Washington College of Law alum reflects on dynamic career of defense

By: Rachel Cothran
Posted: 4/8/04

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Jonathan Shapiro sits in his sunny Old Town office, the picture of contentment. Wearing a comfy sweater, jeans and socks, Shapiro – a 1974 graduate of AU’s Washington College of Law – is a friendly, laid-back kind of guy who enjoys sculpting and photography in his spare time. That is, when he’s not busy defending alleged murderers. Most recently, Shapiro agreed to defend John Allen Muhammad, the sniper who was sentenced to death last month for his killing spree in the D.C. area a year and a half ago.

Shapiro’s career has been incredibly dynamic – From stabbings to shootings to espionage, Shapiro has somehow maintained a completely low-key attitude through it all.

“So many lawyers are just so pompous and arrogant,” said Nancy, his secretary, who has been working for him since 1986. “There’s not a shred of that in John.”

His homey office on King Street in Old Town Alexandria features many of his sculptures and photographs. There are family photographs, old and new, on the walls. There is a framed courtroom sketch from one of his past cases, with a Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” sticker placed ironically between the image of the judge and the client. A huge framed Monty Python poster is mounted on one wall. Aside from the leather couch he often naps on in the afternoon, Shapiro built all of his office furniture himself.

Shapiro grew up in Cranford, N.J. His father practiced law for six months before quitting and pursuing a career in what he truly loved – the theatre.

“He had an incredible career,” Shapiro said of his father’s 45-year stint as a stage manager in New York. “He was involved in huge shows and would take me in with him on Sundays, and I’d stand backstage and watch and meet everybody. It was just really exciting.”

His mother also had an interest in the theater. On Shapiro’s wall, there is a black-and-white photograph of his mother in a 1932 Broadway show with Danny Kaye. Shapiro’s one foray into theater was at The Little Theater of Alexandria performing in “You Can’t Take It With You” about nine years ago.

“I guess being a lawyer is sort of like being on the stage,” Shapiro mused.

Shapiro has earned a reputation for being a determined lawyer, but ask him about his wife, Jane Harrington, and his three daughters, Meghan, Emma and Lucy, and his face truly lights up.

“It’s the greatest thing in the whole world,” he said, about being a father. “It’s so amazing to watch them grow up and mature and develop interests and become successful. There’s just nothing better. I highly recommend it.”

Shapiro and his wife celebrate their 21st anniversary this year.

“Jane is my rock,” Shapiro said of his wife, a published author whose children’s book, “Lucy’s e-Journal,” came out in 2002. “She has been unwavering in her support.”

Shapiro has the kind of job that requires an endless amount of support. And just like a brilliant acting career, Shapiro’s cases have been “the stuff of legends,” according to Elliot Milstein, a professor at the WCL and a longtime friend of Shapiro.

Long before Shapiro took on the sniper case, he defended Wilbur Evans, who, while facing a conviction on death row, saved guards and a nurse who were being held hostage during an escape attempt at Mecklenburg Correctional Center in Boydton, Va., in 1984. Shapiro’s fight to save Evans’ life lasted eight years, taking all kinds of shocking twists and turns, right down to the hour of his execution.

It is a case that shaped his career, and one that he “will never forget.”

In 1990, Evans was executed. Shapiro was devastated.

“It still haunts me,” he said.

The proof sits in his office in yellowing boxes on the floor – 14 years later, Evans’ files still sit next to Shapiro’s chair. On the wall is an enormous framed picture of Evans with the words “We Will Kill You Anyway” emblazoned across the picture.

Shapiro possesses a rare stubborn persistence when it comes to defending his clients. In October 2000, he refused to give up a case even after a client knocked him out in court.

Shapiro was defending Gregory Murphy, who had been charged in a bloody stabbing death of an 8-year-old Alexandria boy. One day in court, Murphy unexpectedly turned on Shapiro and punched him hard in the jaw, knocking him out cold. Although Shapiro pleaded to stay on, the judge reassigned Murphy’s case.

The stories continue. Shapiro has had three espionage cases, one involving former CIA chief Jim Nicholson, who spied for the Russians. Another involved retired Air Force Master Sgt. Bryan Regan, who was on trial for trying to sell secrets to Libya, Iraq and China.

