Uncle Sam Wanted Him
How Peter Greenspun, a table-pad manufacturer’s son from Philadelphia, wound up representing Caleb Hughes, Marv Albert and John A. Muhammad
Published in 2010 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on June 17, 2010
Updated on November 18, 2019
In your high-profile cases you’re often the court-appointed attorney. How does this happen? How did you get appointed to, say, the John A. Muhammad case?
Judge LeRoy Millette, the trial judge in the Prince William County Circuit Court, who is now on the Virginia Supreme Court, called and asked me. That’s literally how it took place. Mr. Muhammad and [Lee Boyd] Malvo were transported to Virginia from Maryland on a Thursday afternoon. The judge called me at 4 o’clock. I told him I would need to talk to my family, and I would only do it if I could choose my co-counsel, Jon Shapiro, who is now my partner.
What did you and your family talk about?
Remember, this is a family that lived through the so-called sniper shootings. And my oldest child, who was in college at the time, said, “Why do you need to do that?” She was the most practical.
The other kids—one was a senior in high school, and my youngest was in middle school—they said, “Why are you asking us? Isn’t this what you do?”
Was this the first time you consulted your family before accepting a client?
Probably the only prior time was when I represented Caleb Hughes in the early ’90s. He was charged with abduction with attempt to defile a 5-year-old girl from an apartment complex Christmas party in 1989. The whole investigation was very high profile. They had videotapes of the child, Melissa Brannen, and there were huge searches with the whole community involved. It went on and on and she was never found. Hughes was a suspect quickly, then indicted a year later.
Is it tough taking cases like these? Because it’s tough just listening to that description.
I haven’t run into a case that I wouldn’t handle so far. And you can have nonpublicity cases that are more horrible than those that catch the media’s attention. I’ve had murder cases where the deceased was burned to death and you hear the shrieks on the 911 call. I’ve had manslaughter cases, DUI manslaughters, where infants or toddlers were killed. The case is the important thing, not the press.
And there’s no one who made you think, “I just can’t represent this person?”
All of this corresponds with a quote on your firm’s website: “Thirty years ago, I learned from great attorneys the need to provide committed, professional, and zealous representation to people facing their darkest hour against the authority of the government.” Who are these attorneys you’re referring to?
Well, I applied to 11 law schools and got into one unaccredited school; then I sent out 85 or so resumes and bugged a small firm in Vienna, Va., named Duvall, Tate, Bywater and Blackburn. And I bugged them enough that they said, “OK, enough, we give up, we’ll try you.” I went to court the first day, and I’ve been in court virtually every day since. My first time in court was a collections case, all I had to say was, “Judgment on the affidavit, please, your Honor,” and I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
So one day you were doing that, and the next day you had a reckless driving, and the next day an assault and battery. All of the attorneys were well known in the Bar and real personalities, and—it’s what I said—they taught me a huge amount about how to try cases.
Such as … ?
I was trying a case with Jim Tate. It was a civil case—a developer was not paying the homeowners’ association dues on unused, unsold lots—and it added up to be a significant amount of money: $120,000. This was 1978 or ’79. I was primarily responsible for the case. Finally, about halfway through the first day of trial, Jim Tate asked for a recess and pulled me aside and said, “What is it that you’re trying to prove? That you know everything?”
So I stumbled around and told him what I thought I had to prove, and he said, “That’s right, that’s what you have to prove. Now prove that, don’t prove everything around it.”
It was those kinds of simple but straightforward lessons that I learned from really good and experienced trial attorneys.
Were you also court-appointed in the Zahed Ahmad Mir case in 1993?
Well, I was only sort of court-appointed. After the shootings and deaths [of two people] at the CIA entrance in Langley, [Mir] went to the Reston District station of the Fairfax County Police and reported that his roommate [Mir Aimal Kansi] had a gun and it sounded all too familiar. The police didn’t pay attention to him. Later, when they were looking for [the shooter], Kansi, they were afraid Mir would leave the country, so they arrested him and held him in jail for weeks.
Even though he voluntarily gave them information?
Right. And Judge Ian O’Flaherty of the General District Court became concerned, as [Mir] had been held for weeks in jail, so he approached me in the hallway one day and said, “Look, there’s no authority to appoint an attorney, but can you consider yourself appointed and try to help this guy?” So I did.
Did you get him released?
He was released from Fairfax County; they took him over to the federal system and held him on immigration charges. Eventually he completed that charge and we got him released in pretty short fashion, and as far as I know he’s still here [in the U.S.]. I lost touch with him a couple of years ago.
What were the immigration charges?
They said his entry into the country on a green card was on falsified documents. It was all a set-up by the government, sort of like what Marion Barry said, you know, “The bitch set me up.” It was: “We’re going to use whatever device we can to hold him in case we need him in the Kansi case—not because Mir did anything, but because he may be a witness.” So instead of working it out with him, they took this tough, dramatic and inappropriate approach.
For which client did you receive the most abuse?
Clearly the Muhammad case is as high-profile a public-attention case over the last decade [as possible]. The Caleb Hughes case in the ’90s garnered as much attention locally. Marv Albert [on charges of forcible sodomy] for other, salacious reasons, and because it made Howard Stern giggle, had 26 satellite trucks [at the courthouse], if you can believe it. What a waste of resources.
Did people approach you about the Muhammad case?
That generally doesn’t happen. In the Muhammad case, to the contrary, people, whether around the courthouse or in our neighborhood, or people who simply said, “That’s Muhammad’s lawyer over there,” were just fantastic. They were positive. They seemed to understand our role within the process and our responsibility and obligation to John A. Muhammad.
