Louis Nizer

Louis Nizer … His Life In Court

VTR Date: May 18, 1992

Guest: Nizer, Louis


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Louis Nizer…His Life in Court
Title: Louis Nizer…His Life In Court
VTR: 5/18/92

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and my guest today has long been one of the most famous trial lawyers in America, whose recently published story Catspaw is the dramatic story of a man accused of, and again and again over eighteen years, tried for a hideous murder. And defended on appeal, most recently, by my guest Louis Nizer, whose many other volumes such as My Life in Court have endeared him to admirers of great courtroom drama, particularly of cases brilliantly won. However off-beat it may seem, I first want to ask Mr. Nizer though, about an aspect of his first published commentary nearly 30 years ago, commentary on the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Recently I had sent Mr. Nizer a copy of an op-ed column I had written for The Los Angeles Times about what I considered the significance of Oliver Stone’s literally mind-boggling film masterpiece, “JFK”, and the equally extraordinary criticism it elicited from the Lords of Print. I saw it all as McLuhan revisited, a battle for our hearts and minds by rival media. Whatever. Mr. Nizer, in turn, sent me his published commentary on the Warren Commission Report. And because at other times over the years he has questioned the role of the news media on The Open Mind, I was intrigued how he had related the events following the Kennedy assassination to the rights and the responsibilities of the media in America in reference to the law. In fact, I’d like to read a few of those Nizer sentences, and then ask my guest to bring his thoughts on the media and the law up to date, if that’s OK with you, Mr. Nizer.

You wrote nearly 30 years ago: “There is a continuous struggle between two rights under our constitution: The right of every man to a fair trial, Sixth Amendment, and the right of Free Press, First Amendment. Both are precious rights. Neither may be sacrificed to the other. It is a question of reasonable balance. In our country, the balance” you wrote then, “is tipped in favor of the news media.” And you went on, “In England, the balance between the rights of the press and the rights of the accused is much better preserved. It is time that we took a leaf from our English cousins and corrected the balance between rights of the press and the rights of the defendant”. And I’m sure you’d say the rights of the legal structure all together, as in your new book, Catspaw. What’s your fix on the role of the media and the law today?

NIZER: Well, it’s a struggle for predominance, each having basic rights under the Constitution. Let’s face it, it’s difficult, and my own judgment is that we have progressed greatly in this area, not in favor of sensationalism, but in favor of hard fact. And the effort to see that the statue of justice means what it represents. I have pointed out the very strange fact about it. The statue, which has become famous all over the world, shows a blind-folded Mistress of Justice. And it shows her having a scale which must be precisely measured. And it finally shows that she has a sword in one hand to punish the perpetrator of violence…but what was not observed was its error. The error is how could a blindfolded justice read a scale, which requires the greatest refinement of eyesight?

HEFFNER: Well, aren’t there those who say that the press provides that insight and eyesight into what justice should decide?

NIZER: That may be the difficulty. Perhaps…what provides insight into the case is a basic study of the facts that the symbolism of a blindfolded, half a blind person measuring the winner and loser…but I’m not trying to play a trick of some sort. I’m pointing out that justice…we used to think of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol whereby we preserve liberty, but at the same time, woman was the healer and man was the oppressor, the fighter, the man who injured. So you have our dilemma. In the law there ought to be precise standards of examination, and many of us lawyers are seeking that…what we refer to…Catspaw is a very extensive effort, over fourteen years, and it is also filled, one should note, with…incidents.

And you should know, for example, to take just one little incident, that President Kennedy stepped into a car that was closed on top because it was raining. Somebody came excitedly and said that the rain had stopped, the sun is coming out, and “Mr. President, you know, the people want to see you. Would you be good enough to step into this car, which is open?” He did, of course. That was the beginning of the tragedy. So co-incidence, accident. Take for example, the motorcycle police who were helping the whole trip. They had recording instruments. And as they rode along they recorded everything that these instruments could pick up. And those instruments never picked up the kind of charges that are now being made about bullets from the left and attack from a hill on the left. Every one of those motorcycle recordings negates, negates that thesis. But the law is complicated. It is a risk at all times. Doubleday, my publisher of five books, came to me and said “We want to publish the Supreme Court Justice’s opinion first, just as it comes off the press. And will you sit with one of our editors and analyze it just as it comes off the press?” I did, and that version is still stuck in my mind.

HEFFNER: But why were you concerned, then, Mr. Nizer, about the press? Why…I’ve heard you on The Open Mind address yourself always in your traditional gentlemanly fashion, but with some considerable spirit about the negative role the press has played in our life. And I remember, I think it was in the last program we did together in which you said that you saw that there would be an increase in limitation by the Supreme Court of the United States upon the ability…I won’t say right…upon the ability of the press to run riot. Now, what made you, back at the time of the assassination, and back at the time of the Warren Commission Report say we should be…we should take a lesson from the British in…to the extent that they better balance the Sixth Amendment and the First Amendment?

