Celebrity defense attorney shares insights during La Jolla lecture series


By Pat Sherman

Internationally renown criminal defense attorney Roger J. Rosen shared stories about his most high-profile cases, including those involving Phil Spector, O.J. Simpson, Kim Basinger, Al Pacino and the Church of Scientology, during April’s Group of 12 & Friends brown bag lunch.

The group, which meets regularly at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, listened attentively as the Los Angeles attorney spoke about the considerations of defending celebrities.

“No matter how much the client, both personally and professionally, has spent in the public eye, you as the lawyer have to prepare him or her to deal (with the media firestorm),” said Rosen, who is currently representing Academy Award-winning actor Terrence Howard (“Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Crash”).

“You sit next to Al Pacino and you can’t imagine what questions he would possibly have. He’s ‘The Godfather,’ right? But there are plenty. … No matter how many times they’ve sat in front of the camera — it may have been as a director or a producer — they’ve never sat in that chair that says defendant, and that’s a whole different ballgame.”

In an age where cameras and media are omnipresent, a celebrity defendant’s image is everything, including how he or she walks, holds themselves, dresses and styles their hair, Rosen said.

“Whenever I speak I always get the same question from some lawyer: ‘How much control did you exercise over Mr. Spector?’” Rosen said. “I always say, ‘It’s real simple — look at his hair.’ I exercised no control over him.”

Phil Spector

was accused in the 2003 shooting death of actress

Lana Clarkson

, whose body was found in Spector’s Alhambra home.

Rosen served as lead prosecutor on the case, though he said he reached a breaking point with Spector when the music producer, famous for his

“Wall of Sound,”

repeatedly refused to follow his advice.“

Mr. Spector

did not get my services in the second trial,” Rosen said. “I think if you look in the dictionary under the phrase ‘control freak,’ his picture is there.”

To deal with the often-insatiable egos and eccentricities of some clients, Rosen said he has to play psychologist, mother, father, best friend, and, at times, worst enemy — relaying truth a client may not want to hear.

When a trial is over, Rosen said he prefers to demur from the spotlight.

“When the play has ended, you go out the side door and down the alley,” he said. “You’re not the story, (although) a lot of these lawyers think they are. … You want to leave the party the same person who came to the party.”

Asked if he has ever feared for his safety, Rosen recalled receiving a death threat after he represented Joe Morgan, who was considered the kingpin of the Mexican Mafia and believed responsible for committing or ordering the murders of more than 300 people. In the end, Morgan was sentenced to life in prison.

“A renegade member of the Mexican Mafia showed up at my office about two weeks after the case was over and told me that the Mexican Mafia had a contract out on my life and that he might be able to negotiate for me,” Rosen recalled. “That was one organization that I took very seriously and I had a personal bodyguard for two months.”

Asked if he has any moral dilemmas about some of the clients he defends — particularly when his instincts tell him a client is guilty — Rosen said defense attorneys must be able to step back and view the matter as a case, and not an individual.

“It has a name to it, but it’s a case,” he said. “You don’t have to become personally involved. There’s nothing that says I’m required to like my client.

“I have defended some people, I don’t know whether they did it or not — even if they tell me they did it, I wasn’t there — but they have been set free,” he said. “This we know.”

Having visited courthouses around the world, including those in Cairo and Damascus, Rosen said he takes comfort in his belief that the United States possesses “the very best criminal jurisprudence system on planet Earth.”

“But if you’re going to ask me if it’s perfect? Not even close,” he said, noting more than 100 inmates on death row have been released during the past decade when DNA-testing proved they hadn’t committed the crimes they were convicted of.

Rosen said that when he wins a case, he might be invited to a victory party and then soon forgotten. Should he lose the case, the defendant could sue him for a negligent defense.

“Either way I tell lawyers make sure you get paid before the verdict’s read,” he said.

—For information about upcoming Group of 12 & Friends presentations, call Reena Horowitz at (858) 456-0203.