The High Times of Gerry Goldstein

The San Antonio lawyer started out defending friends who had been busted for smoking pot. Twenty-five years later, his clients are big-time dope dealers and international cocaine kingpins — and he believes he’s saving the world.

April 1996By Comments

The arrest and extradition in January of reputed Mexican drug lord Juan García Abrego created something of a stampede among criminal lawyers. The McAllen office of Abrego’s longtime counselor, Roberto “Bobby Joe” Yzaguirre, was overwhelmed by sales pitches from attorneys all over the country, forceful or flattering letters and faxes explaining why they and they alone should be hired as part of the defense team. Farther north, in Houston, speculation about who would get the job was rampant. Florida dope lawyers pumped their Texas colleagues (“Is it you?” they wanted to know). One lawyer sparked a blaze of gossip after spying the name “Frank Rubino” on the visitors log at the Harris County jail, where Abrego was incarcerated. (“Wasn’t me,” the Miami attorney for dictator—drug smuggler Manuel Noriega said.)

Though Abrego could be quite charming and humorous—“You’d feel very comfortable if he was selling you a car,” said one acquaintance—he would not hold much allure for the average person. After all, the 51-year-old car thief turned kingpin was alleged to have presided over the flow of Colombian cocaine through northern Mexico into the U.S., an operation that reaped $20 billion a year, according to estimates by the Drug Enforcement Agency. He was believed to be armed and dangerous—Abrego’s indictment charged him with authorizing “the murders of numerous individuals,” which were thought to include everyone from business rivals to nosy journalists. There were additional charges of money laundering, drug smuggling, and attempted bribery. There were dark hints of political assassinations, of corruption within the now tainted administration of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. There was the dubious distinction, in 1995, of a spot on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Innocent until proven guilty, okay, but either way, Juan García Abrego looked at best like a pretty bad guy.

Unless, of course, you were a criminal lawyer: then you knew that everyone was entitled to the best defense possible, that if society cannot treat the worst of us with fairness, then what of the rest of us? Maybe the extradition wasn’t legit. Maybe the investigation was fishy—the DEA and the FBI were rumored to have cut deals with more than seventy felons to get their man. There were lots of maybes, except, of course, for one: The Abrego case was the legal equivalent of a gusher. Along with a fee that could hit seven figures, it offered lots of media coverage that doubled as free advertising—in other words, big money up front and down the road in the form of future clients. Juan García Abrego might get life without parole, but the lawyer who represented him couldn’t lose.

Roberto Yzaguirre knew this as well as anyone, of course, but as the only lawyer actually hired by Abrego, he had other concerns. Having represented clients facing drug-related charges in the Valley for more than twenty years, he knew that alone he lacked the resources to go against the federal government in a case of this magnitude. And as a man whose courtliness belied his shrewdness, he had known whom he wanted as partners from the beginning. Tony Canales, a criminal lawyer from Corpus, was an obvious choice: The former U.S. attorney was an old friend who spoke Spanish and knew the ways of the federal government, particularly the federal government in South Texas, better than just about anyone. But Yzaguirre needed someone else to complete his team, someone who was not just a great trial lawyer and a great drug lawyer but a great book lawyer, someone with the intellect to, at a moment’s notice, tip the vagaries of the Constitution in his client’s favor. Someone who, if need be, could work out the negotiations should Abrego decide to cooperate with the government, testifying against an even bigger fish like, say, Salinas himself. Someone who had no problem representing the worst of us and, in fact, saw that as a matter of conscience. When you came right down to it, there really was just one man for the job.

“Goldstein!”

“GOLDstein!!”

“GOLDSTEIN!!!”

