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The Star - Michael Edelson


Michael Edelson: Go-to guy for people in big trouble with the law
OTTAWA–Disgraced Catholic bishop Raymond Lahey, up on charges of possessing and importing child porn. Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien, confronted with a devastating influence-peddling accusation.

Now Col. Russell Williams, the pilot charged with sex assaults and murders.

They all turned to the same lanky Ottawa lawyer to clear their name.

Michael Edelson is a formidable advocate, known for a tough, direct style and aggressive demands for disclosure of the state's evidence against his clients.

Right now, there's entirely too much disclosure for his liking in the Williams matter.

The story of how a rising star in Canada's military came to be accused of two murders and two sexual assaults near the Trenton air base he commanded has shot beyond Canada's borders.

Vanity Fair is calling Edelson. NBC too.

Leaked details of Williams' purported confession and how he led police to one of the bodies made national headlines within days of his shocking February arrest.

Williams, at the centre of the drama, is beyond reach of the cameras and microphones, making court appearances by video broadcast from the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee.

But the leaks continue; this week Williams jammed a toilet paper roll down his throat in a foiled suicide attempt. Now he's on hunger strike. The next morning, Edelson's face is grim and his jaw set. Will his client survive to see a trial? No answer.

He won't talk about Williams. That much is clear, and entirely in character.

Edelson does most of his talking in the courtroom.

At 60, Edelson is fit, with a touch of grey streaking his curly black hair. An Ottawa columnist described it as a "Tom Jones circa 1965 hairstyle." Edelson enters a courtroom confidently.

His stance wide, one hand shoved in a pocket, he has the air of a gunslinger.

The newspapers tag Edelson as high-profile, but in truth, he keeps a deliberately low profile outside the courtroom.

He doesn't have the celebrity status of such Toronto lawyers as Eddie Greenspan or Clay Ruby. Has no interest in it. Married and a father of two grown children, he keeps his private life very private.

The high-profile ones are Edelson's clients.

His roster has included Margaret Trudeau, the former prime minister's ex-wife, acquitted of impaired driving after her right to counsel was breached; Chuck Guité of sponsorship scandal fame; flamboyant high-tech entrepreneur Michael Cowpland, fined $1 million for insider trading.

The post-9/11 anti-terror frenzy brought Liban Hussein to Edelson's door. Hussein was one of the first accused – and ultimately cleared – of terrorism financing. Abdullah Almalki and Maher Arar sought Edelson's advice when the Mounties or CSIS were tailing them, long before their detention ordeals in a Syrian jail.

A list of 100 criminal defence lawyers is posted at the Ottawa police station for those needing legal help. But the cops have their own list of two go-to lawyers when the tables are turned and they're in trouble. Edelson's on it. He's defended scores of officers against criminal charges in three decades. Cops like Const. Martin Cardinal, who pleaded guilty in the face of a damning videotape of his assault on a woman during arrest, but won a conditional discharge.

THERE'S NO GUARANTEE Edelson will secure an acquittal. But after 34 years, he brings an array of big weapons to the fight.

Edelson leads a small boutique firm, aided by private investigators and several talented litigators, including University of Ottawa professor David Paciocco, who co-wrote The Law of Evidence – the guide judges use as their bench book.

In an art-filled boardroom of his sixth-floor office suite overlooking Ottawa's Elgin St., Edelson is engaging and frank.

He has one key criterion for going to trial: "winnability."

"I'm not going to take a case to trial if it's a black-and-white loser – if the Crown has an overwhelming case" against the client, he says. Nevertheless, he admits, he is still drawn to cases with "a good storyline."

He never intended to be here.

In 1971, Edelson sported an Afro and a Fu Manchu moustache. He'd acted a bit at university and had just finished an honours thesis on Romantic poet Lord Byron.

"What are you doing?" his father, Sam, asked. "You know, with your life?"

Edelson replied that he planned a master's degree and a Ph.D. in English lit.

The master watchmaker and Ottawa retailer was not impressed. "Do me a favour," said Sam. "Study a profession."

Edelson remembers he wanted "to rebut the notion that it was hopeless."

He undertook what has become a trademark of the Edelson approach: exhaustive research. He turned up only half a dozen jobs across Canada. "It did actually look pretty hopeless."

