Edward Bennett Williams

Edward Bennett Williams
Edward Bennett Williams

Maliciously called "the mob's best legal friend" and "the Burglar's Lobby in Washington," Edward Bennett Williams through the years defended mob figures like Frank Costello and mob-connected individuals like Jimmy Hoffa. Yet attorney Edward Bennett Williams was never deterred.

As he once put it, "I'm called the Burglar's Lobby in Washington because I defend people like Frank Costello. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of legal counsel to everyone. It does not say to everyone except people like Frank Costello."

Edward Bennett Williams was responsible for a number of landmark decisions concerning organized crime, one being a 6-2 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning an order to deport Costello. In another famous case Williams took on police investigators engaged in illegal eavesdropping.

The case involved three gamblers who ran a $40,000-a-day mob-connected sports betting parlor in a row house on 21st Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C. Police entered the house next door and drove a spike into the common wall between the houses.

The spike, part of an electronic listening setup, was inserted into a duct, turning the entire heating system into a sort of microphone. The police gathered records of scores of conversations involving betting transactions. The gamblers were convicted and sentenced to long terms in prison.

Williams took over their appeal and argued before the Supreme Court that the eavesdropping had been "more subtle and more scientifically advanced than wiretapping," and constituted gross violation of the rights of the defendants against unreasonable searches and seizures. Edward Bennett Williams insisted the tactic differed little from the police crashing into a house in the middle of the night without a search warrant. The Supreme Court agreed and threw out the convictions.

Williams long spoke out against the extension of congressional investigative committees' powers, to what he considered "the legislative lynch." He said, "When Estes Kefauver first ran roughshod over the rights of hoodlums in 1950, the country was amused. Then the leftist intellectuals, who didn't spring to the defense of the hoodlums, found that their turn was next. While this was going on, labor thought it was funny, but they soon discovered that they were being clobbered."

Once, after Robert Kennedy, a longtime friend of Edward Bennett Williams, became attorney general, Kennedy went after Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. He was so confident that he said he'd "jump off the Capitol dome" if he lost the case. After Williams got Hoffa acquitted, Williams offered to provide Kennedy with a parachute. It marked the end of a beautiful friendship.

Many federal prosecutors despised Williams for thwarting their attempts to jail organized-crime figures. Williams's supporters see his role as being the defense attorney who is vital not so much to his client, but to the entire criminal justice system—a defendant without the best possible protection weakens the entire structure of justice.

This view was countered by Rudolph Giuliani, who as a federal prosecutor for Manhattan in the 1980s spearheaded the general federal assault on the Mafia. He said in a newspaper interview: "I don't socialize with mob lawyers. When I was in private practice, I wouldn't represent mob people. I didn't mind representing businessmen who might be charged with something.

That's someone who has a largely legitimate aspect to their lives, and if they get in trouble, whether innocent or guilty, there's still some good to them. Organized crime figures are illegitimate people who would go on being illegitimate people if I got them off."

Williams's position—all defendants deserve equal opportunity of legal representation—and Giuliani's—the defense lawyer serves as a sort of judge of his clients—are the philosophies between which all students and practitioners of the law must make a choice.