Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law

Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law

by Alan Dershowitz


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America's most prominent legal mind and the #1 bestselling author of Chutzpah and The Best Defense, Alan Dershowitz, recounts his legal autobiography, describing how he came to the law, as well as the cases that have changed American jurisprudence over the past 50 years, most of which he has personally been involved in.

In Taking the Stand, Dershowitz reveals the evolution of his own thinking on such fundamental issues as censorship and the First Amendment, Civil Rights, Abortion, homicide and the increasing role that science plays in a legal defense. Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University, and the author of such acclaimed bestsellers as Chutzpah, The Best Defense, and Reversal of Fortune, for the first time recounts his legal biography, describing his struggles academically at Yeshiva High School growning up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, his successes at Yale, clerking for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, his appointment to full professor at the Harvard at age 28, the youngest in the school's history. Dershowitz went on to work on many of the most celebrated cases in the land, from appealing (successfully) Claus Von Bulow's conviction for the murder of his wife Sunny, to the O.J. Simpson trial, to defending Mike Tyson, Leona Helmsley, Patty Hearst, and countless others.  He is currently part of the legal team advising Julian Assange.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307719287
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/26/2019
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 1,227,704
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Alan Dershowitz is one of the most famous and celebrated lawyers in America. He is the youngest full professor in school history at Harvard, where he is now the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law. The author of numerous bestselling books, from Chutzpah to The Best Defense to In Defense of Israel to Reversal of Fortune, Dershowitz has advised and defended many of the most famous legal cases of the past 50 years.

Read an Excerpt


Born and Religiously Educated in Brooklyn

Williamsburg and Boro Park

I was born on September 1, 1938, in a hospital—the first in my family not delivered at home. My parents lived in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, having moved as youngsters from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Their parents were Orthodox Jews who had emigrated from Poland at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.1 When my mother was pregnant with my brother, Nathan, who is four years younger than me, we moved to the Boro Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, where I grew up and where my parents remained until their deaths. The Boro Park of my youth was a Modern Orthodox community of second-generation Jews. Following the end of World War II, some displaced persons who had survived the Holocaust moved into the neighborhood. The current occupants of Boro Park are Chasidic Jews who have moved from Williamsburg seeking to re-create the shtetels of Eastern Europe. (My daughter Ella and her contemporaries now see Williamsburg as a cool neighborhood—a far cry from the "old country" where grandparents with Yiddish accents lived when I was growing up.)

My parents grew up in Williamsburg during the peak of the Depression. My mother, Claire, had been a very good student at Eastern District High School, graduating with honors at fifteen and a half. She then enrolled at City College in the fall of 1929—the first of her family to attend college. She was forced by her father's deteriorating economic situation to leave before the end of the semester. She worked as a bookkeeper, earning $12 a week.

My father, who was not a good student, attended Torah V'Daas—translated as "Bible and Knowledge"—Yeshiva in Williamsburg. He began to work during high school and never attended college.

My grandparents knew each other from the neighborhood. My grandfathers were both chazanim, cantors, who sang the Jewish liturgy in small synagogues, called shteebles. They were involved in the founding of several Jewish institutions, including a free loan society, a burial society, the Young Israel synagogue, and the Torah V'Daas Yeshiva.2 Their day jobs were typical for their generation of immigrants. Louis Dershowitz sold corrugated boxes. Naphtali Ringel was a jeweler. My grandmothers, Ida and Blima, took care of their children. Each had eight, but two of Blima's died of diphtheria during an epidemic. My mother, Blima's second surviving child, nearly died during the influenza outbreak of 1917, but according to family lore, she was saved by being "bleeded."

Born toward the end of the Depression and exactly a year to the day before the outbreak of the Second World War, I was the first of more than thirty grandchildren on both sides of my family.

