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The Celebrity Who Defends Celebrities

How many lawyers get their own bio on IMDb.com? Howard Weitzman does

Published in 2008 Southern California Super Lawyers Magazine — February 2008

If things had gone just a little differently, Howard Weitzman might be looking back on a career in NCAA baseball. He might even be reminiscing as a coach from the dugout at Dedeaux Field. That was the dream, at least, of the young Weitzman when he was playing second base for USC under coach Rod Dado; and after graduating with a degree in physical education, he tried in earnest to start that coaching career.

“At the time it was difficult to get a job coaching in the city, and I didn’t know exactly what my next move was going to be,” says Weitzman. “Out of the blue, someone suggested law school to me, but I don’t think I knew a lawyer. The law just wasn’t on my radar.”

Weitzman took the LSAT but didn’t score high enough to be admitted to USC’s law school. It was then that coach Dado stepped to the plate and called the dean of the law school, who found a spot for Weitzman. Because of that turn of events, he can look back on a stellar career, which includes practicing criminal defense, and civil, transactional and family law. Twice he has been presented with the Jerry Geisler Memorial Award as the outstanding trial lawyer in Los Angeles County; and he has been named one of the top 15 lawyers in the country by The National Law Journal.

“I don’t think I’m a super lawyer, but I’ve represented some interesting clients,” says Weitzman while wrestling with an espresso maker in his Santa Monica office. He’s a partner at Kinsella, Weitzman, Iser, Kump and Aldisert, which he helped establish in 2006. Dressed in jeans and a blue button-down shirt, the 68-year-old attorney still retains the trim build of a middle infielder.

Among Weitzman’s “interesting clients” are Marlon Brando, Magic Johnson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jackson, Axl Rose, Sean Penn, Ozzy Osbourne and Courtney Love. He has represented many more “people of profile” (as he often refers to celebrities), but most recently it was Paris Hilton who topped his client list.

Weitzman defended her after she was caught driving with a suspended license, and he wasn’t happy with the outcome. “The sentence that the judge handed out, in my opinion, bordered on being really mean-spirited and punitive in a fashion you really don’t like to see. I think it was brought about by pressure from a lot of outside sources to make an example of Paris. I just think it was wrong.”

Weitzman thinks that while Hilton’s high-profile lifestyle has done a lot for her in the business world, it certainly didn’t serve her well in the criminal justice system. Her trial—and especially her 45-day sentence—was a watershed moment in the legal/media arena of what has become known as celebrity justice, and he questions whether it’s fair.

“I think Paris was a victim of her own notoriety and image. Someone else in her situation would generally have been told by a judge, ‘You’re lucky, young lady. I’m going to sentence you to 10 days in jail and I’m going to suspend the sentence. Now go out and behave yourself.’ And when you have the wife of the city attorney of Los Angeles getting off with a slap on the wrist for driving with a suspended license that appears [had lapsed] for years—not for weeks, but for years—that speaks volumes for the difference in how celebrities at Paris’ level are treated and how someone who is an insider is treated,” he says.

Today’s media scrutiny has become so intense and television coverage so pervasive that outside influences are bound to keep finding a way inside the courtroom. Through the years, Weitzman has advised his clients that remaining under the radar is the best way to go through life as a celebrity. He says, “I think that Paris’ case will make more judicial officers reluctant to give celebrities a fairer treatment. I think they’ll treat them tougher than they treat the average person because they won’t want to be criticized. Those people of profile have to recognize it, be aware of it and, if necessary, change their habits.”

Which can only get harder as the YouTube mentality and rabid celebrity journalism becomes more prevalent. Yet, even as scrutiny over Hilton’s case reached a fever pitch, Weitzman remained unfazed professionally because he’s no stranger to staring back into the public eye. In fact, he was one of the first attorneys to face round-the-clock television coverage when, in 1984, he successfully defended automaker John DeLorean against cocaine trafficking charges.

“What made that case unique was that it came about as standard cable became popular and the daily coverage was ratcheted up,” says Weitzman. “In particular, CNN would repeat coverage several times a day. It was in rotation, as they call it.”

During the trial, the evidence included DeLorean on tape discussing a cocaine deal with an undercover FBI agent. Weitzman demonstrated to the jury’s satisfaction, however, that DeLorean had been set up, and not only did his client pull out of the deal, but the undercover agent had altered and destroyed critical case notes. Contrary to what many in the media were forecasting, DeLorean was acquitted.