THE ATTORNEYS GATHERED IN MIAMI’S fountainebleau hotel for the 1996 midwinter meeting of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers make way for Gerald Goldstein like supplicants in a temple. He has flown in from his San Antonio home this morning and will fly out shortly after his speech. Whipping a cart of visual aids through the hotel’s gilded warrens, he has the air of a man unable or unwilling to downshift. Even without his haste, Goldstein would stand out amid these cheerful conventioneers in their sport shirts and jeans. His salt-and-pepper hair is slicked back, taming curls that twenty years ago approximated an Afro. Long past the age of love beads and bell-bottoms, when he first made a name for himself defending conscientious objectors, Goldstein now wears scholarly tortoiseshell glasses, which complement his impeccably crafted sport coat, which is enhanced by a contrasting orange-and-green tie and the crispest white shirt. At 52 he is trimmer than he was at 42, his hawk-like nose and deepening crow’s-feet telegraphing wisdom, not age. The enfant terrible has become an éminence grise, simultaneously elite and egalitarian. “Hey, brother! Hey, brother! Hey, broth-er!” he says by way of greeting, having his cake and eating it too.

So it has always been with Gerald Goldstein, a man who has made his reputation championing civil rights and his fortune defending dopers, two activities that frequently and fortuitously overlap. He has never shied away from a controversial case—in 1974 Goldstein, no fan of government censorship, defended a San Antonio theater manager’s right to show Deep Throat and, in 1990, rap group 2 Live Crew’s need to be as nasty as they wanted to be; infuriated by overzealous prosecutors, in 1980 he represented one of Texas House Speaker Billy Clayton’s cronies in the kickback scandal known as Brilab. Even so, it is safe to say that drugs have been Goldstein’s life. It was his 1978 appeal that reversed the convictions in what has come to be known as the Piedras Negras Jailbreak Case, in which two Texans stormed the border city’s jail and, Rambo style, freed fourteen American inmates charged with drug offenses. Goldstein was an early and influential supporter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is a counselor and loyal friend to superhead Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, wrote an amicus brief on behalf of Noriega, and has defended on drug charges the sons of such prominent men as BeBe Rebozo and assorted San Antonio swells. The majority of newspaper clippings framed on his office walls have to do with his victorious work in the field of drug-related defense work: a 1979 High Times article that named him one of the top ten dope defenders in America; a 1983 San Antonio Express story headlined POT CONVICTIONS THROWN OUT, POLICE SURVEILLANCE WAS TOO ORWELLIAN; a 1985 Texas Lawyer story titled “U.S. Must Return $10 Million to Drug Smuggler”; a 1989 San Antonio Express-News story headlined FEDERAL CASE DEAD IN RECORD DRUG DEAL. Let the general public scowl—“Rich libertarian is druggie mouthpiece” the late, irascible Express-News columnist Paul Thompson declared in another clipping on the wall—Gerald Goldstein loves his work.

And why shouldn’t he? It has earned him the profound respect of his colleagues, who elected him president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in 1992 and president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in 1994 and 1995. He is a sought-after commentator on CNN, a frequent contributor to op-ed pages, the kind of guy whose number is in the Rolodexes of reporters around the nation. If Americans are ambivalent about drugs—outraged by their destructiveness but bitterly divided over what to do about them—then Gerry Goldstein is the embodiment of that ambivalence, and has profited mightily from it.

Nowhere is this ambivalence more apparent than here, in Miami, a place revitalized in part by a TV show about two drug-busting cops in silk suits, a place that now pays the price for its drug culture in the form of murdered tourists. The lawyers gathered here seem immune to this irony, absorbed in the investigative databases on display or in swapping war stories (“I got a reversal in my drug case—that means my client will only have to serve ten years back to back,” says one. Says another: “I just won a two-billion-dollar forfeiture!”) They gossip—“I hear Abrego’s cooperating, so it’ll be an easy case for y’all,” one lawyer says, baiting Goldstein—or they make plans for drinks at the Delano, the hot new hotel owned by Ian Schrager, the man who helped make cocaine a glamour drug in the eighties with his club in Manhattan, Studio 54. The drug culture isn’t just a culture nowadays but an economy, one that is so pervasive that many Americans regard it as unavoidable.

