Now THIS Was Zealous Representation! The Incredible, Unethical, Zealous, Crooked And Courageous Bill Fallon


I’m giving an ethics seminar for a group of government lawyers this morning. I think I’ll tell them about Bill Fallon.

Bill Fallon (1886-1927) was a very successful New York criminal defense attorney, and a contemporary of Clarence Darrow. He was called “The Great Mouthpiece,” because he represented some of New York’s leading pimps, narcotics dealers, embezzlers, swindlers and gamblers.  One famous client was Arnold Roth, who was the architect of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, bribing eight Chicago White Sox stars to throw the World Series. Another was Nicky Arnstein, the gambler husband of Fanny Brice. That was Omar Shariff playing Nicky in “Funny Girl.”

Fallon often bribed his juries, and got away with it: the one time he was caught and indicted, a jury found him non guilty. He probably bribed that jury, too. Clarence Darrow was proud of the fact that he represented over a hundred men and women facing the death penalty and none were ever executed. Fallon could top that: he represented over 120 homicide defendants, all of them guilty as hell, and not one was convicted.

Dashiell Hammett referred to Fallon in his novel, “Red Harvest,”, when he wrote,

He’s the guy that the joke was wrote about: ‘Is he a criminal lawyer?’ “Yes, very.'”

It wasn’t just the bribery that made Bil Fallon successful. He was an amazing, formidable  trial lawyer. Unlike Darrow, Fallon was handsome. He was also charismatic, immaculately groomed, had an actors voice and manner and slicker than slick. And he was brilliant. His biographer claimed Fallon could read and virtually memorize a book within two hours. In one case, he analyzed more than 100 medical texts in preparation for trial, and during the trial itself, mastered four medical textbooks on gynecology when he found that the prosecution was putting an expert witness on the subject on the stand the next day. Fallon could so confound medical experts with exact quotes from authorities that juries viewed him as more knowledgeable than the experts in their own specialties.

One expert witness, exasperated, blurted out, “Mr. Fallon, I did not know you were an M.D. When did you get your degree?” Fallon replied, “I received my degree last night. I began practice this morning.”

His ability to come up with audacious verbal comebacks like that was legendary. Fallon was a high functioning alcoholic (like many lawyers to this day), and eventually the disease killed him at the age of 41.  In one trial, he was so besotted that everyone in the courtroom could smell the fumes. “Is it possible,” the judge said, “that the court smells liquor on counsel?” Fallon smiled, and bowed deeply. “If Your Honor’s sense of justice is as keen as your sense of smell,” he said, “then my client need have no fear in this court!”

The onlookers and jury applauded.

The most amazing story, however, shows how dedicated Fallon was to his clients, and how personally courageous he could be in pursuit of zealous representation. Illegal and unethical zealous representation, but impressive nonetheless.

He was defending a client accused of murder, and the State presented as evidence a vial containing the same quick-acting  poison that had been found in the victim’s body. The vial, in turn, had been found in Fallon’s defendant’s apartment.  At the end of his short closing statement proclaiming the flaws in the prosecution’s seemingly solid case, right before the jury was sent out to deliberate, Fallon suddenly, seemingly on a whim, exclaimed, “I don’t believe this stuff is poison!” and walked over to the evidence table, took the vial, and swallowed its contents.

“Pretty good!” he said, as he smiled at the jury. “And I feel fine!”

The shocked jury then retired, as Fallon waited in the courtroom, chatting, smoking, relaxed. The jury was back in about ten minutes with a not guilty verdict. Fallon accepted congratulations all around, and finally, seemingly in no hurry, strolled out of the courtroom. Then, once out the door, he dashed down the hall to a conference room, where a doctor was waiting to pump his stomach. Fallon had, right before his closing, swallowed a substance to coat his stomach. The doctor said it would protect him from the effects of the poison for about 30 minutes.

This provides a perfect example of how loyalty, dedication and courage are not necessarily ethical values, since they can be employed for very unethical objectives. Nonetheless, a lawyer who will go to those lengths for a client has to be admired to some extent despite his obvious corruption.

You just can’t represent a client more zealously than that.

15 thoughts on “Now THIS Was Zealous Representation! The Incredible, Unethical, Zealous, Crooked And Courageous Bill Fallon

  1. Jack,
    That really is a fabulous story for your class!

    I only have one qualm with your piece and that’s your use of the word “admired” in this sentence, “nonetheless, a lawyer who will go to those lengths for a client has to be admired to some extent despite his obvious corruption.”; personally I wouldn’t have use that word in that context, I think “appreciated” would have been a better choice, all things considered.

  2. I’m not a lawyer; but, Isn’t there something inherently illegal about what he when he drank the poison? Wouldn’t drinking the poison be considered intentional destruction of evidence that could be used in an appeal?

  3. In the early 197os the musical Chicago made its first run on Bradway and all I could think about in seeing the show is Billy Flynn was based on Billy Fallon.

    I have had dealings with a few lawyers and maybe it is just my misfortune, but all were as crooked as Lombard Street.

  4. Great post Jack! I would think that being a criminal lawyer, a person would face a lot of ethical challenges. Their job, as an attorney, would be to get them off, even if they knew the person was guilty as sin. Casey Anthony comes to mind.

    • Wade756,
      That is the easy part. It is easy to represent the guilty. If they get convicted, it is because they are guilty. It is harder to defend the innocent.

      I think the bigger problem with criminal lawyers is that they deal with criminals all day long. At some point, it seems perfectly reasonable to get your bills paid in drugs or guns. That is where the ethics stressors come from.

    • Nononono. Their job is NOT to get the clients off. Their job is to make the prosecution prove them guilty with unequivocal evidence and under strict regard for their rights to uphold the integrity of the system and to ensure that innocent defendants don’t end up in jail.

  5. Hmm, I’m speculating that he probably could have gotten off all the top Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials if he had been still around. Sounds like a very high functioning sociopath.

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