Democratic Candidate for President
Newsmaker Home
Print This | Email This

Legal Professionals, see
The Thomson Legal Record for John F. Kerry
Born: December 11, 1943, Denver, Colorado
Occupation: United States Senator
Prior Public Service: Lt. Governor, Massachusetts (1983-1985)
Prosecutor, Middlesex County, Massachusetts (1976-1979)
Lieutenant, U.S. Navy (1966-1970)
Education: B.A., Yale University, 1966
J.D., Boston College, 1976
Newsmaker Profile:

      John Forbes Kerry did not have an extensive legal career prior to entering public office, however, the decorated Vietnam War Veteran turned war protestor and political activist did surprise those who knew him by becoming a prosecutor. Kerry's entry into law was his backup plan: after an unexpected and heartbreaking loss in his run for Congress in 1972, Kerry ultimately decided to enroll at Boston College Law School in 1973. According to The Washington Post, in September of 1973, "Boston College law professor Thomas Carey strode into his first-year torts class and was stunned to see, near the back of one row, 'this tall young fellow I'd been mesmerized by a couple of years earlier testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And there he was, starting off as a regular grunt.'"

      Kerry's path to becoming a prosecutor began in law school. Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker quotes Kerry as saying, "I always had a prosecutor's mind and a prosecutor's bent. It was always what I wanted to do, even in law school. There was a rule in Massachusetts that allowed law students to prosecute misdemeanor trials in front of six-person juries, and I got an unbelievable amount of experience before I even graduated."

      When Kerry graduated from law school in 1976, he was hired by the Middlesex County District Attorney, John Droney, to be an assistant D.A. Droney's health was failing, caused by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as "Lou Gehrig's disease." In 1978, when Droney ran for reelection as District Attorney for the county, he promoted John Kerry to "first assistant district attorney," a role requiring Kerry to be the top administrator for the D.A.'s Office. Cox News Service quotes Peter Agnes, a former assistant D.A. from the time and now a judge, as saying, "There was resentment and jealousy at the prospect of a recent law school graduate being named first assistant, but John won a lot of people over because he performed."

      Kerry is credited with reorganizing, expanding, and modernizing the Middlesex County D.A.'s Office. Kerry went so far as to hire a full-time grant writer to apply for federal grants from the Justice Department, which was awarding funds to some local prosecutor offices. Kerry told Toobin, "I got more federal money than any other office in the country." With the grants, Kerry created victim-assistance and rape counseling units, and organized-crime and arson task forces. Kerry also expanded the number of assistant D.A.'s from just over 20, to nearly 100. Although Kerry was a respected administrator, he earned respect as an attorney by successfully prosecuting a very difficult rape trial against an organized crime figure named George Edgerly.

      Edgerly, who Kerry describes as "one of the state's most notorious gangsters, the number two organized crime figure in New England," had previously been tried and acquitted for the 1959 decapitation murder of his wife. In the 1970's, Middlesex County indicted Edgerly on two counts of rape against a prostitute. The case against Edgerly would be extremely difficult since, given their backgrounds and lifestyles, prostitutes are seldom considered credible witnesses, and this particular prostitute had already admitted lying to the police about Edgerly's attempt to bribe her. Even though this case was anything but a cakewalk, Kerry decided to take it on. The jury convicted Edgerly of the rape, agreeing with Kerry's argument that even prostitutes had the right not to consent to sex.

      Of course, Kerry was not without his detractors. Because Kerry was considered a publicity hound, and had a habit of holding press conferences to announce his administrative coups in the D.A.'s Office, a reporter nicknamed him "Live Shot Kerry." During one of Kerry's few high profile cases, a judge refused to allow Kerry to make an oral argument on a motion, fearing Kerry would use the opportunity to grandstand in front of reporters and cameras.

      After Kerry helped his boss Droney win reelection in 1978, Kerry left the D.A.'s Office and started his own practice with another former prosecutor named Roanne Sragow. Kerry & Sragow opened for business in 1979. One of Kerry's most famous cases from private practice was representing some men who underwent hair restoration surgeries performed by doctors who implanted carpet fibers in the men's scalps. The men developed serious infections and sued for medical malpractice. Kerry, who was well-known for his 1971 congressional testimony against the Vietnam War, in which he uttered his famous question, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" For this 1982 malpractice trial, Kerry recycled his question. According to The Washington Post, "[l]ead plaintiff Charles DiPerri, then maitre d' at the exclusive Brookline Country Club, still remembers Kerry holding up color photographs of an oozing sore in DiPerri's scalp and demanding of the jury -- in an oddly familiar cadence -- 'How do you ask a man to work with the public with his scalp in this horrendous condition?'" The jury agreed with Kerry and awarded DiPerri damages of $88,883.89.

In 1982, Kerry assisted his partner Roanne Sragow in obtaining a new trial for George Reissfelder, who had been wrongfully convicted as the 1967 murder accomplice of an infamous Boston criminal named William "Silky" Sullivan. Reissfelder was serving a life sentence, and in 1980, with the help of a so-called "jailhouse lawyer," a judge decided to appoint Sragow to challenge Reissfelder's conviction. Kerry and Sragow discovered that the convicted murderer, Silky Sullivan, while dying of leukemia in prison, confessed to a priest that Reissfelder was innocent. Kerry and Sragow obtained an affidavit from the priest, confirming that Sullivan confessed that Reissfelder was innocent. With this evidence, and the testimony of a Boston detective who believed that others and not Reissfelder were involved, Kerry and Sragow convinced the judge. Judge Andrew R. Linscott granted a new trial, the district attorney decided against filing new charges, and Reissfelder was subsequently released.

      The timing of this well-publicized win for Kerry could not have been better, as Reissfelder's release preceded Kerry's nomination as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts by two weeks. After winning the general election for lieutenant governor in the fall of 1982, Kerry's legal career came to an end. His next career move came in 1984, when he ran to fill the seat of the departing U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer and decided not to seek reelection.

Ads by FindLaw