So, predictably, when it comes time for Goldstein’s speech, drugs aren’t the problem, the government is. The subject of the seminar is “Motions That Win Cases,” and Goldstein’s topic is “Bail and Detention Hearings: Making the Best of a Bad Situation,” but it’s really the Gospel According to Gerry. He flips through case after case on the overhead projector, using an illuminated pointer for emphasis. His voice picks up velocity as he speaks; five minutes into his subject, he is furious. “No, no, said the Queen,” he intones, paraphrasing his favorite quote, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “First the punishment, then the verdict.” To Goldstein, we are seeing a serious threat to liberty as we know it. The evidence: minimum mandatory sentences in drug cases; the Comprehensive Crime Act of 1984, which revamped the federal criminal code to make way for more police officers, more prisons, and more prosecutors while eliminating parole (“The Incomprehensible Crime Act,” he calls it); paid informants as witnesses for the prosecution (“What do you think they’d do to you or me if we paid five hundred thousand dollars to a witness?”); Senate Bill 3, which proposes to make it felonious for an attorney to incorrectly cite the law in a criminal case (“They would indict us like a ham f—ing sandwich if they thinkwe misspoke”); cops who beat prisoners (“I call this the South Texas Miranda warning… you have the right to remain silent as long as you can stand the pain”); the national disgrace that is the warehousing of young African American males, one out of three in California either awaiting trial, in prison, or on parole (“They could be sending these f—ers to Harvard for thirty thousand dollars a year!”).

In Goldstein’s world, every person is always just one lawyer away—one clever motion, one shrewd objection—from jackboots kicking in doors at the direction of elected officials. “There really is just us,” he warns, pronouncing the words as one.

Two hours later Goldstein is still in overdrive. He’s back at the airport, heading for home—San Antonio tonight and then, for the next few days, a frenzied itinerary that includes Houston the next morning, another swing back to Miami, and as soon as possible, a return to Aspen, where Goldstein has a second home and where he indulges his passion for skiing. If he lives in flight, so be it. Life is good, you can have it all. You can have a house in Aspen and your business in San Antonio. You can be a civil liberties hero and a kingpin-defending pariah. You can live on the edge and you can be part of the establishment. You can be a man of ideas and a man of action. You can, you can, you can. Even an airport yogurt dispenser, offering two distinct and traditionally opposing flavors, gets the Goldstein treatment. Faced with the choice of vanilla or chocolate, he opts for a swirl. “I hate giving anything up,” he mutters, an admission that speaks to far more than his preference in snacks.

“YOUR MAMA WAS FINE,” GOLDSTEINsays, consulting a client on a phone he has answered, with a cuff-shooting flourish, at the reception desk in the lobby of Goldstein, Goldstein, and Hilley. “Your family looked good. I explained to them what I thought was going to happen.” It’s a jail call, a client trying to decide between copping a plea or risking a trial. “Often,” he continues, “we have to choose between difficult and unsatisfactory results. We have to choose between what’s bad and what’s worse. There was a large quantity of drugs found on those premises. You were charged with possession. It’s almost a slam dunk.” Goldstein listens for another moment and then takes off his glasses. Today he wears a blue blazer, gray flannel slacks, and a yellow tie, somewhere between canary and lemon. His cowboy boots are buffed to an inky black. “She’s your mama,” he says patiently. “She’s gonna hear what she wants to hear. She’s a wonderful mama and she’s right there. And it’s downhill from here. The court has ruled in our favor and has agreed not to add the gun charge…”

So begins a real-world morning for Gerald Goldstein. The office on the top floor of San Antonio’s Tower Life Building looks like it could have belonged to a criminal lawyer practicing in the sixties: thirty-year-old paneling, dingy floors, fluorescent lighting hanging from oppressively low ceilings, worn leather chairs, and fraying rugs. Maintaining the decor is to some extent a tribute to Goldstein’s 87-year-old father, Eli, who founded the firm, a business-law practice, as a young man. But it also speaks to an essential truth about Gerald Goldstein: He has always been more a creature of time than place, and that time was the civil rights era.

