been writing, most notably on racial profiling and criminal procedure. His treatise on police misconduct litigation, which has been in print for 22 years, is considered fundamental reading for anyone who wishes to practice in the field of civil liberties.
Rudovsky has earned wide acclaim for his achievements. He’s earned the Bread and Roses Community Fund Social Justice Award, the Judge Gerald F. Flood Memorial Award for Public Interest Accomplishments and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” He’s also a former member of the board of directors of the ACLU.
What gets him excited these days is the work he’s doing with the New York-based Innocence Project. He considers the Project’s use of DNA evidence to free the wrongfully convicted to be nothing short of revolutionary.
“[DNA evidence] has crystallized the vague feelings a lot of us in the criminal defense community have had for a long time,” he says. “We’re talking very high numbers of innocent people.”
His hope is that the use of DNA to free the wrongfully convicted will open the eyes of people within the criminal justice system to the need for reforms. “There are ways you can improve the system — the interrogation process, jailhouse informants, qualified forensic scientists — but it’s resistant to change,” he says.
Which brings us back to Godschalk. In 1997, Rudovsky learned that semen from the two victims had never been tested for DNA. When he contacted the district attorney on the case and asked for the evidence to be tested, he was flatly refused.
“We’d even said we’d pay for the tests ourselves, but his response was no,” Rudovsky says. “Why? ‘Because he’s guilty.’” In 2000, Rudovsky filed suit for the DNA evidence to be turned over, and in 2001 a judge agreed. The lab results were definitive: The semen wasn’t Godschalk’s.
“Absolutely innocent,” Rudovsky says. “And he’d already served 15 years.”
In a subsequent lawsuit against the detectives and the district attorney, Godschalk claimed his confession — including the incriminating details only the rapist or police could have known — was fed to him by authorities and that the method of obtaining the witness identification was severely flawed. The case was settled for $2.6 million.
“He knew his stuff … he was a monster, legally,” Godschalk says admiringly of Rudovsky, whose home he visited for dinner after being freed.
Godschalk has since moved to Crisfield, Md., where he bought a house not far from the bay. “I’m working on my home, built a deck, put new siding on,” he says. “What I want now is this piece of my life. The house is close to the water. It’s pretty nice.”