Based on Roger Adelman’s Oral History for the D.C. Circuit Historical Society
Given 18 years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia, and most of the rest of his long career as a defense attorney, Roger Adelman had an appreciation for the glories of each.
He began his career as a member of the self-proclaimed “Flannery Group” – Assistant U.S. Attorneys hired by U.S. Attorney Tom Flannery (later D.C. District Court judge) in the late 1960s. During Adelman’s early years in the office, misdemeanor cases were tried in the Court of General Sessions. (The Superior Court system had yet to be established.) According to Adelman – and other Flannery hires whose oral histories are part of the DCCHS, e.g. John Aldock – some of the best trial training one could get came from these early days in the Court of General Sessions.
Prosecutors learned the ropes in a manner worthy of a 1940s dime novel. They were handed a case file as they walked into court. No witness prep; it was “fly by the seat of your pants.” At times, once the jury went to deliberate, you were handed the file for the following case and the next show began. The verdict from case one might interrupt your prosecution of case two.
This training stood him in good stead as he moved up the ranks and began prosecuting some of the fascinating and at times notorious cases handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Among those discussed in this Oral History are:
the robbery and shooting of Mississippi senator John Stennis;
the prosecution of two D.C. police officers for the murder of a young woman. Their defense was “folie a deux” – a form of insanity which, they claimed, made them act in an insane way when they were together;
the prosecution of John Hinckley for the shooting of President Reagan, his press secretary, a police officer, and a Secret Service agent. The rulings and verdict in that case led to a revamping of the insanity defense in federal court; and
a series of sting operations so outlandish they seem ripped from the pages of a novel. These included the prosecution of a congressman and senator caught in the ABSCAM scandal, an FBI undercover sting in which the defendants were caught on videotape accepting bribes from a fictitious Arab sheik in return for political favors; and a fencing operation run by an FBI/police task force in which the agents set up a “party” for the fences telling them they would get to meet the Mafia don behind the operation, who turned out to be an FBI agent dressed in a tuxedo and arriving in a limousine.
Perhaps the most unlikely case Adelman prosecuted as an AUSA was in Berlin during the Cold War. An East German citizen had hijacked a Polish airliner and forced it to land in the region of Berlin controlled by the United States. The case was prosecuted in the “United States Court for Berlin” – a court Adelman said had heretofore “never convened.” Adelman was appointed to be an AUSA for Berlin by the Ambassador to West Germany.
In private practice Adelman took on some corporate behemoths. He was involved in early class action lawsuits against the tobacco companies. He also participated in a lawsuit on behalf of Chinese women who were induced to work in the Northern Marianas under the pretense that they would be working in the United States. The only transport to the United States was the garments the underpaid women worked on; these were sold to big name retailers. The lawsuit, against both the manufacturers and retailers, charged involuntary servitude and resulted in meaningful payments to the workers.
As might be imagined, Adelman’s oral history is filled with fascinating trial tips amassed over the decades. Among them: Talk to the local “court watchers” during breaks in the testimony; they have a good sense of how the case is going and often suggest questions that they – and presumably the jury too – would like to have answered. The court stenographer can be a vital resource; (s)he is often more experienced than you, and will look at you to make an objection if you fail to do so.
Adelman’s long and varied legal practice gave him insight and perspective into the worlds of prosecution as well as defense. “Being an AUSA, and standing up in court and representing the United States, is the greatest honor you’ll ever have as a lawyer,” he said. But representing a defendant allows you to help clients deal with the pressures brought to bear by even the prospect of prosecution. “You may represent a man, but his wife has a ton of questions, and while you are not her lawyer, you’re obviously impelled to answer those questions too. . . . [Y]ou’re often dealing with clients who haven’t encountered the criminal justice system before. They had no conception really of what would happen in court and usually their only point of reference was television.” Ultimately, he concluded, “If you want to be an idealist, be a prosecutor; if you want to be a realist, be a defense attorney.”
Roger M. Adelman (Member) born Norristown, Pennsylvania June 25, 1941; admitted to the bar, 1967, District of Columbia; 1969, Pennsylvania; U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court.
Education: Dartmouth College (A.B., 1963); University of Pennsylvania (LL. B, 1966). Recipient, Charles Fahy Distinguished Adjunct Professor Award, 1989. Adjunct Professor , Evidence, Trial Practice, Criminal Law, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C., 1975-1998.
Faculty Member, Federal Judicial Center education programs for federal judges and taught in the Trial Advocacy Program, Harvard Law School, Frequent lecturer, trial practice, litigation and evidence before professional, academic, and law enforcement audiences . Assistant U.S. Attorney, Washington, D.C., 1969- 1987.
Partner, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, Washington, D.C., 1988-1997. Senior Deputy Independent Counsel, Washington, D.C>, 1996. Co-Founder, Master of the Bench, Counselor, President (2005-2006), William B. Bryant American Inn of Court.
Member: District of Columbia Bar; Pennsylvania and American (Member, Sections on: Litigation; Criminal Justice) Bar Associations; Cosmos Club; Lawyers’ Club of Washington. Fellow, American College of Trial Lawyers.
Practice Areas: Criminal Defense; White Collar Crimes; Class Actions; Complex Litigation; Civil Trials; Business Fraud; Medical Malpractice; Professional Malpractice.