NIZER: Well, because they are traditionalists much more than we are. It’s as simple as that. Knowing that there must be a protection against even the press, against even the press, the British have taken great pain to see that that’s carried out. The United States, which hungers for sensationalism, and if not sensationalism, then at least deep digging into every situation, has not taken that position, and that’s why you find that dichotomy between the two.

HEFFNER: Are you willing to let us go our way?

NIZER: Yes, but there’s always a way to improve your way. You can go your way, but not mislead the ultimate conclusion. I think that…this wonderfully made motion picture is not accurate.

HEFFNER: But let’s leave Oliver Stone’s “JFK” aside for a moment. I mentioned that merely as a method of getting us into this, this situation because I was so intrigued when I read your commentary of nearly 30 years ago, that you would then talk about this conflict between fair trial and free press, our ability to have both, coming down on the side of what the much more oppressive British do. And I wonder how you have seen that developing through you, through your life in court. Really, indeed, up through Catspaw. How…what has been your, your, your sense of the changing role of the press? Are we in a worse situation now then…

NIZER: I don’t think you can unify the press under one word. We have the scandalous press, we have the responsible press, we have the press that’s wrong but tries to be right. The moment you try to isolate the very element that distinguishes between one sort of another…take for example Catspaw, this new book that I’ve written. Seventeen years a man is held in prison, convicted twice. I appealed twice from what somebody else tried. We win. He’s cleared by an appellate court composed of the highest judges of the state, but seventeen years he’s been in jail.

HEFFNER: What does that say about our system of justice?

NIZER: There are difficulties in every area, where intellectual efforts decide the outcome, and that is why I have led myself so strongly to Catspaw, this book. I demonstrate his innocence. The man who committed the murder confessed. If I were to tell you if we had the time, of just a few facts. There is a man by the name of Sanford, a Satanist. He had a terrible record from childhood up. Jails, drinking, drugs, knife cuttings, and he telephoned his close friend, Mrs. Morrissey…this is in the record, sworn to…and this fellow Sanford, this Satanist, said to her, “I’ve just done something”…this is the night of the murders, “I’ve just done something that I will never get out of. You’ve got to help me get out of the state”. And they had a quarrel and she said “Unless you tell me what you’ve done I’m not going to help you”. Skipping all that detail, he got out of the state the next day, rode to Florida, running from the scene of the murders, came back six months later only after Gold, who was innocent in my judgment, was convicted…had been indicted, pardon, indicted only. So I had felt that it was at least somebody’s duty to see that this was corrected. Now, he had a motive to kill. Sanford had a motive to kill. He…to the lawyer and his wife…the reason he had this motive was he felt that the lawyer was advising…whose name was Pasternak…was advising his girlfriend, with whom he’s been living for 20 years, to leave him because he was evil. And he said if he ever wins her over, I’ll take care of him. It was a direct…by the prosecutor.

In the case, however, of the other side, there was no motive. The prosecutor in an appeal that I argued against him said to the judge, “Your honor”, reading from the way he had summed up to the jury, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, you may wonder why there is no reason given for this murder. The reason is that there is no motive for this murder. We are dealing with a sick man, who the psychiatrist said might burst into flames if he’s ever rejected. And he was not only rejected on the night of the murders, he was ejected. She threw him out of the apartment. And that night the Pasternaks were murdered.” There are all sorts of side issues which bear out the innocence of Gold, who I defended pro bono, just to help to see that justice was done. And all those side issues convey the same conclusion. For example, Sanford didn’t come back from Florida when he…after the murders when he left the city precipitously. He didn’t come back from Florida until Gold was indicted. When Gold was indicted he dared to come back.

HEFFNER: Now, Louis Nizer, let me ask you a question. You know I’m deeply respectful of you. I would say that you have offered a circumstantial case that parallels the circumstantial case that Oliver Stone offers in terms of the assassination of President Kennedy. Now…

NIZER: I would have to say that that would be a bad analogy.

HEFFNER: Tell me why.

NIZER: As I have already said, in Oliver Stone’s situation there was ample evidence all around. That’s why I was able to reverse the guilty verdict twice. Not once, twice. There was evidence all around the situation that the guilty man was Sanford. And the prosecutor, who is now a judge incidentally, a very able man, said that to the jury. He said, I quote him on summation. I was standing there, sitting there, “You may wonder why this murder occurred. What was the motive?”

HEFFNER: Was that while he was the prosecutor?


HEFFNER: Or was that when he became part of the defense?

NIZER: No, no. He never became part of the defense.

HEFFNER: He didn’t.

