BY JENNI FINK ON 5/14/19 AT 12:45 PM EDT
Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers criticized Harvard College’s decision to dismiss a professor as faculty dean after he drew ire for representing disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The lawyers urged the school to uphold the tradition of former President John Adams.
Harvard Law School Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. and his wife, a Harvard Law School lecturer, Stephanie Robinson, were appointed faculty deans of Winthrop House, an undergraduate house, in 2009. Their appointment made them the first African-Americans appointed to the position, then called “master,” in Harvard’s history.
In January, Sullivan joined Weinstein’s legal team, a group of people tasked with building a defense to the multiple sexual assault charges he faced in New York. Allegations against Weinstein sparked the nationwide #MeToo movement. In the months that followed, students called for Sullivan's dismissal after learning about his involvement with the embattled Hollywood mogul.
On Saturday, Dean Rakesh Khurana called the situation in Winthrop House “untenable” and said Sullivan and Robinson would not be continuing as faculty deans after their term ends on June 30. Khurana said his decision was informed by “a number of considerations.” He credited the lack of faculty dean presence in critical moments with contributing to the further deterioration of the climate at Winthrop House. Newsweek reached out to Sullivan but did not receive a response in time for publication.
News of Sullivan’s termination as faculty dean was met with mixed reactions, with some crediting it as the right move and others, including former Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, coming out in opposition.
On Monday, the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL), a statewide association of defense lawyers, issued a statement calling on Harvard to reverse its decision.
“A defense lawyer should never face adverse consequences for representing a person accused of a crime, no matter how reprehensible the crime or repugnant the person may be,” MACDL President Derege Demissie said. “Harvard should uphold the tradition set by one of its most distinguished graduates, John Adams, who defended the British soldiers accused of murder during the Boston Massacre.”
In 1770, Adams represented eight British soldiers accused of murder during a riot, known as the Boston Massacre. Adams, a staunch advocate for America's independence, gave an “impassioned speech,” in his clients’ defense, which the Library of Congress noted resulted in an acquittal.
MACDL pointed to the Constitution, which protects a defendant’s right to the legal representation of their choosing under the Sixth Amendment. The association credited defense lawyers representing the “most reviled defendants” with giving “this essential right life and meaning.”
Sullivan expressed similar sentiments in an email to students in April, saying that denying “unpopular defendants” due process rights would result in America ceasing to be the country “we imagine ourselves to be,” as reported by USA Today.
Danu Mudannayake, a student at Harvard who led the charge in calling for Sullivan’s removal, explained in a February Facebook post that she wasn't opposed to Sullivan defending Weinstein. However, his legal defense of Weinstein had “incredibly harmful implications” on his role as a community leader.
“For victims of sexual assault and rape on this campus who already feel disempowered by the sheer lack of activity in reprimanding such behavior, the developments of Dean Sullivan's professional work are not only upsetting, but deeply trauma-inducing,” Mudannayake wrote.
Mudannayake created a Change.org petition calling for Sullivan’s removal as faculty dean, which gathered 341 of the 500 signatures of its goal as of Tuesday afternoon.
On Monday, Sullivan withdrew from representing Weinstein at the trial, citing "unresolvable conflict" with his teaching at Harvard, USA Today reported. However, he would remain available to the team for advice and consultation.
Weinstein was charged with first- and third-degree rape, two counts of first-degree criminal sexual assault and predatory sexual assault. He pleaded not guilty and faces life in prison.