The King of Cold Cases Is Taking on The Jinx’s Robert Durst

John Lewin has built a career on prosecuting cold cases. As well known for his offbeat style as for his winning record, he’s readying for his biggest trial yet
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Toward the end of the trial, Lewin went so far as to turn the cross-examination of Shapiro’s final witness into a game, asking him to push a portable “BS button” if he heard a lie while Lewin read a statement from Bradford. As the prosecutor went on, the witness kept poking at the button.

“It’s better than a movie,” a law clerk observed afterward. And it was.

Following five weeks of trial and nearly three days of deliberation, the jury found Bradford guilty, and Judge Curtis B. Rappe sentenced him to 26 years to life in prison. “I’m an innocent man, wrongly convicted,” Bradford declared. His case is on appeal.

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Any attorney would be foolish not to take the jury selection process seriously. But trying to find the right mix of people to ensure the best possible outcome can be especially challenging for a cold case prosecutor. The defendant is often older and may be free on bail, making it difficult for jurors to imagine the person capable of violence. Moreover, rather than having a handful of weighty clues, Lewin’s cases can involve a large number of circumstantial details as well as gaps in the evidence. For instance, Lewin couldn’t explain why Bradford decided to kill Lynne Knight two months after the breakup. He never tried to hide such loose ends, either, instead trusting the jury that he’d helped assemble. Jury selection can be a particularly lengthy process with Lewin. “If the judge will allow him, he’ll take a very long time,” says Judge Lauren Weis Birnstein, who once supervised him. “He needs jurors that can draw reasonable inferences from the evidence.”

Lynne Knight
Lynne Knight

Photograph courtesy Clair Knight

Hans Parent describes himself as the Bradford jury’s “problem child”; he believed there might be reasonable doubt about Bradford’s guilt before finally arriving at a guilty verdict. “To be honest, I didn’t really like Mr. Lewin. I thought he was kind of like a bully,” he says. “But by the end of the trial, I had a lot of respect.”

“People initially, if they’ve never met John and they don’t know who he is, are almost offended by the way he interacts with them,” says Safarik. “But the people who have worked with him for a long time really respect him even if they don’t like him—and there are a lot of attorneys that don’t like him.”

In their book You’ll Never Find My Body, Don Lasseter and Ronald E. Bowers, a former prosecutor for the Los Angeles D.A.’s office, briefly focus on Lewin when he served as cocounsel to attorney Beth Silverman in a case against an elementary school teacher who’d killed his wife. Dismissed as an assistant, Lewin is portrayed as rambling and attempting to entertain with a comedy routine about doughnuts. “John thinks very well of himself, and he thinks very well of his talents,” says Bowers. “If it had not been for Beth Silverman, there would not have been a conviction.”

When I tell Lewin he was described as an assistant in the book, he sounds irritated for the first time in my conversations with him. He explains that he got Bowers removed from the trial after he caught him taking photographs, which was forbidden. “I don’t really know what he’s getting at,” says Bowers. Silverman chose not to comment.

Defense attorney Mark Overland also questions Lewin’s style while admitting that it worked for him on a 2002 cold case Overland defended. But cold case victories say less about prosecutorial skill than they do about the nature of such cases, Overland says. So many years have passed since an offense that witnesses are hard to find or are dead, and potentially exonerating evidence may have disappeared. “It’s the prosecutor who runs the court,” he says.

His client back then was an engineer, like Lynne Knight’s killer, and they shared the same last name: William Terry Bradford racked up more than $30,000 in back alimony and child support during a separation from his wife, Barbara. After they sold the family home as part of the divorce proceedings, she garnished his share of the profits. In September 1988, the couple’s 20-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son found Barbara dead in her living room. She’d been shot five times. Lewin argued that William had climbed a neighbor’s wall when escaping the house. But Overland contended that William, who was in his midfifties when Barbara died, was too old to haul himself up and over.

“The defense made it sound like he had to be Rambo,” says Lewin. So for a PowerPoint presentation he offered images of active older men, Clint Eastwood among them. The wit only sharpened Lewin’s argument. William Bradford was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 26 years to life.

“It was very cartoonish,” says Overland, “and his argument—I thought it was pretty ludicrous, but I guess the jury liked it.”

Lewin sounds deeply satisfied about defendants who have lost to him in court. “They all think they can beat it,” he says. “They all think we don’t have a case. I wait for that moment, and you see it in their faces: ‘I’m going to get convicted.’ ”

Lewin is telling me about Edmond Jay Marr, who stabbed Elaine Graham to death in 1983. The 29-year-old nurse had dropped off her two-year-old daughter, Elyse, at the baby-sitter’s and vanished after driving to class at Cal State Northridge. Eight months passed before hikers discovered Graham’s skeletal remains in Chatsworth.

