Defending Justice and Fairness

Article excerpt

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

The Alaska Bar Association had a brewing mutiny.

Many members were upset that their annual convention's keynote speaker would be John Yoo, a former Bush administration legal adviser who defended the practice of waterboarding in what became known as "the torture memos."

To salvage the May event, organizers decided to recast Yoo's appearance as a Socratic-style debate with a nationally recognized opponent of such practices.

They didn't have to look to Washington, D.C., to find such a lawyer. Instead, they turned to Steven Wax, a federal public defender from Oregon.

Wax, one of the nation's longest- serving public defenders, has represented multiple defendants in terrorism prosecutions since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They range from Portland lawyer Brandon Mayfield - a Muslim arrested and falsely accused of participating in the 2004 Madrid train bombings - to six Middle Eastern residents seized by the United States and held for years, uncharged, at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. All six have been released to the their homes or to safe, third countries, thanks to the efforts of Wax and his fellow Oregon public defenders.

Most recently, Wax represented Pete Seda, an Ashland arborist convicted in Eugene last fall of tax fraud and of laundering money donated to an Islamic charity he founded.

Seda was sentenced last week in Eugene to 33 months in prison. But in a victory for Seda, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan rejected prosecutors' call for a "terrorism enhancement" that could have added up to five years to that sentence.

Hogan agreed with Wax and fellow defense attorney Lawrence Matasar that the government failed to link Seda to an alleged 1999 plot to funnel the donation to mujahadin soldiers fighting Russian troops in Afghanistan.

Wax has been a leading critic of the U.S. government's decision to declare foreign detainees as enemy combatants in what former President George W. Bush called the War on Terror, denying them the rights guaranteed defendants in the U.S. criminal justice system. Wax is also a nationally recognized voice against the federal Patriot Act, which authorizes, among other things, government wiretaps not approved by judges and government "sneak and peek" searches of private premises without the occupants' knowledge.

For his work defending clients harmed by such changes - and his nearly 30 years defending indigent clients in more mundane cases - Wax won the Federal Bar Association's 2010 Sarah Hughes Civil Rights Award. The award honors one person each year who has promoted civil and human rights and shown leadership in the cause of equality. Previous winners include attorneys who represented Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wax's work is often unpopular. He is now representing Corvallis resident Mohamed Osman Mohamud, accused of plotting to bomb a 2010 holiday tree lighting ceremony at Portland's Pioneer Square.

"His chosen path is usually uphill and into the wind of conventional mindset," his colleague, Bernard Casey, wrote in nominating Wax for the award.

That was not the case with Wax's first job as an attorney, however.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, he went to work for the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office. There, while still a rookie, he helped prosecute "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz.

Thrust into the limelight

A newspaper courtroom artist's sketch from those years hangs on the wall of Wax's 17th floor office in downtown Portland. The sketch depicts Wax - much younger and with much longer sideburns - sitting "third chair" at a courtroom table with Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold and deputy district attorney Sheldon Greenberg.

The sketch depicted a mental competency hearing for Berkowitz, who confessed in 1977 to killing six people and wounding several others. …