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Underdog champ

Dave LaneIT’S far from a secret that David Lane has a thing for the underdog.

He is ready and willing to defend society’s most unpopular, even loathed, figures — everyone from murderers to Nazis to radical leftist professors who say outrageous and inflammatory things.

He loves nothing more than to be the lone defender who steps up to help the harried Frankenstein monster, pursued by the enraged, torch-bearing villagers — the “howling mob,” as he likes to call them.

He is very often not paid for what he does, and hardly ever thanked. The Denver-based criminal and civil rights attorney has the most thankless of jobs.

In fact, he is often even more hated than his clients. He has an impressive collection of hate-inspired, often threatening, emails and phone messages to prove it. He put the most colorful of these onto a CD and likes to play it at parties, calling it “My greatest hits.”

One is tempted to call David Lane a modern Don Quixote, the fabled character whose romantic idealism led him to raise his lance at such formidable foes as windmills.

Lane, dressed in jeans and a sweater in his attractive downtown office, chuckles at the comparison.

“I practice law at the mercy of those I torment on a daily basis,” he says in a quiet and casual tone that belies the pit bull reputation he has earned in many courtrooms.

“The windmills I tilt at, I can actually bring down. Unlike Don Quixote, who had a hopeless task — tilting at windmills that were never going away — I actually can get results. This government and this country give me the tools necessary to get results, to bring the windmills down. If I were merely tilting at windmills, with no payoff or hope of success at the end, maybe I would still do it, but it would be much more difficult.”

There is also a dimension to his character, Lane admits, that relishes the opportunity to confront such powerful foes, and sometimes to emerge from the fray victorious.

“I like the notion of clamping down the lid, turning up the heat and waiting for it all to blow up,” he says, “meaning that it’s good for society. When were are in turmoil, discussing different ideas in the press and in society generally, that’s America at its best.”

BEING Jewish — and coming of age during the turbulence of the 1960s — made Lane into the attorney he is today, he says without hesitation.

“My uncle escaped from Nazi Germany with his mother, with the shirt on his back, and that was it,” he says.

“My parents and my uncle told me stories of that. They always used to say, constantly, ‘Don’t ever for one minute think that it could not happen here.’”

Hence, his passion for civil rights — and it definitely is a passion — came to him in the most natural of ways.

“Being a Jew, you almost can’t help but have an interest in civil rights, if you’re at all aware of the world and your place in it. Given that sort of state of mind and having grown up in the 60s, I have always been active and interested in various civil rights issues.”

Lane, 55, was a 1972 graduate of George Washington High School. The school had just integrated when he started attending, and the ensuing riots triggered by the sudden and “jarring” ethnic changes closed it down for six weeks

“All those things had a big impact in my life,” Lane says. “Being aware of the government’s relationship with its citizens, growing up during the Vietnam era where every 18-year-old boy had to confront his relationship with the government head-on made me think about all these things.”

His family was not particularly religious, but were loyal members of Temple Emanuel, whose spiritual leader at the time, the late Rabbi Earl Stone, is well remembered by Lane as “a good man.”

While Judaism in a religious sense was never a powerful force in his life, Lane says that Jewishness in an ethnic and social sense certainly was.

“My dad always used to say, ‘You can consider yourself the holiest Jew on the planet or you can disavow your Judaism completely, but when it comes time to decide who gets put in an oven, you’re a Jew.’”

Empathizing with and defending the underdog, Lane believes, is among the most Jewish of ethics.

“Truly, the Jews have been on the receiving end of that kind of treatment for thousands of  years. If there’s any group of people out there who should be sensitive to the howling mob mentality, and how dangerous it is and how it has got to be stopped and how fairness and due process must prevail, it’s the Jews.”

His interviewer calls forth a quote from a much earlier interview with a Jew — 60s radical Abbie Hoffman — who told the IJN in 1985 that the “Jewish conspiracy was alive and well.”

Lane understands perfectly and agrees totally.

“The reason why Abbie Hoffman said the Jewish conspiracy is alive and well is because it’s Jews who are constantly out there in the forefront of civil rights.”

