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Henein tore into Ghomeshi accusers' credibility – and was right to do so

Ms. Henein knew the trial would light a media firestorm. But friends say that even she was taken aback by the daily mobs outside the courthouse, the running trial by Twitter, the torrent of abuse in social media.

JENNA MARIE WAKANI

There are certain moments that criminal lawyers live for, when it all comes together. Those moments are the payoff for the endless hours of meticulous preparation, the carefully crafted strategy, the finely honed performance skills. That moment came for Marie Henein on Day Four of the Jian Ghomeshi case. On the stand was Lucy DeCoutere, who had become a stand-in for abused women everywhere. In 19 media interviews, she had described how, one night, Mr. Ghomeshi had choked and slapped her and, in so doing, put a brutal end to their budding relationship.

But Ms. Henein knew that Ms. DeCoutere hadn't told the truth about that last part.

After that night, she maintained flirtatious contact with Mr. Ghomeshi, and Ms. Henein had a stash of lovelorn documents to prove it. She began to eviscerate the witness – slowly, methodically. She confronted her with one e-mail, then another, then another. Her platform heels clicked across the courtroom floor each time she approached the witness box. She saved the most devastating piece for last – a rambling, confessional, handwritten love letter that Ms. Henein had projected on a giant screen for all to see. She read the whole thing aloud, until she got to the last line, which she instructed the witness to read herself. "I love your hands," Ms. DeCoutere read out. The gallery was stunned.

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The letters showed that Ms. DeCoutere's characterization of her post-assault relationship with Mr. Ghomeshi had been grossly misleading. In her police statement and media interviews, she had said nothing about this at all, nor about the flowers she'd sent him, or their good time in Banff, Alta., at a karaoke bar, singing a duet of (Hit Me) Baby One More Time.

Ms. DeCoutere explained that she was trying to "normalize" the situation and "flatten the negative." The judge didn't buy it, and the portion of his verdict that pertained to her testimony was nothing short of scathing. She had made a solemn oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Instead, she "proceeded to consciously suppress relevant and material information." Time and again, she "demonstrated a willful carelessness with the truth."

Much has been made of the fact that Ms. DeCoutere's story about the assault itself never wavered. But that's not the point. The point was that she had attempted to mislead the court. That "reflects very poorly on Ms. DeCoutere's trustworthiness as a witness," Justice William Horkins said. He also found her explanations for her behaviour unconvincing in the extreme. A more plausible explanation was that telling the truth would have severely undermined the story she'd been telling to everyone who asked.

In the absence of other evidence, the witnesses' case against Jian Ghomeshi was only as good as their credibility. And Ms. DeCoutere's credibility, the judge determined, was no good at all.

"There are stories you tell about a case your whole career," says a senior lawyer who has known Ms. Henein since she apprenticed at the side of the late, legendary Eddie Greenspan. "And that's one of them."

A role model, and a lightning rod

At 50, Marie Henein is at the top of her game. In the macho, high-stakes world of criminal-defence law, she is a standout. Nobody works harder. Nobody is more driven. Simply by being a woman who does what she does, she has broken the ground for legions of younger women in a field that has always been notoriously tough for them. "She's not just the best woman," says criminal lawyer Jessyca Greenwood, 32. Ms. Greenwood, who spends most of her time defending people with mental illness, has never worked with Ms. Henein, but she shares a common passion for helping women get ahead in the profession. "She's one of the best, period. She's a role model to me." (Ms. Henein wasn't talking to the media this week.)

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Mark Sandler is a senior criminal lawyer who has both worked with Ms. Henein, and acted against her in a courtroom. He, too, has nothing but praise. "She is impeccably prepared, equally proficient in marshalling the facts and the law, and shows superb judgment. She is highly ethical. She is also tough when toughness is called for. Simply put, I place her within a relatively small group of elite criminal counsel."

But in the wider world, she draws far more visceral reactions. Everything about her seems to get up people's noses – her shoes, her hair, her clothes, her carefully art-directed advertising, her confidence, her toughness, her impatience with women who complain about the struggles of juggling work and family.

Worst of all, in many people's eyes, is the nature of her clients' crimes. People ask how she could describe herself as a feminist and also choose to represent Mr. Ghomeshi, a widely loathed celebrity accused of serial sexual violence. "This trial brought out a lot of emotions for people," Ms. Greenwood says, "because they saw themselves in the victims' shoes."

Sexual violence against women is among the most explosive topics in our culture. Many people believe the system is stacked against the victims from the start. And many people remain convinced that the complainants against Mr. Ghomeshi didn't get a fair hearing.

Ms. Henein knew the trial would light a media firestorm. But friends say that even she was taken aback by the daily mobs outside the courthouse, the running trial by Twitter, the torrent of abuse in social media. "Old boys club in drag, is all," one critic tweeted. "There's a special place in hell for Marie Henein," tweeted another.

She's tough, but that was hard on her. "You're a feminist, and you're being attacked as the biggest anti-feminist, and you're muzzled," says a long-time friend. "We had a lot of conversations about that."

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"Marie is the epitome of feminism," says Ms. Greenwood. "She conducted the case ethically, professionally and with vigour. And yet we're still talking about her shoes."

Her strategy of turning the spotlight on the complainants was not unusual, says Peter Rosenthal, a law professor at the University of Toronto. "Many of these cases are he said/she said, so it's standard to put the onus on the woman." Ms. Henein had huge advantages in that regard, including public statements from the witnesses that flatly contradicted what they said in court. "It's the defence's job to try to undercut the case in any lawful way they can," adds Prof. Rosenthal. "She didn't do anything unethical at all."

