Criminal defense attorney Shannon Smith is no stranger to sneers or snide comments, given her often unpopular clients.
But representing Larry Nassar has triggered a backlash she has never seen before: several death threats, loads of hate mail and nasty phone calls.
Smith said that she has received at least 10 death threats in recent weeks for representing the disgraced Michigan State University physician in a sex abuse scandal involving at least 160 female athletes.
One threat, she said, came through an intake form on her website from someone who wrote: “I’m going to rape your children. And then rape you in front of your children. And then murder your children in front of you but let you live.”
Another person called her Oakland County law office and left a message telling her: “You better pack your bags and get out of town.”
One of Smith’s colleagues in the Nassar case also has received death threats, along with his children, who have been escorted to school as a result, Smith said.
“What we’ve been through has been insane and unfair,” Smith told the Free Press on Wednesday. “I understand why the girls (Nassar’s victims) would have resentful feelings toward us … but a lot of people in our country just don’t understand our roles. It’s been insane.”
Defense attorney Mary Chartier said the backlash received by Smith prompted her to write a letter of support in which she defended both Smith and the role of defense lawyers in the criminal justice system. The letter, which was signed by 300 defense lawyers, notes:
“It is definitely unpopular to be a criminal defense attorney, especially one who represents people accused of serious and often heinous crimes,” Chartier writes. “There are many who think we should apologize for what we do and many who view us with disdain.”
But defense lawyers are critical to the justice system, Chartier writes, stressing: “It is defense attorneys who hold the government and our courts accountable. Without defense attorneys, there is no rule of law.”
Melissa Powell, president of the Michigan Prosecuting Attorneys Association, echoed those sentiments, stressing a criminal defendant’s right to a lawyer is “the bedrock of our constitution.”
Powell compared the role of a criminal defense attorney in a heinous case to that of a surgeon who provides a lifesaving procedure to a criminal with a bad background.
“They have taken an oath to provide that service,” Powell said of criminal defense lawyers, noting she’s often tries to educate people who question how someone could represent a killer or a rapist. She said criminal defense work is challenging.
“It’s difficult work and it’s stressful work,” Powell said. “But it’s necessary work. You can’t expect a defendant who is not versed in the law to do a good job representing himself in court. And a lot of these cases are very complex.”
In the Nassar case, at issue for defense lawyers was the focus of the case shifting from the defendant to the defense attorneys, especially during sentencing.
Nassar was sentenced on Jan. 24 to 40-175 years in prison as part of a plea deal on seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct after the judge listened to several days of statements from many of his victims.
One of Nassar’s victims, gymnast Rachel Denhollander, used part of her impact statement to rebuke Smith for suggesting at a prior hearing that she only came forward to earn notoriety and cash.
Denhollander said in court that “only one of us was making money off her court appearance that day.”
The defense objected, but the crowd started shouting and the judge shut her down.
“The victims are entitled to express how they were victimized, but I think it’s going out of bounds when you attack the attorney for simply doing their job,” said local criminal defense attorney Art Weiss, who believes the judge should have “reined” some of the testimony in.
Weiss and other criminal defense lawyers also took issue with Judge Rosemarie Aquilina telling Nassar at sentencing: “I just signed your death warrant.”
“What he pleaded guilty to was horrific. However, a judge still has to maintain that appearance of impartiality. When the judge starts taunting or demeaning the defendant, saying ‘I just signed your death warrant’ … I think that crosses the line,” Weiss said.
At another point during sentencing, the defense objected to another victim calling out the defense for supporting Nassar. But Ingham County CIrcuit Judge Aquilina let the testimony continue, telling Smith: “I think you have thick enough skin to let it go where it should.”
Detroit criminal defense attorney Bill Swor said it was “outrageous” that the judge allowed “personal attacks” on Smith during sentencing.
He also defended the role of the criminal defense attorneys.
“The core principle of our legal system is that everyone is entitled to a real defense, no matter who and no matter what crime,” Swor said. “Lawyers take an oath to do just that. Our constitutional system could not work otherwise.”
And as for those who are criticizing Smith for representing Nassar, Swor said: “If they were charged with a crime, no matter what crime, they sure would want their lawyer to defend them as well as Shannon defended Dr. Nassar.”
The once-acclaimed sports medicine doctor who worked with the U.S. Olympic team and treated MSU athletes deceived young girls and women for more than two decades. They went to him for pain relief when he manipulated them into believing his treatments — which involved inserting his fingers into their vaginas, sometimes without gloves or lubrication — was medical care.
Nassar’s crimes came to light following a 2016 Indianapolis Star exposé about sexual abuse at USA Gymnastics.
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