Meet Leora Shemesh: the police force’s enemy No. 1 in court
Leora Shemesh, flanked by a mugshot of Frank Sinatra in her College St. office, is a tough-as-nails defence lawyer
whose hardball tactics in the courtroom have made her many enemies among Crowns and the police. Colin McConnell/Toronto Star
She has built a reputation alleging officers lie in court to support the charges they have laid.
Ninety per cent of her caseload is drug prosecutions, heavily dependent on police witnesses, search warrants and wiretaps.
She is relentless when cross-examining police, especially when she suspects the police have side-stepped the law.
“I find certain police officers find it comical that I get so angry in court,” Shemesh says. “They smile and seem to get a kick out of it.”
Outside court, there are no smiles from her targets or adversaries.
One Crown called Shemesh a “lying piece of s---.” In another case, a police officer called her a “bitch” during a break in proceedings.
“Some say if you’re pissing people off you should wear it like a badge of honour,” Shemesh says. “I’m not sure what to make of that.”
Last week, her full-frontal attack on the conduct of Peel Region police officers against her cocaine-dealing client led a judge to deliver a scathing rebuke to the force’s drug squad.
Superior Court Justice Deena Baltman found the officers beat Tan-Hung Dinh, searched his home illegally, then lied about it all in court.
Police officers, Shemesh claims, believe the law “essentially handcuffs them and is designed to preclude them from catching the bad guys.”
Her zeal to challenge authority took root in a suburban Thornhill household. “A very principled man,” Shemesh says of her father, Joe, who left Israel for Canada, where he prospered in oil and real estate despite lacking a formal education. An “advocate of the underdog,” he would write letters over things some might consider trifling, such as an unexplained three-cent bank fee. There were lively debates at the dinner table.
Shemesh was a competitive figure skater before giving up her Olympic dream and hunkering down in school, eventually landing at Osgoode Hall law school in Professor Alan Young’s first-year criminal law class.
“She stood out in the first week because she challenged me on some issue,” says Young, co-founder of the school’s Innocence Project, which investigates wrongful convictions. “It’s rare that early on in law school, but cooling her jets is not Leora’s nature.”
Shemesh says she embraced criminal law the moment the Young walked into class. “I was sold with his fake vomit and Chinese slippers.” (The vomit was a prop used to illustrate the subjective nature of what a disgusting object is; the slippers his signature footwear.)
Young said Shemesh has “enormous energy and enthusiasm and became a well-seasoned veteran early on. She will not concede unless she has to. That has earned her a reputation as a fighter — and you start to get enemies. It’s not a popularity contest, and when people talk behind your back then you’re having an impact.”
Called to the bar in 2001, Shemesh, 36, runs defences that push the envelope. She once argued that York Region police violated a drunk driving suspect’s Charter rights by forcing her to remove her underwire bra at the station because it could be used as a weapon.
It was a humiliating experience, Shemesh argued, challenging a constable on the witness stand “to find one occurrence involving someone attempting to hang themselves with an underwire bra.”
The judge didn’t buy Shemesh’s argument and convicted the woman. She’s appealing.
Standing up to police officers — the ultimate male bastion — comes at a price, Shemesh says.
Last week, at the College Park courts, Shemesh told a judge a number of off-duty Toronto police officers had come to court “to intimidate me.”
The Crown attorney laughed it off with the comment: “Shemesh, you eat nails for breakfast.”
(Most days, in fact, her breakfast consists of an English muffin in the car after getting her two daughters dressed for school. “That is a bigger negotiation process then a plea on a gun,” she says.)
Shemesh insists she found the police presence “really freaky,” adding, “they wouldn’t do that to a male defence lawyer.”
A senior police officer, told of Shemesh’s concern, accused her of grandstanding. “Oh please. Leora Shemesh isn’t intimidated by anybody, especially police officers.”
Shemesh, however, says the fact she is “hated” by cops, crowns and, she’s certain, some judges, isn’t something she shrugs off.
“My husband (boutique owner Ariel Benaich) always asks, ‘Why do you care what people think?’ I just do.”
She once “bawled her eyes out” after a Court of Appeal justice peppered her with questions, she rendering her mute despite the fact she’d “lived and breathed that file.” She remembers her colleague leaning over afterward, saying: “Not as easy as it looks, eh?”
Tough as she has become, Shemesh credits her husband for keeping her fighting spirit intact. “He is a wonderful man, who lets me have and be in the spotlight without any reservations or insecurities. He is my number one fan — next to my dad and mom of course — and he cheers me on always.”
When she believes an injustice has occurred, she channels her outrage by writing letters to the Prime Minister, the attorney general or public prosecution services “just to get someone to do the right thing.”
She’s disappointed, but not surprised, when she receives no response and is chagrined about the lack of support or empathy she encounters in non-legal circles.
“If I hear one more person say to me at a party, ‘How do you sleep at night?’ I am going to scream.”