Which doesn’t mean that those who disagree with Jews, or even those who hate Jews, don’t have the same rights, Lane is quick to add.

“I’ve represented Nazis in Denver who wanted a parade permit on Martin Luther King Day. I helped them get it. I’ve represented white supremacists, a lot of them, anti-Semites of all varieties.

“And I have never lost a moment of sleep, because . . . if you believe that suppressing bad ideas is a good idea, you’ve got the wrong idea. I believe in the marketplace of ideas. I want Nazi ideology out there in the marketplace of ideas. I want people to be able to look at it, analyze it and then reject it. And I trust people will, because basically I think people are good.

“But I don’t think it’s the place of government to be deciding what ideas are on the shelves of the marketplace of ideas. That leads to repression, to a lack of freedom, to dogma, to Jews being targeted because the government doesn’t like their ideas.”

GIVEN his background, it’s a no-brainer that after earning his law degree from UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law in 1980 (his undergraduate degree came from CU three years earlier), Lane chose to begin his career as a public defender with the New York City Legal Aid Society

Life as a corporate attorney or, worse, a prosecutor, held very little attraction for him.

“Getting out of bed and going after money has never been a motivator for me,” he says, “and in terms of being a prosecutor, getting up in the morning and deciding that I’m going to inflict pain and suffering on other people because I think they deserve it, has never inspired me.”

What does inspire Lane is standing up to protect the rights of individuals, “even in the face of the howling mob calling for that person’s head.”

A casual list of Lane’s more recent and high profile clients offers an example of what sort of “heads” he’s talking about.

• His best known case to date was the unsuccessful attempt of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill to regain his job and collect damages after his firing. Churchill and Lane argued that CU fired the professor because of controversial remarks he made about 9/11; the university argued that the firing was inspired by shoddy research and plagiarism.

• Lane represented Jay Bennish, an Aurora high school teacher who was suspended after a student taped him making anti-US remarks in class.

• He unsuccessfully represented several protesters who were arrested after trying to disrupt a recent Columbus Day parade in Denver.

• Lane is currently representing Timothy Masters, who served 10 years in prison after a murder conviction that was later overturned, in a civil rights lawsuit against two former Larimer County district attorneys.

• He was part of an ACLU legal team which successfully challenged a law forcing public school teachers and students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

• Lane filed a federal suit in Denver, on free speech grounds, on behalf of Steven Howards, a Golden, Colo. environmental consultant, who was handcuffed by the Secret Service after he approached former Vice President Dick Cheney to “speak his mind in a public place” about US actions in Iraq.

• Days after the “Balloon Boy” incident in northern Colorado, Lane announced his representation of Richard Heene, father of the supposedly airborne boy, who may be charged with conspiracy and false reporting.

• A fervent opponent of capital punishment, Lane has sought to overturn several death penalty convictions throughout the country. In 2008, he won a life sentence for Juan Quintero, convicted in Texas of killing Houston police officer Rodney Johnson and originally sentenced to death.

WHAT ties this diverse caseload together, Lane says, is one common characteristic: They all revolve around government abuse of power.

Lane considers it his primary duty to challenge power — read ‘government’ — as it seeks its own avenues to justice.

“In every criminal case, my job is to make sure the government can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt and if they can’t, this guy is walking out the front door.

“My job is to stop the government from killing people, because ultimately I think that’s a human rights violation. My job is to enforce civil rights in this country, with the tools that the government has given me to do that. Every single case I have is designed to one thing and one thing only, and that is to control  your government.”

He is asked why he phrases that sentence as “your” government.

“I normally say ‘your’ government because I want people to understand  that what the government is doing is being done in your name. It’s clearly our government. I consider myself to be one of the most patriotic people in this society because I am charged with enforcing the Constitution. That’s all I do, every single day. My job is stop the cops from trampling on your rights, or to stop the government from putting a gag in your mouth, or killing its citizens.”

Lane’s world view casts the government — any government — as an entity that is inherently drawn to power and, unless challenged, to use that power against its citizens.

“History has proven over and over again that the most dangerous entity on the planet is an unchecked government,” Lane says.