My maternal grandfather had been married to my grandmother's older sister, who died during childbirth, leaving two children. Pursuant to Jewish tradition, he then married the younger sister, my grandmother Blima, who was fifteen. In the 1930s, he traveled to Palestine by boat. Having little money, he worked as a mashkeach—the person whose job it was to make sure the Kosher food was ritually acceptable—to earn his fare. Once in Palestine, he purchased a small parcel of land on which he someday hoped to build a home, but he quickly realized that he couldn't earn a living there and returned to Brooklyn. Several years later, he suddenly died. Since I was a toddler, I knew him only through family memories and sepia photographs. My grandmother, who still had three unmarried daughters at home, one son in the army, and another in California,3 could not afford to maintain her apartment, so my family moved in and my father paid the rent. We took in a border to help with the expenses, and I shared a room with her. After about a year, we moved to our own small apartment and then to the two-and-a-half-family house in which I grew up.

My paternal great-grandfather, Zecharja, who was the first of us to arrive in America in 1888, died in 1921 at age sixty-two. His wife, Lea, died in 1941, at age eighty-two, and I vaguely remember her.

My family has now been in the United States for more than half of our nation's existence. Most of Zecharja's numerous descendants have been very religious and relatively poor, giving rise to the family quip that the Dershowitzes have the lowest rate of wealth to time in America of any Jewish family.4 My grandfather Louis Dershowitz died when I was fifteen (he was seventy-one), so I knew him as a child. Though poor, he was respected for having saved many relatives from the Holocaust, by creating "jobs" for them as rabbis, cantors, ritual slaughterers, and other religious functionaries. The questionable affidavits he had concocted to "make up" these jobs helped to secure visas for twenty-eight of his European relatives, who arrived in America just before the outbreak of the war. A twenty-ninth relative, a young girl who was studying the violin in Poland, was trapped. My grandfather refused to give up on her, sending his oldest, unmarried son—my uncle Menash—into the belly of the beast to find and "marry" her, so she could come to America. Although the marriage was supposed to be a sham, it lasted for more than fifty years, ending with their deaths less than a year apart.

Both of my grandmothers, Blima and Ida, lived to ripe old ages (Blima into her nineties, Ida into her eighties), and I knew them well. Blima played a significant role in my upbringing, since my mother worked and "Gramma Ringel" was always there to serve me milk and her homemade cookies when I came home from school.

Among my earliest memories were vignettes from the Second World War, which ended when I was nearly seven. I can see my father pasting on the Frigidaire door newspaper maps depicting the progress of Allied troops. I remember hearing radio accounts, in deep, stentorian voices, from WOR (which I thought spelled "war"), announcing military victories. I can still sing a ditty (sung to the tune of the Disney song from Snow White):

Whistle while you work

Hitler is a jerk

Mussolini is a meanie

And the Japs are worse5

The comic books we read during the war always pitted the superheroes against the Nazis and the "Japs," and I wanted to help. I decided that if Billy Batson could turn into Captain Marvel by simply shouting "Shazam!," so could I. And so, after making a cape out of a red towel, I jumped out of the window yelling "Shazam!" Fortunately, I lived on the first floor and I only sustained a scraped knee and a bad case of disillusionment.6

When I was four years old, German spies landed on Long Island in a submarine. Although they were quickly captured, there were rumors of other planned landings. If I couldn't help our war effort by turning myself into a superhero, at least I could look out for German spies. Over the next few summers, which my family spent in a rented room near Rockaway Beach, a police officer paid us kids a penny a day to be on the lookout for "Kraut subs." We took our job seriously and spotted a few suspicious objects that turned out to be birds, or flotsam and jetsam.

I remember both VE (Victory in Europe) and VJ (Victory over Japan) days. There was dancing in the streets, block parties, and prayers. Our soldiers, including several of my uncles, were coming home. (My father received a medical deferment because he had an ulcer, which my mother said was caused by my bad behavior.)7

We weren't told of the Holocaust or Shoah, just that we had lost many relatives in Europe to Hitler (Yemach Sh'mo—"May his name be erased"). We cheered Hitler's death, which, according to a Jewish joke, we knew would occur on a Jewish holiday—because whatever day he died would be a Jewish holiday!8

The "greenies" (recent immigrants, "greenhorns") who moved to Boro Park from the displaced persons camps never talked about what had happened "over there." The tattooed numbers on their arms remained unexplained, though we knew they were dark reminders of terrible events. Even my grandfather rarely talked about the noble role he had played in saving family members, because he knew how many friends had lost relatives in Europe. My maternal grandparents lost nearly all their families, except for one couple who had managed to emigrate to Palestine before the war.