He is a descendant of rabbis and scholars; his great-grandfather played chess with Venustiano Carranza, the great Mexican revolutionary who was elected president in 1914. Goldstein was an only child, pampered, indulged, and inculcated with the liberal politics that were an article of faith in many Jewish homes of the fifties and sixties. “About forty-one years ago his parents were living around the King William area,” Maury Maverick, Jr., explains, in a rumbling, grumbling godlike voice that befits his role as the long-standing liberal conscience of San Antonio. “I was at this Hanukkah party. All of a sudden there’s this little boy who is about ten years old and is being this absolute pain in the ass. ‘Who is that little boy?’ I asked Aileen Goldstein. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘He must be some kid from the neighborhood.’”

It’s lunchtime and Goldstein has driven his ancient bronze-colored Mercedes to the Liberty Bar, a social nexus of San Antonio’s arts and politics set. Goldstein and Maverick, 75, try to meet for lunch at least once a week—maintenance on the father-son relationship they’ve forged over four decades. They make an odd pair: the rumpled, contentious, barely solvent son of a much-beloved congressman and mayor, and his rich, polished protégé, but the affection between them is palpable. “Maury represented an attitude that I thought was righteous and wanted to emulate. He radicalized my concept of the practice of law,” Goldstein says.

“He’s made so goddam much money it’s unbelievable,” Maverick counters when asked for comment on Goldstein’s career. “And he’s spent twice as much.” Goldstein grins gamely but squirms a little under the ribbing.

“I expect to see Tigar tomorrow,” he offers, a reference to an appointment in Denver. He’ll be meeting with members of a law firm there who, along with Michael Tigar, a University of Texas law professor, and former federal prosecutor Ronald Woods, are currently representing Terry Nichols, who is accused of murder and conspiracy in the Oklahoma City bombing case. (Such is life now for high-profile guardians of civil liberties. With the country’s swing to the right, they have found themselves representing not draft resisters, civil rights marchers, and marijuana puffers, with whom they were politically simpatico, but drug lords and religious or property-rights fanatics like the Branch Davidians or Randy Weaver, whose wife and child were killed in an FBI raid.) Goldstein speaks rhapsodically about the firm Tigar is dealing with in Colorado. “It’s all public defenders,” he says, “top to bottom.”

“Gerry takes every now and then some death-penalty cases and poor-boy cases,” Maverick says, ignoring Goldstein as he thoughtfully slathers goat cheese on a piece of bread. “He’s better about that than most lawyers. He’s got a lot of old-time Jewish radicalism in him.”

In the spirit of compromise, the two drift into storytelling. In the late sixties Goldstein had a bachelor’s degree in art from Tulane University and a law degree from the University of Texas, but he lacked… direction. “His problem was he was bored to death with his father’s law practice,” Maverick says. “He came to see me and said, ‘My father is having me send collection letters to people who can’t pay their bills.’” Rather than continue, Goldstein had decided to light out for Europe with his soon-to-be wife, Christine Sayre, a stunning blonde with a British pedigree. (The Goldsteins’ 1969 wedding reception—which could have doubled for a Hairmovie set—was a high point of the hippie era in San Antonio.) Maverick had a better idea: The Vietnam War was raging, and he needed help defending conscientious objectors. Goldstein, who had a medical deferment, took to the work instantly, traveling around the country in a Volkswagen bus equipped with a Persian rug and a slobbering St. Bernard. He had found his calling.

