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In the holiday spirit of fright, here are nine sketches of lawyers from past to present, fact and fiction, whose lives “penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.”

Spooky tales of notorious lawyers

Halloween approaches. Digging through case files and … graveyards … one never knows what may be found.

“Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Scene I).

In the holiday spirit of fright, here are nine sketches of lawyers from past to present, fact and fiction, whose lives “penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness” (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness).

Charles J. Guiteau, born in 1841 and executed by hanging June 30, 1882, Guiteau was the American lawyer who assassinated U.S. President James A. Garfield. The assassination led to one of the most famous “insanity trials” of the nineteenth century and spawned a multitude of books on the subject.

Paul Bergrin, a lawyer from Newark, New Jersey, currently faces 26 counts in federal court alleging he conspired to commit acts of murder, cocaine trafficking, witness tampering, bribery, prostitution traveling in aid of a racketeering enterprise, and money laundering. His first trial ended in a hung jury.

The New Jersey Supreme Court reportedly suspended Bergrin’s license to practice law in June 2009. Previously Bergrin worked as a state and federal prosecutor, then became a defense lawyer. Bergrin’s former clients reportedly included drug dealers, gang leaders, and various celebrities, and New York Magazine dubbed him “The Baddest Lawyer in the History of Jersey — and that’s saying something.”

Hans Michael Frank was a German lawyer who worked for the Nazi party. He became Nazi Germany’s chief jurist and was the Governor-General of occupied Poland’s General Government territory. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials and was executed Oct. 16, 1946.

Lawyers don’t just entangle with blood and death in criminal court. Jonathan Harker was the young English lawyer in Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula who traveled on real estate business to the infamous vampire’s castle. Harker’s clerical skills came in handy as he sifted through paperwork and collected information to track down Dracula’s lairs in London. Along with Val Helsing, he managed to destroy Dracula.

Ami Janda

Novels — and movies — are full of sinister characters, some of them very rich lawyers as in the Memphis firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke in John Grisham’s “The Firm”, or Maurice “Maury” Levy kept on retainer by the Barksdale syndicate in the HBO series “The Wire”. But the wickedest movie lawyer, with no reasonable doubt, is Tom Hagen. A fictional character in “The Godfather” books and movies, Hagen is the informally adopted son of the Mafia’s chief, Don Vito Corleone. After finishing law school Hagen serves as the family lawyer, with the advisement that a “lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”

Recently Missouri lawyer Susan Elizabeth Van Note was charged with forging her father’s signature on a document relied on by doctors in taking him off life support. Retired accountant William Van Note reportedly was critically wounded by a gunshot to his head when he allegedly was shot by a home intruder in October 2010. He reportedly died four days later, after Susan Elizabeth Van Note allegedly told doctors her father preferred to die rather than be kept alive through medical intervention. She pleaded not guilty to charges of felony forgery and first-degree murder.

Lawyers are no more immune to crimes of passion than anyone else, as Thomas J. Capano, a disbarred American lawyer and former Delaware deputy attorney general, was convicted of the 1996 murder of his former lover, Anne Marie Fahey (see “Lawyer Convicted in Murder of Mistress,” by Irvin Molotsky, The New York Times, January 18, 1999).

Bruce Reilly, currently a law student at Tulane University in Louisiana, was previously arrested in 1993 for the murder of English professor Charles Russell of the Community College of Rhode Island. Reilly reportedly pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and robbery and spent 12 years in jail (see “Tulane Law Student Exposed as Convicted Murderer,” by Christina Ng, ABC News, Sept. 19, 2011). Reilly apparently now works as an intern at the Brennan Center for Justice and is a founding member of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement.

“Double, double toil and trouble” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I) — the overworked lawyer seems to brew plenty of mischief for himself … Among many other things, Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero) was a lawyer whose life coincided with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. When the Catiline conspiracy attempted to overthrow the government with an attack on the city from outside forces, Cicero suppressed the revolt by executing conspirators — without due process. After Julius Caesar’s death, Cicero became an enemy of Mark Antony and attacked him in a series of speeches. Cicero was subsequently condemned as an enemy of the state by the Second Triumvirate and murdered in 43 BC.

And one extra treat … or trick — the devil himself! Specifically, Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The essence of a lawyer’s work is persuasion through language. And the master manipulator of words is none other than that ultimate demon, Satan. In John Milton’s classical work Paradise Lost, Satan crafts arguments, speaking “with speedy words” (Book I, l. 156) to successfully convince a third of the angels in heaven to rebel with him, and to convince Eve to sin by eating the forbidden fruit. His power through words extends even to his evil entourage. Belial, for example, “pleas’d the ear” (Book II, l. 117). “But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue/ Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear the better.” (Book II, l. 112 to 117).

So as you creep and crawl your way home from the office this night of Hallow’s Eve, keep as close an eye on the dark shadows of suits and briefcases as on ghouls and goblins!

Ami C. Janda received her undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and her Juris Doctor from Hamline University School of Law. She works as an attorney editor at a legal publishing company in Eagan, Minn.


  1. Your article on Spooky Tales of Notorious Lawyers was fun to read until I came to the entry about Marcus Tullius Cicero. His life coincided with the decline and fall of the Roman Republic not the Empire which was 450 years later.

  2. Very enjoyable read, I’ll say. I’d almost forgotten about Paul Bergrin; I’d read about him when it the news broke and thought it staggering how an attorney is off living a secret life akin to a Grand Theft Auto game. And I smiled at the mention of “The Wire’s” Maurice Levy – my favorite show. I recommend that to anyone who’ll listen. A powerful, albeit crooked, attorney like Levy is the only reason some in the Barksdale and Marlow crew got off their stacked charges.

    I hope Garfield’s assassin wasn’t a practicing attorney at the time. I could only imagine the spike re. number of appeals from former clients in prison. Oh, and ending your article w/ Milton’s Satan is no doubt a high note. I’d only gotten halfway through P.L., book 6/slow read, though the idea of this angel convincing other angels in heaven to rebel and war against their divine creator as some sort of oppressor is argument at its most persuasive.

    Interesting how Bruce Reilly is studying and getting into law. If anything I’m glad he’s making the most of his second chance.

    Again, your article made for enjoyable reading (the Empire/Republic common mix-up is forgiven), and congrats on your first article here!

  3. ^ Most people wouldn’t catch that, though most people aren’t history majors. (Her focus off the author bio is both law and literature.) If the common misuse of “Empire” for “Republic” is a watershed offense for fun — an issue bordering on the semantic — I’d say she did pretty darn well. But good catch nonetheless.

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