I grew up in a home entirely free of any racial prejudice. My parents admired black leaders (we called them "Negro" or "colored"). My father, who sold men's work clothing and underwear, had several black customers, whom he treated as equals. My favorite college professor was black. Once every two weeks my mother hired a "cleaning woman" to dust and help her with the house. Some were black. Some were white. A few were Jewish immigrants. The only bigotry I remember was directed against Hungarian Jews by my maternal grandmother. She had obviously brought her prejudice with her from Poland. Following the end of World War II, several Hungarian Jewish families moved into the neighborhood. My grandmother immediately expressed a dislike. I recall her joking about the recipe for a Hungarian omelet: "First steal two eggs!"

Among my other memories was Israel's struggle for statehood. My family members were religious Zionists. We had blue-and-white Jewish National Fund pushkas ("charity boxes") in our homes, and every time we made a phone call, we were supposed to deposit a penny. We sang the "Jewish National Anthem" ("Hatikvah") in school assemblies. I still remember its original words, before Israel became a state: "lashuv l'eretz avosainv" ("to return to the land of our ancestors").

One particular incident remains a painful memory. My mother had a friend named Mrs. Perlestein, whose son Moshe went off to fight in Israel's War of Independence. There was a party to celebrate his leaving. Several months later, I saw my mother crying. Moshe had been killed, along with thirty-four other Jewish soldiers and civilians, trying to bring supplies to a Jewish outpost near Jerusalem. My mother kept sobbing, "She was in the movies, when her son was killed." Israel's war had come home. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Moshe. He had attended my elementary school, played stickball on my block, and was a hero. It was a shared tragedy, and Moshe's death—combined with my mother's reaction to it—had a profound and lasting effect on me.

My friends and I formed a "club"—really just a group of kids who played ball together. We named it "the Palmach"—after the Israeli strike force that was helping to win the war. We memorized the Palmach anthem, "Rishonim, tamid anachnu tamid, anu, anu Hapalmach." ("We are always the first, we are the Palmach.")


Vidal Sassoon

Several years ago, I spoke to a Jewish group in Los Angeles, and among the guests were David Steinberg (the comedian) and the late Vidal Sassoon (the style master). Steinberg mentioned to me that when Sassoon was young, he fought for the Palmach. (If you think that seems unlikely, consider that "Dr. Ruth" Westheimer served as a sniper in the same war.) I challenged Sassoon to sing the Palmach anthem, and before you knew it, Sassoon and I were loudly belting out the Hebrew words to the amusement of the other surprised guests.

Israel declared statehood in May 1948, when I was nine years old. Following its bold declaration that after two thousand years of exile, there has arisen a Jewish state in the Land of Israel (supported by the United Nations, the United States, the Soviet Union, and most Western nations), the nascent state was attacked by the armies of the surrounding Arab countries. One out of every hundred Israeli men, women, and children were killed while defending their new state—some in cold blood, after surrendering. Many of those killed had managed to survive the Holocaust. That summer I went to a Hebrew-speaking Zionist summer camp called Massad (where the counselor in an adjoining bunk was Noam Chomsky, then a fervent left-wing Zionist). We heard daily announcements regarding the War of Independence. We sang Israeli songs, danced the hora, and played sports using Hebrew words (a strike was a shkeya, a ball a kadur).

Shortly after Israel defended itself against the Arab attacks, we learned of a new threat to the Jewish people: Stalin's campaign against Jewish writers, politicians, and Zionists. Stalin became the new Hitler as we read about show trials, pogroms, and executions of Jews. We hated Communism almost as much as we hated fascism. We were also frightened of the threat posed by the Soviet Union, with its atomic arsenal. Our school made us practice running to the "shelter" in the event of a nuclear attack. During my latter years in elementary school, I wrote the following poem:

Engines all around us roaring with steam

Powerfull [sic, powerful] bombers and jets that gleam

Sources [sic, saucers] in the skyline, vechels [sic, vehicles] on earth

Atomic energy surrounding us from birth

Medical wonders, and scientific news

Wonderfull [sic, wonderful] progress, we hope to never loose [sic, lose]

But someday, in the future when energy turns to bombs

Atoms spliting [sic, splitting] all around us recking [sic, wrecking] homes and farms.