Goldstein was a true believer. So fired up that he seemed, at times, in danger of self-immolation, he found that practicing Maverick’s kind of law was the perfect outlet for his passions. It satisfied his desire to make a difference (“Law is the primary vehicle for social change,” he likes to say) and his craving for the dramatic and the unpredictable (“It’s first-rate street theater,” he also likes to say). Being anti-war and anti-government was not just morally justifiable but glamorous then, a seductive combination for an angry but ambitious young man. Over the next decade, Goldstein, often with Maverick’s help, took a host of heroic stands against the status quo. He represented black clients against racist forces in East Texas, sued for reforms at the Bexar County jail, and served as the call of last resort in death-penalty cases. If veteran liberals like Maverick were fueled by failure—his losses were victories, proof of the enormity of the struggle—Goldstein, craving accolades, played to win. He was thorough, relentless, creative, and intellectual, which was unusual in a trial attorney; early on he distinguished himself as a good book lawyer, swiftly able to turn the tiniest drop in the vast sea of case law to his advantage. “Once he signed on, he would do whatever he had to do to get the perfect defense, even if he had to pay for it out of his own pocket,” says Ed Mallett, a Houston lawyer with whom Goldstein tried many cases. Of course, Goldstein wasn’t as strapped for cash as many of his contemporaries because he had the backing of his father’s firm. “What a lucky little sucker I was to do all this and not starve to death,” Goldstein says.

But after being in practice for just a few short years, Goldstein had found another method of keeping the wolf from the door. The conscientious-objector business was often accompanied by the drug business—in those days, smoking marijuana was part of the left-wing political package. It was then a counterculture credo that marijuana was harmless; nevertheless, the government was leveling harsher and harsher penalties for its use. Pot smokers barely out of their teens could find themselves sentenced to life in prison for having an ounce of the drug. To Goldstein and many others, defending drug users was the moral thing to do. “In those days we only defended nonviolent criminals—our friends in law school, for instance,” says Tom Pearl, an Austin attorney who tried cases with Goldstein.

But taking drug cases had other advantages. San Antonio was then a small city with few lawyers interested in such work; fewer still who were interested in the intricacies of constitutional law. It didn’t take long for word to circulate among local Mr. Bigs that there was a sharp Jewish kid who knew his lawbooks. Goldstein had no problem representing them—their Fourth Amendment right to be protected from illegal searches deserved to be guarded as much as anyone else’s. “How we treat the least of us is how we can ultimately expect to be treated ourselves,” he says. “Bottom line, the Bill of Rights was not designed to protect the majority—it was designed to protect the most offensive and despicable among us.” If his skills got the baddest guys off, well, sometimes an ethical, adversarial system worked that way. Lawyers weren’t paid to make judgment calls.

In 1970, just two years after his admission to the bar, Goldstein had caught the attention of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)—he represented the founder, Keith Stroup, after a drug bust. From NORML came a string of referrals, which further enhanced Goldstein’s reputation. At age 34, he made an even bigger name for himself with his work in the Piedras Negras Jailbreak Case. Though the defendants, Sterling Davis, Sr., and William McCoy Hill, became heroes in Texas for freeing fourteen Americans incarcerated on drug charges under harrowing conditions in a Mexican jail, the Mexican government was outraged and demanded punishment. Bowing to international pressure, the U.S. government indicted the two men on the grounds that a sawed-off shotgun they had used violated gunrunning laws, for which they went to prison. In his appeal, Goldstein argued that the two had unwittingly, as opposed to intentionally, violated U.S. law because neither had known the length at which a sawed-off shotgun was illegal. He won. “You don’t often find a case where ignorance of the law can be cited as a defense, but this particular statute requires an individual to have specific intent to violate known legal duty,” Goldstein told Playboy.In another big case, he represented Carlos Gerdes, who was believed to be the moneyman for the so-called Cowboy Mafia, in a marijuana-smuggling conspiracy case that involved fifteen other defendants.

He was a star. It had not taken long for Gerry and Christine to abandon their hippie digs, which were near the site of what is now Fiesta San Antonio (old friends recall with fondness the lack of potable water, the barber’s chair in the living room, and the frequent explosions from the limestone quarry nearby), and move into a house in the King William Historic District. (Helping them with the restoration was a client, the founder of the local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who faced charges of assaulting a police officer and for smashing a pawnshop window during the Fiesta parade and throwing guns into the crowd. “He thought the revolution had begun,” Goldstein cracks). Goldstein could be seen tooling about town in an old Bentley he had taken in lieu of a fee from a drug client in Austin. He liked the finer things in life, sure, but he had stayed true to his beliefs. Why should you suffer for success?