And then, of course, there is Shapiro’s highest-profile case: representing Muhammad, who killed 10 people in October 2002. The case still requires attention. In a post-trial motion on Monday, Shapiro and his co-counsel Peter D. Greenspun argued that Muhammad should be granted a new trial because of conflicting mental health testimony from the prosecution, according to The Washington Post. The matter is pending.

It is enough to make one wonder, “Why defend these people?”

Shapiro has been against the death penalty for as long as he can remember, he said.

“If you come to believe that the death penalty is wrong and horrible, my theory has been that you really need to be in the worst cases because that’s the best place to make the point,” he said. “And that’s what the attraction of being involved in the Muhammad case was too … You couldn’t ask for a worse set of circumstances. But if you’re really opposed to the death penalty, that’s where you want to be. You want to be in a case like that.”

It is a challenge many are wary of taking. John Zwerling, who also practices law in Alexandria, hired Shapiro as a law clerk when Shapiro was in his second year at law school. He served as a mentor for Shapiro and the two later became partners. Under Zwerling’s guidance, Shapiro began to develop what has become an unwavering devotion to criminal defense.

When Shapiro was offered the Evans case, Zwerling urged Shapiro to not get involved, saying that “death work” is far too emotionally draining.

“Death cases take too much out of jurors and defense attorneys,” Zwerling said. “It’s crushing how much responsibility they have to undertake.”

Zwerling said he felt much the same when he learned of Shapiro’s decision to take on the Muhammad case.

“I was sure that Muhammad was going to get excellent legal representation,” Zwerling said. “But I was worried about Jon.”

Milstein taught Shapiro when he was a law student. Milstein called Shapiro “engaging” and “modest,” and “a star when he was a student.”

“He was the most committed, the most creative,” he said. “That has extended into his career, which has been a model of what a lawyer can be.”

The two men also worked side by side when Shapiro, broke and mentally drained from the Evans case, joined the faculty at the law school as a professor in the Criminal Justice Clinic, a program for third-year law students who handle real clients and cases under faculty supervision. Shapiro stayed on from 1983 through 1985.

“The students loved him,” Milstein said.

Shapiro found teaching to be a new and exciting challenge.

“It was a great experience for me to teach – you sort of have to look at what you do critically in order to explain what students should be doing,” he said.

Though Shapiro loved teaching, for him nothing beats the drama and excitement of the courtroom.

“You get inside people’s lives, people tell you secrets about their lives that no one else knows, its just really interesting,” he said. “And you get caught up in their humanity and wanting to help them, and you get caught up with what you see as injustice in the legal system and you wanna fight that, and all those things make it a really exciting thing to do.”

After all he’s been through, what advice does he have for the aspiring lawyer?

“If you love it, life is going to be great,” Shapiro said. “I’ve never felt like I have a job. I still can’t believe that people give me money to do what I do. It’s just real exciting. If someone has an interest in criminal law, I think they have a great time ahead of them. Other areas of the law, I don’t know,” he continued, adding a laugh. “I could never do it.”

Shapiro’s eldest daughter, Meghan, is a sophomore at William & Mary and is following in her father’s footsteps.

“I’ve told all my kids never to be a lawyer,” he said, laughing. “I guess every parent tells their kid not to be whatever they are. But she’s a real zealot, she’s gonna set the world on fire.”

That stubborn, zealot quality must run in the family. When Shapiro and his wife recently decided to move to Lexington, Va., a small town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, their daughter Emma put her foot down.

“My daughter said, ‘If you make me move to Lexington, I will stand on the street corner and sell crack cocaine,'” he said, laughing and shaking his head. “That’s what she told me.”

Shapiro and his wife still plan to move to Lexington, but decided to wait a few years, until their youngest daughter, Lucy, graduates from high school. Shapiro had heard about the town, home to Washington & Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute, through friends. After visiting, he and his wife “just kinda fell in love with it” and have begun building a house.

“We wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said he will likely have some association with the Washington & Lee law school, and he and his wife are considering writing a book about the Evans case. He wants to build all of the furniture for his new house. Mostly though, Shapiro wants to do what he most likely does not get to do often: relax.

“Really I just wanna hang out,” he joked, cracking an easy grin. “You know, ride the cows or whatever.”

After years of sleepless nights and emotional struggle, it appears Shapiro has earned his reprieve.


© Copyright 2008 The Eagle


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