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Ottawa Citizen - ‘White knight’ in a black robe


By Andrew Seymour, The Ottawa Citizen

When the disgraced former commander of Canada’s largest air force base pleads guilty Monday morning, Russell Williams will do so based on the legal advice of one of this city’s most prominent defence attorneys.

For the rich, powerful and prominent, Michael Edelson is the person they turn to to get out of trouble or to minimize the punishment they might receive.

But despite his client list, Edelson, 60, says the last thing he wants to be known as is a “celebrity lawyer.”

He’d rather be known as a “supremely” well-prepared and tenacious advocate who will “fearlessly and zealously” defend his clients whether they make millions or accept social assistance (his firm has several legal aid cases on the go, even if he doesn’t handle them himself much any more).

“To thrive in this area, you’ve got to be competitive. You’ve got to have a ... desire to win on behalf of your clients,” says Edelson, leaning back in a chair in the boardroom of his office, which overlooks the Elgin Street courthouse.

“I am very offended by this whole cult of celebrity that exists in modern society — celebrities who are celebrities because they are celebrities.

“I think barristers, criminal advocates, we have a very important role to play. We should talk about our role. It’s not about us, it’s about the client and the system.”

In a wide-ranging 90 minute interview — “probably the most extensive interview I’ve ever given” — Edelson talked about how he became hooked on criminal law working at a free legal clinic run by University of Ottawa more than three decades ago. He also explained how he deals with the intense pressure of defending a client in the national spotlight and his concerns about the erosion of the presumption of innocence through sensational news coverage that reveals more and more information — some of it inadmissible in court — long before a trial.

He won’t comment about his current cases, preferring to talk in front of a judge and not on the courthouse steps.

And while his cases draw intense public scrutiny, Edelson fiercely guards the details of his own life. About all he will say is that he loves cars, golf, fishing and spending time with his wife and two grown children.

But he will talk about the “enormous responsibility” of defending someone accused of a crime.

Edelson is best known for his intense preparation and meticulous cross-examinations, which can stretch for days, even weeks.

When he defended Mayor Larry O’Brien, Edelson cross-examined the Crown’s star witness, Terry Kilrea, for six straight days. By the end, Kilrea’s credibility was in tatters, along with much of the Crown’s case. O’Brien was acquitted.

“More cases turn on a successful cross-examination than anything else,” says Edelson, who calls the process the “radar on the truth.”

“We don’t have a lot of Perry Mason moments in our business where the person jumps up and says, ‘You’re right, I lied, I didn’t tell the truth, your client is innocent’,” says Edelson. “What we get is the moment where you come to the realization the person is not being truthful.”

Pursuing that moment is worth some unpopularity: Edelson was criticized after advocating during a 1988 seminar that defence lawyers should “whack the complainant hard” when cross-examining alleged victims of sexual assault during preliminary hearings before trial.

The tenacious cross-examinations are usually a direct result of painstaking preparation, which can include 100 hours or more with a single witness. Edelson says that preparation usually involves a team effort by his law firm, including University of Ottawa law professor David Paciocco, who has literally written the standard book on evidence, as well as defence lawyers Vince Clifford, Connie D’Angelo and Dominic Lamb. Edelson also employs private investigators to interview witnesses the police don’t and dig up details they miss.

“We work harder than anybody, we try to out-think and outstrategize the opposition. I don’t quit until I feel like I am winning.”

All the work means hiring Edelson is expensive. He won’t reveal his hourly rates, but “if I’m not at the top, I’d be pretty close.”

He is imposing: tall, hawknosed, with a distinctive head of now greying curly black hair and piercing eyes. In court Edelson oozes confidence and commands respect. If anything fazes him, it rarely shows.

Some veteran Crowns have suggested privately that Edelson’s presence is enough to throw some of their younger colleagues off their game.

“You can’t be a criminal lawyer without having an ego. If you have no ego, how do you stand up and do these things? We all have egos,” says Ottawa defence lawyer Gary Barnes, who went to law school with Edelson. “People will talk about how he’s got this huge ego. I don’t see that at all. How often do you see him in front of the microphone? He’s not out there looking for interviews every day.”

Lawrence Greenspon, who has taken his own share of sensational and high-profile cases, says Edelson has earned the right to be considered one of the top lawyers in the country.

“We defend the people that society most loves to hate,” says Greenspon, who believes Edelson’s reticence is more about his clients’ best interest than an aversion to talking in public.