“Think about this, Maury,” Goldstein posits, back in the present, stabbing his tomato and basil salad with a knife and fork. “Think about the federal sentencing system. Minimum mandatories. The only way you can get around ’em is to satisfy a prosecutor… You get off only if the truth helps the prosecution! Can you imagine?” Something catches Goldstein’s eye, a small distraction. He picks up his napkin and tenderly dabs at a spot on Maverick’s beleaguered tie. “I don’t see how you can call a system fair that metes out justice that way,” he says, continuing his diatribe without missing a beat.

ON A BLUSTERY NIGHT IN ASPEN,Hunter Thompson is late for dinner, but no one seems to mind. “Hunter helps Gerry keep his edge,” Christine Goldstein offers, as if this was a critical role, but not one she aspires to. In that way Chris resembles the wives of venerated rock stars: A striking, reed-thin woman with a tumble of blond hair, she is cool and glamorous and has constructed a life that does not require her husband’s presence. Hence, Aspen: This sprawling, airy log cabin with its impeccable interiors began as a home away from home, but as Goldstein’s passion for skiing grew and his passion for privacy along with it, the vacation home became, essentially, the real one. Aspen might seem a curious choice for a civil rights attorney; it is by Goldstein’s own admission “full of healthy white people,” so fatuously devoted to the rich that it makes New York’s Upper East Side or Beverly Hills look positively proletarian. But the Goldsteins’ sense of the place was shaped by an earlier time, when Thompson ran for sheriff and the town was divided between hip, dope-smoking kids and doughy middle-aged, middle-class types.

Goldstein has had the kind of day that would exhaust a normal man, even a normal attorney. Up at six in the morning, he has flown from San Antonio to Denver for various appointments around town and then, in the afternoon, represented a client in a hearing in federal court. The woman, a pretty blonde in her forties, was facing a ten-year mandatory sentence for the delivery of one pound of cocaine; he had represented her before, a decade or so ago, in Texas. Anyone who spends time with Goldstein cannot help but notice how much the drug culture has become his culture. He has rescued friends time and again from jams, some who are now nothing more than walking casualties of a different sort of war, a fact he seems oblivious to.

Thompson could fall into this category. The erstwhile gonzo journalist, whose drug experiences were extensively chronicled in the brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,now has, at 56, the air of a wounded veteran. He’s a tall, anxious, bald man with a penetrating but perpetually shifting gaze, someone whose sentences dip, soar, and then trail into the unknown, like an aircraft on a reckless but unavoidable mission. How much of this is the result of decades of substance abuse is impossible to tell, and of no consequence to the Goldsteins, who dote on him like an errant child. “Do I have a claim on this, Gerry?” Thompson asks, displaying a newspaper ad for a new cable TV cartoon character called Duckman, which quotes from Thompson’s work.

“Sure you do,” Goldstein says.

Because Thompson is not only a friend but also a client, dinner—Chris’s stunning creation of leeks and salmon in a fish-shaped puff pastry, salad, and pasta puttanesca—must wait just a bit longer while Goldstein attends to business. Thompson was arrested for impaired driving last November and, with Goldstein and four other lawyers, is looking forward to his trial. Goldstein has alleged that the police had no probable cause to stop the car, and he shows Thompson how the transcripts of police radio conversations can be read to support his claim. “Okay, okay, Hunter,” Goldstein says, excitedly scrolling the text on his computer screen to highlight places where the police seem to be speaking in code to protect themselves. “Now we’re getting some fun here.”

Only the most privileged could ever dream of converting their DWIs into a Fourth Amendment showdown, but that is one of the pluses of being in Goldstein’s orbit. In return, he gets access to the kind of secret social frequency that most people could never get on their dials. He knows which national celebrity has a girlfriend who needs help on her dope charge, which prominent executive had a son who narrowly escaped a grand jury indictment in Florida. Gossip, like fine food or fine wine, should be of the best quality. Someone brings up CBS newsman Ed Bradley, in town for a bit. “He’s fighting for his job,” Thompson cracks. “You know CBS is a Nazi group, don’t you?”