I did get one call, which was disturbing, the day after the execution, from a lawyer on Long Island, who said, “I saw you on Larry King last night, and Mr. Greenspun, I think you are a fucking scumbag of a person and a lawyer and you are a disgrace to the practice of law.” It went on and on. Because I said something gracious about John Muhammad on a personal level.
What did you say?
King asked me, “So, Peter, how do you feel?” We were standing outside at the execution, and it was a cold, rainy night. If you wanted to script out what the weather would be for a film? That’s what it was.
And I said something like, “Frankly, Larry, I feel awful. This is someone, whatever you say about John Muhammad and what he’s been found to have done, he’s someone we’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with. He’s someone we got to know. He’s someone who had humor, and, within our relationship, had grace …” Something like that. I used the word “grace.” The word “grace” is what this guy went off about.
At one point, Muhammad temporarily dismissed you and Jon Shapiro.
Yes, for two days.
It was news to us until 10 minutes before the trial. I was going to make our opening statement and we were advised by Mr. Muhammad that he was going to handle the trial himself.
I have significant regrets about how I handled that—I should’ve done something to slow that all down. But you run into a big issue between his right to represent himself, which is a constitutional right, and whether or not he’s competent to make that decision. The Virginia standard for self-representation is so low. “Do you know who the judge is and what the judge does? Do you know who your lawyers are? Do you know what the prosecutors are? Do you know what you’re charged with and what penalty you are facing?” If you know those things, you’re competent under Virginia law.
What drew you to the law?
I didn’t know what else to do. My father had a small table-pad manufacturing business in Philadelphia. You know those things you fold up on your dining room table? They had felt on the bottom and plastic on top, and you would put them on the table, and the tablecloth over that, at Thanksgiving? My father manufactured those. It was a small business—six to eight employees at a time—and I had worked there all through high school and college, knew the business inside and out, but it was not a large business for two full-time managers.
It was my father and my uncle, Uncle Sam, who thought that having a legal background was great for business.
Did you consider the law before they suggested it?
My family was always interested in the law. Uncle Sam was a court watcher in Philadelphia at that point. He had retired from his own business, and he and three or four other men would go and watch trials, generally in federal court in Philadelphia. They were known to all the judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys, who would ask them advice during trials and so on. When Uncle Sam passed away, they had a ceremony in a courtroom and many federal court judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers came and spoke at his memorial service.
What do you know about the law now that you didn’t know when you graduated from law school?
That the law’s important and the rules count. I know it’s much, much harder to practice law now than it used to be.
Because … ?
It used to be you’d fight like hell in the courtroom with the prosecutor, and sometimes with the judge, then you’d walk out in the hallway and shake hands and move onto the next thing. I’m not sure that happens the same way now. And there is so much hustle for business. The Internet, which is a fantastic tool, has really devastated the integrity of the legal profession. The representations and misrepresentations that are made, the advertising, the Googling. People don’t find their lawyer by talking to another lawyer and another lawyer. It’s now: “DUI lawyer, Fairfax, Virginia” into the search engine and see who pops up.
Is this the biggest change you’ve seen in the practice of law during your career?
I don’t know about biggest, but the first change, anyway, was the fax machine. All of a sudden you would talk to an attorney on the phone about whatever—personal injury case, criminal case—and 10 minutes later you would have a letter coming through the fax machine that said, “Confirming our conversation of such-and-such a date and this was what was said.” And you had to respond and say, “No no no, that’s not what was said. This is what was said.”
That’s one thing. The second—as I’m talking, I’m actually thinking—is that technology allows small firms like ours to compete quite equally with large firms with much larger resources because of the ability to research from the same library pool: LexisNexis, Westlaw, online services. We don’t need to go to a 100,000-volume library.
The third thing, though, with technology: It’s taken the art out of the practice of law. This is perhaps the biggest change. Somebody e-mails you at 4:13 a.m. and then they’ve e-mailed you again by 8:13 a.m. to see why you haven’t responded to the 4:13 e-mail. And it goes through the day like that. And a lot of dangerous and damaging stuff is said—where people hit the “send” button before they should.
What do you mean by the ‘art’ of the practice of law?
Sitting and thinking about it. Making notes. Making lists of pros and cons, tactical and strategic considerations. How you are going to proceed. If you do it this way versus that way, how is it going to affect the result?
You’ve had well-publicized cases. Any you thought should have been but weren’t?
It’s not that I think they should have been well publicized. But the regular cases is where the regular lawyers—of which I include myself—the people in the day-to-day trenches of our local courthouse, handling the DWIs and the burglaries and the more routine drug deals, the regular assault cases, the regular nonserial rapist sex cases, and so on; these people, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges handling those cases, probation officers evaluating those cases, they’re the people who are the heroes of the criminal justice system. They’re the ones who make it work.
I always encourage newer lawyers who are interested in either side of the criminal justice process to go and watch regular cases. It’s the regular case that impacts 99 percent of the community. It’s not a murder, fortunately. Sit down and watch a sentencing docket, where a judge has to sentence 10, 15, 25 people in one day, as individuals, and watch how he or she handles that. How defense attorneys individualize their clients on the routine case. How a prosecutor determines, “Is this the guy I’m going to ask the judge to lock up versus someone who it’s OK to get probation?”
What do you consider your most significant accomplishment in the legal profession?
I’m really proud of our firm [Greenspun, Shapiro, Davis & Leary]. I think we do good work. I’m surrounded by great lawyers and great staff who keep the whole thing together. It’s a small but busy business. I hope we’re perceived as working hard in getting the best results possible, which can be at trial, or on a guilty plea or at sentencing. They’re not all wins in what we do. In fact, most of them aren’t. I hope that people feel they were represented as individuals. And represented vigorously. If I’m doing that, I’m proud of that.