It was 7 a.m., the morning after New York City’s 13-month siege by a nameless, faceless psychopath had come to a climactic end. Attorney Leon Stern was already awake, listening to reports of the capture on the radio, when the telephone rang. It was Ira Juletak, an associate in his Mineola, Long Island law firm. “Ira,” he remembers saying, “is it Son of Sam?” Juletak said it was. “I’ll meet you at the office.”
Thus began what may be the thorniest job in Stern’s 24 years as a criminal lawyer: defending David Berkowitz, who has allegedly confessed to the six .44-caliber killings that touched off the most intensive manhunt in New York’s history. Even Stern calls the random murders “probably the most heinous crimes in the history of American jurisprudence.” (See page 46.) His firm got the case from Berkowitz’ father, Nathan, who was referred to Juletak by relatives. Stern says, “I felt somewhat akin to John Adams when he was asked to represent the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.”
Nevertheless, his defense of David Berkowitz will be unstinting, he promises. “I never pass moral judgments. My function is to preserve a client’s rights. But if a dangerous man is acquitted, I would be concerned about his potential victims.” His probable plea for Berkowitz is not guilty by reason of insanity. Given all the press coverage, Stern adds, “I am very apprehensive about the possibility of this defendant ever being able to receive a fair trial in this jurisdiction, so the question of change of venue is paramount. We might go to federal court in some rural county, I don’t know.
“Another issue,” he continues, “would be David’s competence to stand trial—not to determine sanity or insanity at the time of the crime.” After that, Stern says, will come another pivotal question: whether Berkowitz’ confessions during interrogation will be admissible as evidence. “His constitutional rights may have been violated,” Stern says. “He had a Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.”
As point man for a target of public outrage, Stern is surprised at the lack of threatening calls and hate mail—and at the sometimes merciless pressure on him from the media. Now recovered from three sleepless nights, he says, “We must be answering 300 calls a day, and I only have three lines.”
At the Long Island home he shares with wife Laura and two daughters, the mood is calming down. “It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to him,” says Ellen, 17, and her mother, Laura, Stern’s wife of 20 years, admits: “I am still numb,” adding, “It’s a good thing we’ve got a big house. Leon is a pacer when he’s keyed up.”
Born in Poland in 1926, Stern is a veteran of five years as a prosecutor in the DA’s office and of a half-dozen cases in which he defended accused killers, kidnappers and rapists. “I like new cases because it works your adrenaline up,” he says. “Even though you’re distraught and badgered, it’s still great. You ask me what I do in my leisure time? This is it.” He also senses that the call to Son of Sam’s defense has made him more famous—and more alone—than any case before. “Even people who know you forget who you are,” he says. “They see you as the star performer in the Son of Sam case.” Leon Stern smiles and recalls, “My father always said to me, ‘Why do you want to be a lawyer? A man like you could be an actor and avoid a lot of headaches.’ ”