The conversation veers rightward to militia members and the fallout from Oklahoma City. Thompson, something of a gun nut, is not entirely unsympathetic, but Goldstein grows glum. He doesn’t see them as the same kind of freedom fighters as his generation of sixties radicals. “I fear it is that politically we were unable to effect change because we expressed a hedonistic Spock-baby philosophy,” he says.

As anyone over forty knows, the pacific hedonism of the seventies gave way to the materialistic hedonism of the eighties, and the drug of choice changed to cocaine in all its variants, a drug for the very rich or the very poor, perfect for a society losing its middle. Drug dealing was no longer a casual enterprise; the dealers weren’t just college kids with VW buses anymore, but foreigners with guns or ghetto kids with nothing to lose. And as the federal government became more successful at stopping drug smuggling in Florida, the game shifted to Texas. For Goldstein—who believes the cocaine explosion was a result of the government’s destruction of the marijuana industry—business was never better.

Throughout the eighties, he represented bigger and bigger fish. In 1985 Goldstein forced the federal government to return $10 million in assets to a Sherman drug smuggler, the largest forfeiture in the country at the time. He freed the men arrested in the biggest marijuana seizure in San Antonio history—$5.7 million worth. He represented Miami businessman Danny Vilarchao (a “mobster,” according to columnist Paul Thompson), who was charged with selling DEA agents 4 kilos of cocaine with the promise of 160 more. Florida congressman Richard Kelly hired Goldstein to represent him in the political kickback scandal known as Abscam because of his success in the Cowboy Mafia trial. In every case, Goldstein was as scrupulous about his professional ethics as he had been in the early days, when he felt protective of his father’s practice: When a client called and confessed to jumping bail, for instance, Goldstein wasted no time in ordering the man to turn himself in. “He would use words that he would be proud to hear replayed in a courtroom, because they might be,” says colleague Ed Mallett.

Goldstein became known for the kind of legal legerdemain that astonished his colleagues and, as the drug crisis deepened, infuriated the general public. He overturned the conviction of three marijuana growers by proving that the police telescope used by the investigators was too strong (powerful enough to see through partially closed blinds, it violated the defendants’ “legitimate expectation of privacy”). In what has come to be known as the Mr. Jake Case, Goldstein won probation for a client arrested while unloading 100,000 pounds of marijuana by proposing that evidence used in a previous drug trial, which produced a hung jury, should be subject to the double-jeopardy standard—and therefore was inadmissible in a second case. He went after the federal government’s drug-courier profile (used to justify searches) by proving that, counter to the objective criteria required by law, officers were using their intuition to stop suspects. “He looked like a dirtbag, but he was traveling first class” is the way Goldstein describes the officers’ modus operandi. In all cases, constitutional rights were indisputably protected and, most likely, the guilty went free. “In spite of my lifestyle and having succumbed to greed,” Goldstein told a reporter in 1989, “I’m still a child of the sixties. It’s fun to go up against that system.”

But as the eighties progressed, Goldstein looked less like a countercultural icon—an advocate for the downtrodden—and more like a prosperous member of the establishment. He began to take time off. He took up sailing, buying a forty-foot boat from Racehorse Haynes called the Esprit Libre,and raced in national competitions. Tired of sailing, he took up skiing and traveled as far as Argentina in search of perfection on the slopes. He spent money faster than even he could make it—whether he was chartering planes or finding just the right white shirt. “Anything he does, he does with a vengeance,” says one friend, “whether it’s skiing, defending somebody, or anything else.” “Anything else,” according to friends and associates, was Goldstein’s passion for drugs. Those who know him well say that he used drugs on more than a casual basis, which became a topic of local gossip. Talk of his own drug use, however, is one of the few subjects that causes the loquacious Goldstein to turn reticent. “I’m a child of the sixties,” he says. “Let’s just say I probably couldn’t pass the security check for a Supreme Court nomination.”