Someday in the future we shall be in the past.

Without electric bulbs to warm us—and without the funsets [sic, furnace's] blast.

These early memories contributed significantly to my emerging ideology and worldview. My family's politics were liberal, Zionist, and anti-Communist. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and Mayor La Guardia were our heroes.

Although there were plenty of discussions about current events, politics, and religion, our home had few books, little music, no art, no secular culture. My parents were smart but had no time or patience for these "luxuries." Our apartment was modest—the ground floor of a two-and-a-half-family house. The upstairs was rented to my uncle, aunt, and their two children, while the finished basement was rented to my cousin and her husband, who had recently been discharged from the army. We lived in two small bedrooms, the smaller of which I shared with my brother. We ate in the kitchen. My mother's dream, never realized, was to have "a real dining room." The living room, which had the mandatory couch covered with plastic, was reserved for guests (who were rare). The tiny bathroom was shared by the four of us. The foyer doubled as a dining area for Shabbos meals. The total area was about one thousand square feet. But we had an outside—and what an outside it was! In the front there was a small garden and a stoop. In the rear we had a tiny back porch, a yard, and a garage. Since we had no car, we rented the garage to another cousin, who used it to store the toys he sold wholesale.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Life of Continuous Change 1

Part I From Brooklyn to Cambridge: With Stops in New Haven and Washington

1 Born and Religiously Educated in Brooklyn: Williamsburg and Boro Park 13

2 My Secular Education: Brooklyn and Yale 48

3 My Clerkships: Judge Bazelon and Justice Goldberg 56

4 Beginning My Life as an Academic: Harvard Law School 84

Part II The Changing Sound of Freedom of Speech: From the Pentagon Papers to Wiki Leaks

5 The Evolution of the First, Amendment: New Meanings for Cherished Words 105

6 Direct and Vicarious "Offensiveness" of Obscenity: I Am Curious (Yellow) and Deep Throat 119

7 Disclosure of Secrets: The Pentagon Papers and Julian Assange 142

8 Expressions That Incite Violence and Disrupt Speakers: Bruce Franklin and the Muslim Student Association 157

9 The Right to Falsify History and Science: Holocaust Denial, Space Aliens, and Academic Freedom 166

10 Defamation and Privacy: "He That Filches from Me My Good Name" 176

11 Speech That "Supports" Terrorist Groups: The MEK Case 184

12 Life Intrudes on Law: Illness and Other Close Calls 190

Part III Criminal Justice: From Sherlock Holmes to CSI

13 "Death Is Different": Challenging Capital Punishment 203

14 The Death Penalty for Those Who Don't Kill: Ricky and Raymond Tison 213

15 Using Science, Law, Logic, and Experience to Disprove Murder: Von Bülow, Simpson, Sybers, Murphy, and MacDonald 228

16 Death, Politics, Religion, and International Intrigue: Sharansky, Kennedy, and the Former President of the Ukraine 275

17 Death Cases from the Classroom to the Courtroom and from the Courtroom to the Classroom: Shooting a Corpse and Crashing a Helicopter 309

18 The Changing Politics of Rape: Mike Tyson, DSK, and Student Protestors 322

19 The Changing Impact of the Media on the Law: Bill Clinton and Woody Allen 354

Part IV The Never-Ending Quest for Equality and Justice

20 The Changing Face of Race: From Color Blindness to Race-Specific Remedies 387

21 The Crumbling Wall Between Church and State: Attempts to Christianize America 398

22 From Human Rights to Human Wrongs: How the Hard Left Hijacked the Human Rights Agenda 417

Conclusion: Closing Argument 445

Acknowledgments 473

Notes 474

Index 511

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