NIZER: No. This is what he said in his argument against me at the time of the original argument twice. And I quoted him the second time. I quoted him. You may wonder why was this terrible deed done? What was the motive? “Ladies and Gentlemen, I…”, (to the jury), “Ladies and Gentlemen, I have sought in my mind to answer that question and I cannot. There was no motive. He had no reason, Gold had no reason, to want to kill his former Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law. He treated them generously. When he had the divorce he gave them half of the property. There was no reason for him to want to kill them. On the other hand, there was ample reason for Sanford, who between his thumb and his finger had engraved “God is dead”. On his palm he had a swastika, and within the swastika there was a picture of the David, a Jewish representation. He had every reason, in the sense of a rational reason. He was crazy. One psychiatrist stated, seven months before the murders, “If this man is ever crossed, if something happens in which he is put into a position contrary to his wishes all hell will break loose. There will be no ending to his venom”.

HEFFNER: If he had been indicted, and he had been tried, rather than your client on appeal, would you have felt, on the basis of what you just said, adequate in defending him in the absence of better evidence?

NIZER: Yes. I think the lawyer’s duty is not to simply perform for a fee. I think his duty is to see that justice is done, so far as he can. Now he can’t be a court, jury, and investigative staff, but when you read the evidence in this case you have no doubts. You have no doubts at all.

HEFFNER: Now, no doubts about the innocence of your client?

NIZER: And the guilt of Sanford. And finally, Sanford committed suicide, and confessed before he did so.

HEFFNER: In court?


HEFFNER: To the police?

NIZER: No. To friends who testified and told the police.

HEFFNER: Now, if you…in terms of your long years in court, your long years defending your clients…would you consider it an appropriate defense of your client to put someone else in a light that looks as though he might have been the perp rather than your client? Is this a traditional…

NIZER: It is wrong.

HEFFNER: Why is it wrong?

NIZER: Because the man must be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt. In our system of law, you don’t merely have the burden of proving the man guilty. That might be easy. It might be like proving a kid stole some cigarettes. You’ve got to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And the judge so charges the jury. And the judge…the jury. Let me tell you the surrounding circumstances…I’ll just take one moment please.

HEFFNER: Sure. Please.

NIZER: You know the famous playwright who wrote “Death of a Salesman”?

HEFFNER: Arthur Miller.

NIZER: Arthur Miller. Arthur Miller wrote a letter to the district attorney out of the blue. He said, “I noticed that in this crime it was committed by the defendant knocking on the door, and when Pasternak let him in, he lowered a bag he had in his hand and slashed fire extinguisher fluid into his face, thus blinding him. After that, he killed him with 56 strokes of a knife. He didn’t need a pistol.” That was the way the crime started. Arthur Miller wrote an interesting note to the prosecutor. He said, “I’ve observed that there were other murders in Danbury in this area, and in which several in which Sanford was a member, he also used a fire extinguisher to blind his victim”. Once you look into this, this is an extraordinary coincidence. He said this in a letter. Nothing was done about it until I succeeded in winning for Gold.

HEFFNER: How do you explain that the fact that the suggestion that Arthur Miller made and the other suspect items that you’ve mentioned were not pursued by the prosecutor’s office?

NIZER: I have even indicated in my book that…ah, Catspaw, that that’s one of the (???) of this case. Why…why did not all of this evidence been sufficient? Here is a prosecutor admitting to a jury…and I read it from the official record, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, you may wonder why…what was the motive for this terrible crime? I have to…I don’t know of any”. You have this from the prosecutor. So your question is pertinent, and the reason that I have labored so hard in this case to do justice, to save Gold from…who is not guilty…and he comes from a background where a psychiatrist was able to testify that he was suffering from what was called guilt…there is a legal name for it, which escapes me for a second, but I’ll have it in a second…

HEFFNER: This was Survivor’s Guilt.

NIZER: Survivor’s Guilt.

HEFFNER: Because he was a victim of the Holocaust.

NIZER: That’s right.

HEFFNER: He was a survivor of the Holocaust.

NIZER: That’s right. Survivor. He was escaping with his father and mother and his little sister, eight years old, from Auschwitz. In those days, the early days of Auschwitz, the British helped them get out. There were ways of doing it then, which they later closed. The little child, eight years old, pulled away from her brother and ran into the darkness. Gold wanted to follow her, to catch her. The British warned him that if anybody ran, they would withdraw from the scene, there would be more victims. So he left the girl. Didn’t do anything about it. She was later found slaughtered. Gold had a Survivor’s Guilt Complex, the psychiatrist said, which had also much to do with this situation.

HEFFNER: Louis Nizer, obviously on the basis of what you’ve said, agree with you or not, many many people will be reading Catspaw with good benefit. Thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

NIZER: Thank you, Sir.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.