ATHENS – One of the top stories of the week involves two people who could not be more unlike – WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner, imprisoned in Vladimir Putin’s Russia for drug possession – less than a gram of hash oil, and Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer. What they had in common was their belief that they could not find justice in the countries where they were incarcerated, Russia and the United States, respectively.
Their lives came together – and were freed – as a result of a ‘prisoner swap’ between the two countries, and at the heart of the effort to gain their freedom was a Greek-American, attorney Steve Zissou of Queens, NY.
Zissou is the attorney for Bout, who is the more infamous of the two, but Zissou believes, as he has said in numerous interviews, that the latter has gotten a ‘bad rap’ partly because of the nickname he was given – ‘the merchant of death’.
The issue is broader than that, however, and the lawyer who is proud of his Hellenism and his roots in Sparta and Epirus eloquently described what is at stake for everyone else. “In the United States – and in my view, around the world,” Zissou told The National Herald, “every person is entitled to the best defense and best counsel that is available, and the reason for that is that kind of protection protects everybody – it protects the innocent as well and the guilty. There can’t be one rule for the guilty and one for the innocent. There has to be zealous representation of every person, regardless of whether they have been nicknamed ‘the merchant of death’ or are a priest or a rabbi – everyone is entitled to the same aggressive defense,” reminding that especially in a Democracy, the state must always be forced to prove its case.
“The one-sidedness” of the defense attorney, Zissou continued, “the focused defense of devoted, zealous counsel,” is what everyone deserves. “We always say in our firm that, ‘the client comes first’ and the circumstances – whether they are rich or poor, innocent or guilty, the client comes first; it’s that clients’ interests that matter. The embrace of that philosophy protects everybody in every democracy the world over.”
And in response to the criticism that not everyone can afford “the best counsel that is available” Zissou noted that the legal system provides for that. “I have never abandoned a client because he ran out of money and I’m happy to take assignments from the courts. Since getting clearance” for terrorism cases and the like, “I get calls from judges to take on cases routinely, and I say ‘of course’ – that’s part of my responsibility as an officer of the court.“
Zissou set out early on his demanding but worthwhile path. “I was one of those kids who only remember wanting to be a lawyer – and there is no other profession I’ve ever conceived of having. I remember being in 4th or 5th grade and we put on a play based on the book ‘Inherit the Wind’. It was about what known as ‘the Scopes monkey trial’,” about the renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow’s defense of a schoolteacher’s right to teach about evolution in the 1920s. “I got to play Clarence Darrow – and that as it! From there on I was hooked.”
There were no role models in his family – indeed they were shocked to hear of his ambitions. “What do you mean? How are you going to go to law school,” they asked, as no one had even attended college at that point. “My great grandfather, George Liverakis, had a pushcart in Manhattan selling peanut,” he said of his humble but hardworking origins. But Zissou did it, earning his JD at Hofstra University Law School in Hempstead, Long Island.
Asked when it crystalized in his mind to become a defense attorney, Zissou said, “first of all I wanted to be a litigator, a trial lawyer.” The first stop was becoming an Assistant District Attorney. “In order to get enough trials faster, you had to go to the DA’s office, and all I wanted to do is try cases. In almost seven years I tried over a hundred – including 30-40 murder trials.”
That is where he met his wife, Sally, who was also a lawyer. “One day when it looked like things were going to work out between us, she said, ‘you know you’re going to have to quit and get a real job’ – so I went into private practice and being a criminal defense attorney by that point was the direction I was heading in.” His firm is Steve Zissou & Associates.
He adds, however, that the criminal justice system situation in the 1980s also nudged him that way. “The war on drugs was such that even a zealous prosecutor like myself was able to see that some of the things they were doing were just plain wrong. They were locking up people of color who couldn’t make bail and all they were doing was standing on a street corner and one person has a narcotic on them and everybody gets picked up in these sweeps. And if you want to get out of jail you have to make bail or plead guilty – and I didn’t think that was right.”
Times have changed in many ways. Since marijuana legalization in New York Zissou has become a top cannabis lawyer and he also acknowledges that the criminal justice pendulum has swung too far the other way with recent bail reform in New York state. “There should have been more flexibility given to judges.”