THE HEARING AT THE FEDERAL COURTHOUSE in downtown Houston on this February day has not attracted much media attention. In the matter of United States of America v. Juan García Abrego,there is only a bit of scheduling to attend to. Present for the government in the windowless, fluorescently lit, high-ceilinged room is special prosecution chief Bernie Hobson and the lead prosecutor in this case, Melissa Annis, a thirtysomething straight-arrow known for her prosecutorial zeal—she has devoted almost a decade to bringing Abrego to justice. Across the room sits Roberto Yzaguirre with his team, Tony Canales and Gerald Goldstein. The defense wears good suits and appears confident and amenable; these are middle-aged men, old friends at the peak of their careers, for whom a case like this appears to hold little mystery. Today the parties swiftly agree on a trial date of September 16, adjourn, meet briefly with reporters, and then head for the office or, in the case of the defense, the airport. If you happened by, the proceedings might have resembled any big corporate case, which, of course, it is.

The gossip among Texas criminal defense lawyers has been that Abrego isn’t such a big fish—he’s past his prime, they say, nothing more than a sop offered by Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo to Bill Clinton. The real guys remain in the shadows, international investors protected by their money, their anonymity, and most likely, their lawyers. The drug business is now worth billions—$60 billion is grossed annually on the black market; $100 billion is spent fighting it by the government. It is a global enterprise in which so many competing interests are involved that shutting it down seems impossible. For that reason the drug business and the epidemic of crime it has spawned looks, to most people, far, far more dangerous and all-powerful than Goldstein’s lifetime adversary, the federal government, which, however misguided, is trying to stop the flow of drugs into homes and communities. To those citizens, the larger enemy is the people who are perpetuating the enterprise that is killing American children, generations of them. Not so, to Goldstein of course. “It’s poverty, not drugs, that causes crime,” he insists.

Even so, most defenders of constitutional rights know they’ve come a long way from those suburban kids protesting the war with a toke or two. History has fashioned a test for the prominent attorneys who declare that they represent high-profile but despicable defendants for our sake. Sometime after the Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, the judge in the case, David Russell, heard Gerry Goldstein and the late Abbie Hoffman’s attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, on Charlie Rose’s show, talking about the duty of all lawyers to represent unpopular clients. An intermediary for the judge telephoned Goldstein the following morning, looking for representation for Terry Nichols, who, his defenders believe, is a victim of an overzealous criminal investigation by the government. “We had lunch the next day and [Goldstein] was freaked,” recalls Lefcourt. “Fortunately, two very good lawyers stepped up to the plate.” Representing a white male who allegedly murdered 168 innocent men, women, and children to prove his hatred for the federal government did not stoke the flames of Goldstein’s sense of righteousness. At least the drug lords’ victims, though they may be numerous, are anonymous; Oklahoma City was not his kind of war.

Goldstein is slowing down, anyway. His firm continues to do pro bono work, and he still devotes time to causes. Citing civil rights violations, he is currently fighting the Internal Revenue Service’s attempt to force lawyers to report the names of clients who paid fees of more than $10,000 in cash. But he longs for the slopes of Aspen in the way he once longed for the courtroom; he loves the feel of his body smashing through the racing flags at breakneck speed, of winning in that way.

Leaving the Houston hearing, Goldstein is undecided about his plans. Should he go to Cumberland Island, a speck of sand off the coast of Georgia, where his wife and son are visiting her family? Or should he just head home to Aspen, where he could get in a few more days of skiing? Faced with such a dilemma, he telephones his San Antonio office to consult his secretary, Diane Doege, a wise and witty woman who has worked for him for more than twenty years. “It’s not as if you’ve never been skiing before,” she tells him, and Goldstein nods, agreeing to go to Cumberland Island. “It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?” he asks her. “Isn’t it?”

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