Ms. Henein has made her own views clear about this matter. "I am not conflicted about being a strong feminist and what I do in court," she told Toronto Life magazine last fall.

The animus against Ms. Henein drives her younger brother, Peter, crazy. (He's a lawyer too, specializing in intellectual property.) He has seen the Facebook posts that call her a traitor to her gender. Some of them were written by people he knows. He calls it out-and-out old-fashioned sexism. "Nobody ever commented on Eddie Greenspan's shoes," he says. "By commenting on people's wardrobe from a gender-specific point of view, people are feeding on some of the very issues they are complaining about."

For the record, her shoes made that noise because she was on a raised floor with a hollow space underneath. "I can tell you one thing for sure," Peter Henein says. "She does not choose her shoes for their auditory power."

A raucous sense of humour

Here's what people talk about when they talk about Ms. Henein: Her look is strict, steely, and a bit transgressive. Her sculpted hair is a little spiky and a little punky. Her inky, pointy, perfectly shellacked fingernails look as if they could hurt someone. The image conveys a potent message: Don't mess with me.

"I don't have to justify myself," she told Toronto Life.

We're all for women with power, in theory. It's just that we prefer them to be frumpy and menopausal (Angela Merkel), or at least girl-next-door non-threatening. Ms. Henein is neither of these things.

Is it just a marketing gimmick? Not so, say friends. She is a strong, confident woman in a world where women are still supposed to be softer, gentler, and more deferential.

But that's not all she is. Friends say that, in private, she is a nurturing person with a raucous sense of humour, a taste for kir royale, and a warm family life. "She's a supersoft, sensitive, loving mother, in a way not consistent with her public persona," says Martha McCarthy, a family lawyer who has also been a friend for years. Ms. Henein's husband, Glen Jennings, is the yin to her yang – an amiable, bearded man with a relaxed manner and a messy office full of pictures of the kids. He practises white-collar criminal law at a big downtown firm. They are co-parents to their two sons.

Her small network of close female friends goes back forever. "Not a week goes by that we don't talk," says Laura Nemchin, a lawyer with the Ontario government who describes herself as Ms. Henein's opposite, style-wise. They describe her as a lot of fun.

"She can trash-talk anyone – she can – out-trash even the biggest trash talkers," Ms. McCarthy says admiringly.

'As outsider as you can be'

Criminal-defence lawyers are a breed apart. They tend to be strong, confident types with big egos and a love of the spotlight. They like the adversarial nature of the work, the high stakes and the stress. They are extremely good at separating their personal opinions from the job at hand. They have to be. Many of their clients are less than savoury. Their job is not to like the people who hire them, but to ensure they get a fair trial. Many regard themselves as mavericks.

"We were as outsider as you can be," recalls Ms. Nemchin, whose friendship with Ms. Henein dates back to Grade 9 in a Catholic school full of Irish and Italian kids. Ms. Nemchin is Jewish, and Ms. Henein's family are Maronite Christians from Egypt. When she came to Canada, she was a dark-skinned girl who spoke no English. "By high school, she had learned to defend herself." Ms. Nemchin says. "I learned to be tough there, and she was right beside me."

It was her mother who drilled into Marie the precepts of feminism. She was determined that her daughter escape the misogynist oppression the family had left behind. "Don't ever be dependent on a man," Peter Henein recalls his mother telling her.

The focus, the work ethic and the ferocious determination were all her own. "In high school, she would come home and go to work in the study and have to be cajoled down to dinner," her brother remembers. The attitude is all hers, too. "She has the most sheer, pure confidence of anyone I've ever met," Ms. McCarthy says.

Today, some people believe Ms. Henein is even better than Mr. Greenspan was – less flamboyant, less aggressive, more measured. "Eddie was a show-off," says one of his long-time friends.

She is not. She prefers to get the job done with no grandstanding, and surgical efficiency.

She doesn't always win. But some of her wins have been spectacular. One of the most famous was Michael Bryant, the former attorney-general of Ontario. After he accidentally killed a cyclist with his car, Mr. Bryant was instantly convicted in the media. But Ms. Henein gathered so much exculpatory evidence – including proof that the cyclist had a history of attacking drivers – that the Crown withdrew the charges against him, and dropped the case.

Such talent does not come cheap. Her services cost Mr. Bryant at least $300,000. Mr. Ghomeshi's bill is also no doubt steep. In general, the starting rate for a top defence lawyer in such a case is around $175,000 per week of court time. Ms. Henein wasn't particularly eager to take on the Ghomeshi case – she didn't relish the circus, says a close friend. But it was too important to turn down. "This type of case is what you live for," one seasoned trial lawyer told me. "The big story, the big part, the chance to prove how good you really are."

It is also a chance to showcase how the justice system works. When you rise to her level, you're not just representing a client. You're representing the system itself.

Ms. Henein's job is essential to the justice ecosystem: It is to make sure that every person – no matter how reprehensible he or she may seem – receives fair treatment from the state. That applies to the convicted felons for whom she sometimes does pro bono work. It applies to Jian Ghomeshi, too.

"The reason you become a defence lawyer is you think it's important," says one of her closest friends. "You know that, for some people, you're their only hope."

Margaret Wente is a columnist with The Globe and Mail.

Editor's note: An earlier print and digital version of this story stated that after the cross-examination of Lucy DeCoutere, Marie Henein had taken her team out for drinks to celebrate; however, she and some colleagues had a quiet meal at a restaurant. This version has been updated.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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