The Life and Career of Mayer Morganroth, Defense Lawyer

After Morganroth served in the U.S. Navy from ages 17 to 19, he enrolled in college on a whim. One evening, he ran into some friends who were planning to take entrance exams to attend Michigan State University the next day. Since he had the day off from work, Morganroth decided to join them. That day, as Morganroth waited for his buddies, he wandered to the administration building, where he asked if he could take the exam. Based on his grades in high school and his exam score for the Navy, he was accepted on the spot.

As Morganroth approached his completion of college, he began to contemplate what type of profession he should pursue. Though his parents wanted him to go into medicine, Morganroth chose law. He didn't have to go far to attend law school. Morganroth decided to enter Detroit College of Law, which is now Michigan State University College of Law, and graduated at the age of 23.

The last year Morganroth was in law school, he took the initiative to jump into the legal profession by working for one of Michigan's few appellate attorneys, Meyer Weisenfeld. Though appellate work was difficult in those days, with no Court of Appeal yet, Morganroth's work paid off when he graduated from law school and was admitted to the bar. Because he had made so many contacts with attorneys while working with Weisenfeld, Morganroth was able to open his own appellate firm when he was fresh out of law school.

"I started very young, and I really started by myself. My office has always been me. Although, in the last 20 years, I added my son and two daughters and a few other attorneys, but it's never been a firm of a bunch of lawyers," he said. Throughout the years, Morganroth expanded his practice to include litigation and many other practice areas.

In the early 1980s, Morganroth defended De Lorean Motor Company founder John Z. De Lorean in a case in which he was accused of drug trafficking. In the summer of 1982, De Lorean was approached by FBI informant and former drug smuggler James Hoffman with an "investment venture" that could save his business, which was failing at the time. The "investment" was a scam, and the money that he put out was used to buy cocaine; as a result, he took the heat and was charged with the offense.

Luckily, there was sufficient evidence that De Lorean was a victim of entrapment, and he was found not guilty in August of 1984. In an interview with TIME magazine, months before the court's decision, Morganroth said, "This [was] a fictitious crime. Without the government, there would be no crime."

During the years that he represented De Lorean, Morganroth won 43 cases for him. As a result, De Lorean walked away with about $68 million.

More recently, Morganroth has become known for representing Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian, the notorious pathologist who assisted 130 people with dying in the 1990s. Kevorkian, whose medical license had been taken away years before, was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for the last suicide with which he assisted in 1999 because he literally gave a man a lethal injection, which was ruled second-degree murder.

In prior trials in which Kevorkian was acquitted, attorney Geoffrey Fieger represented Kevorkian, and Morganroth assisted as well. Because Fieger did not have much experience with criminal defense, Kevorkian hired new attorneys, who consequently let him down, and he eventually rehired Morganroth.

"My view [on assisted suicide] is that I don't want people making the decision for me, and I agree with Jack in that respect," said Morganroth. "He doesn't believe that anyone should make a decision for anybody else in that area. If I want to end my life because I'm terminally ill, and I'm in irremediable pain and suffering, I should be able to have that option, too, as should any individual."

After serving eight years and a few months of his sentence, the ailing Kevorkian, who suffers from diabetes and hepatitis C, was released on June 1, 2007. Morganroth was there to greet Kevorkian when he was released. In fact, throughout the years, Morganroth and Kevorkian have become friends.

"As a person, he's quite different from his public image," Morganroth said. "He's sensitive, has a good sense of humor; he loves limericks. He's a very nice, warm guy, and he's also very private."

Since his release, Kevorkian has made a series of global media appearances and plans to lecture at various universities, for which he will probably collect some handsome payments. But according to Morganroth, "With him, money doesn't mean anything, frankly; it never did. He buys his clothes at the Salvation Army. He always had an old, battered-up car and lived in a one-room apartment over a store. He never charged anything for the help he gave. To put it mildly, money means nothing to him."

Morganroth, who also claims he hasn't lost any cases yet (Kevorkian lost his last case pro se), has at least 52 years of cases and experiences under his belt, and he is still thriving.

"People still ask me if I am nervous when I walk into a trial, and I say, 'Of course I am. And the day I'm not, I quit.' If you're not, that means that you don't care for your client's safety or money or liberty," said Morganroth.

Besides devoting most of the hours of his life to his career (he still works a 12-hour day and goes home to do even more work after dinner), Morganroth also invests his heart in his work.

"I've learned that a person is entitled to a defense—especially when it's a constitutional issue. I learned there's a lot of pain, I'll tell you that, and a lot of stress, of course, if it's high profile. If you empathize with your clients, which is my problem, it's a tremendous amount of stress," he said.

Q. What do you do for fun?
A. I don't do much on the side because I see my wife so seldom. When I am not working, I'm with her.
Q. What CD is in your CD player right now?
A. None. I like anything with melody. I don't care if it's opera, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or "Yesterday" by the Beatles.
Q. What is the last magazine you read?
A. The New York State Bar Journal.
Q. What is your favorite TV show?
A. I like Boston Legal, The Sopranos, and 60 Minutes.
Q. Who is your role model?
A. Probably my son. He's been a lawyer with me now for close to 20 years. He's very disciplined—probably more disciplined than I am. He's extremely bright, and I'd stack him against any lawyer in the country.

But for his amount of personal and emotional investment, many critics find Morganroth to appear somewhat apathetic when he has a victory in the courtroom.

"I just start packing up my stuff, put it all away, and walk out. People don't understand; it's not that I'm not excited. It's like a release. It's a relief," he said.

As many other trial attorneys will testify, an attorney who spends a great deal of time preparing for a case usually will win the case.

"The important thing is preparation. Be prepared. 90% of winning is being prepared, and it's a lot of work. You've also got to have a wife (or husband) who understands that you're not going to be around much."

Morganroth also knows that the legal industry relies on serving the customer.

"The client comes first. As long as you're acting within ethics and the law, the client is number one."

Michigan State University


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