“They’ve proven it over thousands of years and the Jews have been on the receiving end of that proof far more often than they have any right to be. My Jewish identity is such that I am well aware of that fact.”

One of the most dramatic examples of government’s current abuse of power, in Lane’s view, is the detention of terror suspects at the US military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He is currently representing five detainees there, all pro-bono.

“It’s my government — your government — violating people’s human rights,” he says simply. “I will not stand idly by and watch that happen.”

NOR will he apologize for his work.

Lane is nothing if not defiant, especially on those cases which have generated the most intense public wrath.

Ward Churchill immediately comes to mind.

While Lane doesn’t venture to answer whether he agrees or disagrees with Churchill’s politics, he insists that the professor’s infamous “Little Eichmanns” comment was widely misunderstood, not only by the public but by CU regents themselves.

He contends that Churchill didn’t mean to compare 9/11 victims with the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, but was citing a quotation first written by Hannah Arendt in The Banality of Evil, in which she referred to the bureaucrats who, perhaps unknowingly, contributed to Nazi policies.

“How many of us are out there in the world doing things without ever thinking of the wider consequences or repercussions of what we’re doing?” he asks.

“So we’re little Eichmanns, causing untold pain and suffering among people, without even thinking about it.”

Nor will Lane make any excuses for his unswerving opposition to capital punishment, even in the most heinous of cases.

He spent two months in Houston last year, defending the aforesaid death row client, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who had been deported for sexual molestation of a 12-year-old girl, snuck back into the US, got arrested, and from the backseat of a police car, murdered a police officer.

“I went down to Texas, tried that case, and he got a life sentence,” Lane says.

“That’s not just tilting at windmills, but actually getting some bang for the buck. The odds were way against that guy. To not get a death penalty in Houston on an illegal immigrant child molester who killed a cop — the odds were about a billion to one on that.”

And “it feels great,” says Lane, to have succeeded in saving that defendant’s life.

“No country on earth should have the power to kill people. I always taught my kids as my parents taught me — which I think is part of Judaism — your behavior is defined by who you are, not by the person you are dealing with.

“We as a society have no business stooping to the level of my death row clients and acting like them, just because they deserve it.

“We as a society are better than that and the death penalty is a reflection of everything that is wrong with American society. It’s a reflection of racism, classism, vengeance, mob mentality. It brings out the worst in everyone in our society.”

There are also less philosophical reasons to abolish the death penalty, Lane contends, such as the fact that significant numbers of people, later found to be innocent, have been wrongly executed.

“We have executed innocent people and we will continue to do that,” Lane says.

“That’s a good practical reason not to have it, but the true reason I believe it should not exist is that we are better than that. That is not who we are. When life becomes cheap, everybody on the planet is in danger.”

TO be sure, David Lane is a determined idealist and an unapologetic liberal.

His opponents, however, would be well-advised to never, ever, consider him a pushover.

Lane knows that any sign of softness or weakness on his part will only strengthen the hand of his opponents, and he considers them anything but soft or weak.

“In order to get into the arena and fight these sons of bitches, you’ve got to be the meaner of the two sons of bitches,” he says with a smile. “There are no rules in a knife fight, as they said in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’”

And he is very clear on who his enemies are.

“I’m referring to the government’s lawyers — the people who are in favor of kicking down doors at three in the morning without warrants, the people who are in favor of torturing detainees, the people who are in favor of sticking needles in people’s arms until they’re dead. These are not kind and gentle people.”

Against such foes, Lane says, he simply can’t afford to turn the other cheek.

“When you’ve got them by the throat, if you don’t slice it, you’re going to lose,” he says, but then pauses, his face shifting from a combatant’s expression back to that of an idealist.

“But you can never lose sight of the goal, which is the vindication of  human rights.”

Our print VIP special section includes profiles of community volunteer extraodinaire Scott Levin, Feldman Mortuary’s Jim Cohen and adult educator Elinor Greenberg. Get your copy by subscribing to the IJN or contact Carol at (303) 861-2234 or [email protected] to purchase individual issues.

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