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In the past week, Winthrop Faculty Dean Ronald Sullivan, who is also a professor at Harvard Law School, has been embroiled in controversy over his decision to join the legal team of Harvey Weinstein, the former film producer facing allegations of serious sexual misconduct. What should have been a routine case for an experienced legal scholar has now turned into a lightning rod for misdirected criticism on campus. Many at Harvard, both in person and on social media, have responded with “shock” and disappointment — the type of reactions that I would have expected if Sullivan himself had been accused of Weinstein’s alleged crimes. Yet, Sullivan is doing exactly what he should be doing, which is lending his expertise to a difficult legal defense, and I applaud his decision to represent Weinstein.
It appears that criticism of Sullivan generally centers around two concerns — either that his professional work for Weinstein will somehow prevent him from effectively responding to sexual misconduct and assault in Winthrop House, or that the residents of Winthrop House can no longer trust him to deal with cases of sexual misconduct and assault, regardless of his other capabilities as a dean.
Both critiques rely upon the murky assumption that the process of crafting a legal defense is so impactful to the lawyer that it causes him or her to have an automatic, subconscious bias in favor of all future individuals accused of that same crime.
By this logic, perhaps we should worry that Sullivan — who represented formerly convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez — may not believe Harvard students who are victims of violent crime. And what if he had defended a thief? Would we automatically assume that he wouldn’t respond seriously to petty crimes committed in Winthrop House? It is absurd to think that the mere act of constructing legal arguments in defense of Weinstein would transform Sullivan from a capable administrator into a negligent one. But he does have a compelling reason, given his professional experience, to take this case.
Harvey Weinstein has been burned at the stake of American public opinion — and rightfully so, in most of our minds. Over the past year and a half, we have learned nauseating details of the allegations made against him by several dozen women. Just about every news outlet in the country has covered these accusations at great length. We probably would be hard-pressed to find any individual in America who thinks Weinstein is innocent or any jury who would not instinctively convict him based on this public image. Yet, that does not change the fact that it is the responsibility of our legal system still to treat him as fairly as any other defendant. In fact, this is precisely the kind of case that we should expect a Harvard Law School professor to take — one that is seemingly so difficult to win that it demands a legal mind of the highest caliber.
There is a reason that our justice system is built upon due process. The procedure is much more important than any particular result, no matter how passionate we may be about a single case. Anything short of a vigorous fight on the defendant’s behalf cannot provide us with a guarantee that the process is working effectively. And Sullivan, as the devil’s advocate, is performing that vital role.
It is a shame that Sullivan’s character has been smeared in this way since taking on Weinstein’s case, as if he’s become a less reliable or trustworthy member of our community. On the contrary, he should be commended for defending the core values inherent to the American tradition of civil liberty.
I am terrified by the prospect that we may be nearing a day when defense attorneys feel the need to think twice before providing legal representation, because they may be subjected to public humiliation simply for doing their job. If this is ever the case, there will be no distinction between a trial by public opinion and a trial in a court of law. The onslaught of negative publicity for a lawyer will be so costly that few good attorneys will want to defend those who — for one reason or another — have been presumed guilty by a public majority. Such individuals will find no advocate in the court of law, and the integrity of our legal system will cease to exist.
The only bulwarks that we have against this dystopian, alternative reality are individuals like Sullivan. I hope — if only to demonstrate to other lawyers that they should not kowtow to the tyranny of irrational public outcry — that he continues to represent Weinstein. Sullivan will have done us a great service, even as so many of us continue to turn our backs on him.
Andrew W. Liang ’21, a Crimson Business executive and Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House.
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