A knife had been found in Marr’s backpack at the time of an earlier arrest, for robbery. When Lewin reopened the investigation, new electron microscope testing on the knife showed the blade to be consistent with the thin stab wound through Graham’s eighth thoracic vertebra. And DNA samples from the daughter, Elyse, helped reconstruct a profile consistent with both Elaine’s and the blood on the knife. During jury selection in 2005, Marr pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He is in prison in Stockton, yet Lewin is still disappointed that Marr didn’t sit before a jury; he wanted people to see that look on Marr’s face.

Lewin opens his battered laptop to a series of images: the dagger, a pale and haunted-looking Marr, Graham’s VW bug, with carrots in the backseat for Elyse to feed a pony. On an office wall he keeps photos of Elyse’s life-size sculptures from her student days at Brown. She couldn’t remember what her mother looked like, so she created a life-size headless figure cradling a baby. “These people don’t get closure,” Lewin says, swiping at a tear. “They get some kind of justice, but that’s the best that can happen because they’re left with pain.”

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John Lewin first stirs at about four in the morning, when his wife, Sheryl, wakes up. An ear surgeon, she’s been married to him for 23 years. They share a bed with a 170-pound Great Dane—Lewin doesn’t have the heart to kick him off—and are the parents of a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. One day during the Douglas Bradford trial, I see the two in the audience taking notes on legal pads. “I want to do what my dad does,” the boy says later, on his way for ice cream with Lewin at Grand Central Market.

Of course, his dad works seven days a week. When he’s not hanging out with his children during off-hours, Lewin is likely to be found watching ESPN or Game of Thrones or fitting in some exercise. Huffing one evening over the phone as he climbs a StairMaster, he mentions that he likes Winston Churchill because he was “also a short, chubby guy.”

Lewin stands almost five feet, nine inches, weighing in at 210 pounds, which isn’t long and lean, but not Churchillian, either. Always an argumentative kid—“an upcoming obnoxious little lawyer,” as he puts it—Lewin was an uninvolved student. He and his brother, Geoff, who’s a year younger, attended Rainier Beach High School in Seattle. Their mother, a psychiatric social worker, had moved to Washington long after divorcing their nephrologist father. It was a tough inner-city neighborhood, where the brothers were beaten up and robbed and had friends who were killed or sent to jail. Geoff was a sitcom writer before becoming a gang prosecutor in L.A. Currently a member of the D.A.’s Crimes Against Peace Officers Section, he says the two learned from their teen experiences: “We like our defendants. Our attitude is, ‘In a different light you’d be like me.’ ”

True-crime fans, the brothers devoured Helter Skelter, the best-seller about the Manson Family killings. During a college break in 1984, they stayed with their father in Orange County. On the 15th anniversary of the night Manson followers murdered the actress Sharon Tate and four of her friends, they made a pilgrimage to the Cielo Drive former crime scene off Benedict Canyon and less than a mile from where Susan Berman would be found dead in 2000. They got as far as the property’s iron gates. “We probably talked ourselves into being more scared than necessary,” John says.

He floundered after Rainier. “People who knew me in law school or high school can’t believe what I’m doing,” Lewin says. While attending the University of Washington, he aimed at premed, but bad math grades led to a bio major at UC Irvine. He did no better there, so Lewin switched to social ecology with an emphasis in criminology. “A very easy way to get high grades and get into law school,” he says. An externship at the Office of the District Attorney of Orange County triggered his desire to be a prosecutor. At UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, he sat through criminal law, constitutional law, and evidence classes; for other courses, Lewin says, he showed up only on day one and for exams, spending the rest of his time with his two boxer dogs, betting on sports, and skimming CliffsNotes. He graduated in the bottom 20 percent of his class.

When I ask whether he was ever interested in another area of law, Lewin smirks and says, “I’m concerned with my credibility. If I wanted to make arguments I didn’t really believe in, I’d be a criminal defense attorney.”

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His name was Santa Claus, and he lived in Torrance until a pair of fellow transients ambushed and stabbed him to death. Lewin was prosecuting the two when, in 1996, he encountered detective Jim Warner Wallace. Lean, with close-cropped white hair and granny glasses, the detective found Lewin amicable but also “competitive and feisty and all the things you really have to be to do this kind of work.” The men’s shared obsession drew them into a closer relationship than most cops and prosecutors enjoy. They would take six cold cases to court together, speak daily for years, and feel like brothers yet rarely socialize outside work. (“I’m a very unsocial person,” says Lewin.)

The two would confer with investigators who had originally overseen a case. Then, after examining all the old evidence and notes, they would start again, picking apart every detail along with listening to old and new witnesses. They might review suspect statements as many as 200 times, seeking inconsistencies and slips of the tongue. Wallace would sometimes interview 50 witnesses to verify one detail for a trial. He also taught Lewin the dictum that if you’re going to state something in court, don’t put the same words on a screen; offer supporting visuals instead—which explains the Clint Eastwood images. Although Wallace retired after the Douglas Bradford verdict to tour the Christian lecture circuit with his book, Cold Case Christianity, he continues to consult with Lewin.

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