How far can a criminal go to ensure he is defended by the best? Dmitry Smilyanets, who is believed to be a mastermind behind an underground group responsible for stealing millions of credit cards from online retailers, is proudly accepting Bitcoins on his website to support his legal defense. Is he the pioneer? Probably not.
When Bill Clinton got into a little legal trouble because of a lady in a blue dress, he set up a legal-defense fund to help cover his impeachment-related legal bills.
Legal defense funds have been used to protect the whales and help defend against American law enforcement’s accusations of espionage as in the case of Matt DeHart.
DeHart, 30, is a former U.S. airman who held a Top Secret clearance while in the Air Force. The U.S. government detained DeHart in 2011 on an alleged “espionage matter.” A fundraiser for DeHart’s defense is in progress now on the Internet site, Fundrazr.com.
Although not always called legal-defense funds the idea has been around for centuries. Seldom have they been set up to help a murder suspect who didn’t have enough money to defend himself.
That’s what George Zimmerman’s attorney Mark O’Mara did.
Using a website and PayPal, Zimmerman managed to raise over $200K — before he was even arrested.
When O’Mara was retained by George, one of the first tasks he completed was shutting down Zimmerman’s website. O’Mara took control of the $150K left in the fund and relaunched the legal-defense fund using a website he put online.
Most criminal defense attorneys claim O’Mara made a smart move — raising money so he could mount a stronger defense.
“Legal defense funds can be valuable if used correctly,” said Arkady Bukh, an internationally prominent criminal defense lawyer in New York City (Bukh Law Firm, 14 Wall St, New York, NY 10005, (212) 729-1632).
Benedict Kuehne, a Miami attorney, used one to help pay legal costs when he was indicted on a federal money-laundering charge in 2005. The government ended up dropping the charges.
Kuehne wasn’t poor, but the federal government usually has more money and resources than even upper-income defendants.
“Legal defense funds can help level the field,” said Bukh.
O’Mara told CNN that the estimated cost of defending Zimmerman to be in the neighborhood of $500,000 to $1 million. O’Mara, who had previously agreed to handle Zimmerman’s case for free changed his mind when he found out there was money available to cover his fee.
O’Mara’s hourly rate is $400 and he had estimated the case would take 1,000 hours.
“$400,000 is reasonable, given the scope of the case,” said Bukh.
How a Tweet Raised $165,000
Ross Ulbricht, the kingpin of the now defunct online bazaar, Silk Road, breathed a little easier when a tweet committing to make a cash donation to his legal-defense went viral.
Roger Ver, a startup investor, tweeted this about Ulbricht: “If guilty, he’s a hero. If innocent, he needs help.” The tweet also added that Ver would donate $10 to Ulbricht’s defense for every time his tweet was retweeted.
By the time the story first made news, the tweet had been retweeted over 17,000 times. and, according to Ver, the fund had reached the donation limit.
When first indicted, observers estimated that Ulbricht’s legal-defense would cost somewhere North of $100k.
Originally, the trial was slated to start November 4, 2014. It has been put on indefinite hold while death threats against the judge are being investigated.
Other Notable Legal-Defense Funds
One of the nation’s most well known legal-defense funds was started in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP and was the force behind Brown v. the Board of Education, the landmark case which outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
In the 1980s, a legal-defense fund was started to help Oliver North when he became the target of special prosecutors. North was hip-deep in the Iran-Contra scandal which accused the Reagan administration of trading arms for hostages.
More recently, Dmitry Smilyanets, who allegedly participated in a criminal enterprise that was dealing with over 160M of stolen credit cards, started soliciting extra funding for his defense team. Bitcoin is gladly accepted.
Bukh said that with some guidelines in place, other attorneys may also set up successful legal-defense funds for their clients.
Bukh suggests that a certified public accountant be hired solely to manage the fund and that person should be allowed to make all spending decisions. The defendant and his or her attorney should not have direct access to the funds. He suggests returning donations if it comes from radical or political groups who appear to be making a statement. Bukh, who also oversees the fund for Dmitry Belorosov, also advises attorneys who think about setting up legal-defense funds to negotiate their legal fee upfront and decide what cap they will accept, even if fundraising brings in much more than is needed.