Edelson changed strategies, and struck a deal. He'd take one shot at it – one profession, one law school application – and give it one year.

Two weeks after he met the no-nonsense University of Ottawa law dean Tom Feeney, he was accepted. He left literature behind, but not a lifelong passion for human drama or the "good storyline."

In 1975, he graduated from U of O along with Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louise Charron and Charles Hackland, Ontario's chief judge in the Eastern Region.

After admission to the bar in 1977, Edelson hung out a shingle, doing a bit of everything: family, criminal and commercial law. He soon joined the firm he'd articled for, as a partner, and within a few years dropped non-criminal work. "My true love was obviously criminal."

"It appealed to me intellectually," he says. "I like the chess game of strategizing in how to win cases."

That, the courtroom performances, working with people – it all beat pushing paper by a long shot. Edelson knows of no other sphere of law that gives the "adrenaline-filled" rush of a criminal trial, no other practice that explores and exposes "the human condition."

AMONG HIS PEERS in the defence bar and the prosecutors he goes up against, Edelson has a reputation as aloof, a touch arrogant, but he's earned their respect.

Many didn't want to speak on the record for this story. Others, such as lawyer Pat McCann, take Edelson's confident manner in stride and count him as a friend. "He's a got a great sense of humour, he plays a good game of golf, and he's got great stories to tell."

"It's clear he's among the elite lawyers in Ottawa," says acting deputy Crown attorney Brian Holowka, "and I think that Crowns who go into court with him seek to rise to the occasion."

Toronto-based lawyer Scott Hutchison, brought in as independent prosecutor to try the influence-peddling case against Ottawa's mayor, chuckles when asked to talk about Edelson for this profile: "You're calling to pour salt in the wound." Edelson won an acquittal for the mayor, after a devastating six-day cross-examination of Hutchison's key witness, without calling the mayor to testify.

He earned Hutchison's respect in the process.

"He's a professional and a gentleman to deal with," Hutchison says. "He was a tough adversary, but he's as honest as he is well-prepared."

Driven by a belief that the criminal justice's adversarial system must have strong players in the key roles of judge, prosecution and defence, Edelson has a clear-eyed view of his own role. The courtroom is not a "tea party," but a "war room" where you have to mount an "all-out challenge of the evidence."

Edelson counts among his most successful cases those resolved far from the stigmatizing spotlight of a courtroom. "I've acted for many high-profile people in this community," he says. "No one will ever know they were under investigation because we were successful in having no charges laid."

But if there is a "significant" Charter breach that has a chance of securing victory for a client, Edelson will head to court.

"Look," he explains, "we define this democracy of ours by providing the best possible defence for people accused of the most heinous and problematic crimes out there."

Edelson is neither political nor religious. "I'm a secular man," he says, one who watches politics very closely and is dismayed by what he sees: cash-strapped media too focused on sensationalist coverage, a poor public understanding of the justice system, and a government that uses it "as a political football."

THE CONSERVATIVES are ignoring "their own advisors in the justice department," declining crime rates, and reams of empirical evidence gathered by people who have studied the American system and proven that measures like mandatory minimum jail sentences "don't work.

"They replaced a principled approach to criminal justice philosophy with a doctrinaire political approach that they think will garner votes," he says, his voice dripping with disgust.

It riles him, but not enough to ever enter politics.

"I've defended many politicians, but I've never had any interest in being one, nor will I ever be one."

He also has "zero interest" in being a judge. "I like being a player, not a referee ... I'm an impatient person. I would probably demonstrate that in a courtroom if I was a judge listening to an argument that I found was not terribly useful or effective."

And Edelson as a Crown attorney? Perish the thought. It's never been part of his storyline.

"I'm a lone wolf kind of person." He smiles wryly. "Most defence lawyers are, I think."

They rarely work in big law firms, and they have a certain "mentality," he says, a "strong feeling for injustice – a visceral feeling that something is not just, is not right.

"I think most defence lawyers see themselves as wearing the white hat, not the black hat – sort of being the white knight. We stand between state authority and power, and the individual rights of citizens. I like that role."

The white knight, defending the good guys and the bad guys alike.

That's Edelson's storyline.

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