“The coverage was overwhelmingly biased [against DeLorean] as I recall it,” Weitzman says. “During the trial I had courthouse-step conferences at the end of every day. Part of my reasoning for talking to the media at all was to try and even the scales. I learned then that on TV they tend to take three words from the 10 sentences you spoke. You learn pretty quickly to speak in sound-bites if possible.”

Weitzman has been tackling tough cases for people of profile long before DeLorean. In 1973, he was the court-appointed attorney for Mary Brunner, a member of the Manson family who gave birth to Charles Manson’s child. He has also represented Louis Dragna, the alleged head of organized crime in Los Angeles, and was involved in several Black Panther cases. But DeLorean put Weitzman on the Los Angeles legal map and on the road to notoriety. Curiously, that case is still causing waves today. It was then that Weitzman brought infamous private investigator Anthony Pellicano to Los Angeles.

“I said to Anthony, ‘I need you to be in Los Angeles and not Chicago,’” says Weitzman. “And he moved here and did a great job on the case. A great job.” Pellicano has enjoyed a storied reputation in Los Angeles for being involved with high-profile situations, including when he helped turn alleged allegations of child abuse against Michael Jackson into claims of attempted extortion by the child’s father, a 1993 case in which Weitzman was one of Jackson’s attorneys. But Pellicano’s reputation as a rogue investigator, using possibly illegal means to acquire information, has made him as reviled as he is revered. Still, Weitzman says, “I didn’t have very many headaches with Anthony. He did a great job for me with DeLorean. Anthony was an eccentric, aggressive investigator. If you gave him an assignment, for the most part he achieved the goal, whether it was getting witness statements, or locating somebody, and he was really good at analyzing audio- and videotapes.”

Today, Pellicano is in jail awaiting trial for, among other charges, illegal wiretapping, intimidation of witnesses, identity theft and racketeering. And the rings of people wrapped up in the ongoing investigation—either as victims, associates or employers—include Hollywood’s elite celebrities, prominent attorneys and even police officers. Weitzman has not been involved in any of Pellicano’s alleged illegal activities (though some have charged him with the crime of unleashing Pellicano on Los Angeles), and he says he has no regrets about having used the private investigator’s services in the past.

In 1995, Weitzman became executive vice president of corporate operations at MCA (now NBC Universal). “The left turn, as I call it, into Universal was a wonderful experience because it was purely business,” he says. “I got a bird’s-eye view of how an entertainment company was run. I really just wanted to try something else, and my time there was a roller-coaster ride of fascinating experiences.”

When he returned to private practice in 2001, those experiences proved to be a tremendous help in evaluating cases and helping clients in litigation and nonlitigating matters. “Now my approach is to really try to look at the situation from both sides,” he says. “I was always more inclined to draw lines in the sand earlier in my career. Now I try to avoid the actual trial and resolve it short of litigation.”

Incidentally, he has taken a few other “left turns” in life, such as actually working in the movies himself. He even has his own profile on IMDb.com with legal consultant credits and a couple of on-screen moments, such as in the 2005 film Thank You for Smoking, written and directed by Jason Reitman. “Jason’s the son of a longtime friend and client, Ivan Reitman,” says Weitzman. “Jason asked me to be in his movie and there’s no way I’d say no. It was a lot of fun. I’ll never get a starring role, but I find doing cameos fun.”

There was one starring role Weitzman actually chose to walk away from—perhaps the biggest role for an attorney in recent history since the Scopes Monkey Trial. In June 1994, when O.J. Simpson was in Chicago after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, Simpson called Weitzman to be his legal counsel. But that attorney-client relationship didn’t last too long. After about 48 hours, Weitzman decided that this was a case he had to walk away from.

Like nearly everyone else in America, Weitzman followed the events on television. And like many people, he was shocked at the “not guilty” verdict from the criminal trial’s jury. “I don’t believe the verdict is correct,” he says. “That is my opinion based on time spent with him before the incident occurred, time spent with him after the murders occurred, and observing at arms-length the facts brought out during the trial.”

Regardless of the outcome, Weitzman has no regrets about being the attorney who walked away from the trial of the century. “Honestly, I already did that—the decade before with DeLorean. Being in the eye of the storm is not something I needed. It was not a trial I belonged in. I did the best for me to get out,” he says.

Maybe that wasn’t a shining moment for Los Angeles or for the courts in general, but Weitzman, a lifelong Angeleno, remains optimistic about how his city survived the legal and social ramifications of whether Hollywood stature trumps the law. “Because of the media coverage, it has cast a pall on the criminal justice system. And the city has had to work to overcome that image. But I think that time has come and gone,” he says. Now his only problem—if the Paris Hilton case is any indicator—is whether the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

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