“There is definitely a self-confidence, a self-assuredness that is required because when you take on these high-profile cases you can’t be concerned about what the guy in the street, or the media person or other people are going to say about you.

“He either has, or had to develop, a thick skin because he is seen in that light as opposed to being seen as a lawyer whose professionally responsibility it is to defend everyone regardless of how heinous the crime is they’ve been charged with.”

Edelson makes no apologies.

“No criminal lawyer I know takes pleasure having to cross-examine a child in a sexual-assault case, but if your client is telling you, ‘I did not do what is being alleged against me,’ by definition that means someone is not telling the truth here on the other side.

“My job is to determine whether we can expose the people who are not telling the truth. If you feel bad vigorously cross-examining witnesses, some of whom are obviously sympathetic, than you are in the wrong business.”

His approach has earned him a number of unlikely admirers.

Scott Hutchison, who prosecuted the O’Brien case, is one.

“Highly professional, tenacious, professionally courteous outside the courtroom. A very, very tough adversary but professional and courteous at all times,” says Hutchison, a former top lawyer at the Ontario Crown law office who now works in a specialist litigation firm in Toronto. He took the O’Brien case as a special commission.

“When you start a case with somebody you don’t know, you ask around, and what people consistently told me … was if he told you something you knew it was true and you could rely upon him to fight hard, but to fight fair.”

Hutchison has since asked Edelson to assist teaching a trial advocacy course he teaches at Queen’s University.

Edelson didn’t always picture himself as a top criminal lawyer. He studied English literature and wrote his thesis on Lord Byron, the romantic poet. Edelson says he fell in love with criminal law after his second year of law school at the University of Ottawa. That’s when he, Barnes and Frank MacMillan were given permission to establish the summer student legal-aid program, where they defended people accused of summary conviction and traffic offences.

“I did, I’m sure, well over 100 trials that summer and through my third year, where I probably spent more time in court than I did in class,” says Edelson.

He graduated near the top of the class of 1975, which included Eastern Ontario’s senior Superior Court judge, Charles Hackland, and Supreme Court Justice Louise Charron. Edelson says he has no interest in being a judge — “I don’t think I have the temperament,” he says — and never once thought about becoming a prosecutor.

At first, Edelson practised criminal, civil and family law, but says he was drawn to the “human drama” of criminal court and the “intellectual and strategic” challenge of conducting a criminal trial.

“If you are on a major trial it is all consuming. You work on it morning, noon and night. I think every criminal lawyer will tell you if they are on a major trial they are thinking about it in the shower, they thinking about it when they are taking a shave, before they go to bed,” he says.

Many have been memorable, Edelson says.

“The O’Brien case will always stand out. I don’t think in Ottawa in the past 25 years there has been a case that garnered the kind of publicity that case had,” he says. “It became a real pressure cooker for us. The client had a great deal on the line, he put his confidence in us and we badly wanted to reward him with the result we thought was appropriate in that case and we got it. That was a very gratifying result,” he says.

“I’ve been in the wars a long time, but I was totally physically and mentally drained after that trial. I took about four or five weeks and the first week I did a lot of sleeping. That was a very, very draining case, emotionally and professionally, it was a tough case.”

As prominent a figure as the mayor of Ottawa is, and as important as the case was, it was short on gruesome details. Edelson has also represented an Ottawa 67’s player charged with date rape (charges stayed due to court delays), a police sergeant accused of sexual assault (charges withdrawn by the Crown after a three-day Edelson cross-examination of the alleged victim), and now a Catholic bishop on child-pornography charges and the Williams case. They are not pretty files.

Edelson says defence lawyers are unfairly made out to be villains.

“The perception of defence lawyers is not high, but people don’t understand our role. We are the bright line between the state and the private citizen. Your rights have been defined by defence lawyers who have drawn the line with respect to state authority and abuse of power. We view ourselves as white knights,” he says.

And despite the banner headlines that come with his most notorious cases, Edelson says it doesn’t matter if someone is charged with drunk driving or first-degree murder.

“The vast majority of the people we act for are middle-class citizens who pay their way and run afoul of the law and they need our help,” he says. “I have a great faith in the system, that I can help make the system function the way it should. I’m one of the cogs in the wheel. It really isn’t about me, it’s about the client and getting the right result at the end of the day.”

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