John Kenneth Zwerling
John Kenneth Zwerling
It is 1965; Ensign John Zwerling is on active duty with the Navy in Vietnam commanding his landing craft. Bullets are flying and explosions are ringing in your ears. Sweat, anticipation and fear gripped everyone. “Vietnam was like being in a movie,” Zwerling tells me. “You know, I always wanted to be a Navy guy!”
Talking from behind a slightly disheveled desk that looks like it gets a lot of use sits a bear of a man…John Kenneth Zwerling, champion for the underdog!
Zwerling was born in Brooklyn New York and grew up in Yonkers. He attended a private high school and was captain of his school’s football team and swim team. He was a contract ROTC candidate that meant that after high school he owed the military two years of active duty. He thought about joining the Army but chose instead the Navy. “Good thing too,” he tells me. “The casualties of that year’s class of Army Junior Officers was very high.”
While stationed in San Diego he was the Division Officer and had to look after and discipline his men. It came to his attention from a higher authority that there was some grumbling from the area merchants that his men were not paying their debts. Zwerling took it upon himself to look into the matter and he found out that most of the complaining was coming from the jewelry merchants. Upon further investigation he learned that it was cheap jewelry and poorly made. The shops also employed lovely ladies to greet and entertain the sailors with companionship and drink. Zwerling realized that his men were getting ripped off and approached his JAG officer (military attorney) about the problem. The JAG officer wrote a letter to the merchants. The outcome was that if the sailors would return the merchandise they would be fully reimbursed. This impressed the young officer and he thought, Wow, I wish I could write a letter like that!”
This thought stayed with him and upon his discharge from active duty he attended Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts which is recognized as a premier university dedicated to educating new leaders for a changing world. And the world was indeed changing. After graduating from Tufts, Zwerling pursued his law degree at American University and graduated in 1970.
It was a tumultuous time in Washington, D.C. in the 1970’s. On May 9th a week after the Kent State shootings, 100,000 demonstrators converged on Washington to protest the shootings and President Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia. Championing the underdog, Zwerling and former roommate at AU and fellow Alexandria attorney Marvin Miller went to D.C. to represent the arrested demonstrators to see that they got their day in court. “We had our own people out there and they would radio us as to where arrests were being made and where the demonstrators were being taken. We would get over there to insure that the demonstrators had proper representation,” he tells me.
Another friend who was helping the demonstrators was Zwerling’s friend and current Alexandria attorney Phil Hirschkop. Hirschkop was the attorney who represented Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, who had been sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for marrying each other. In the landmark case Loving v Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. These young attorneys were off and running and making a name for themselves.
When the three amigos decided it was time to hoist a shingle, John and Phil shared a space, which lasted for 15 years. They began a career of defending the underdog like the Hunt brothers and H. Rap Brown. The Hunt brothers, Nelson Bunker, William Herbert and Lamar were the defendants in a 150 million lawsuit accusing the Hunts of engaging in an elaborate scheme in 1979 and 1980 to manipulate silver prices.
Zwerling also represented Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, aka H. Rap Brown, who was chairman of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee in the 1960’s and during a short-lived alliance between SNCC and the Black Panther Part, where he served as their minister of justice. In his defense Zwerling told the prosecuting attorney that Brown couldn’t get a fair trail at this venue. “Why,” asked the prosecutor? “ Because of that large Confederate flag that is framed on your wall”, replied Zwerling. Some things never change.
Over the years Zwerling has partnered with such notable attorneys as John Shapiro of the O.J.Simpson trials, John Flowermark, and Bill (Bo) Moffitt who represented Lorena Bobbitt who cut off the penis of her then husband, John Wayne Bobbitt in 1993.
John Kenneth Zwerling has been through the changing times and has pretty much seen it all. He grew up in the hippie generation and had the long hair and all. “It was difficult to command respect going into court with hair on your shoulders, but we conquered that as well. I asked him how he ever made any money representing the underdog and down trodden. “Some of them are very rich,” he says.
Keeping his social values in place, he once represented the Red Hot Chili Peppers when a band member, currently undergoing rehab, was photo shopped out of a cover on Rolling Stone magazine. That made the band mad and they sued.
From getting the money back for his sailors to defending the rich and famous, John Kenneth is still working for the underdog. And, can he write a letter as well as the JAG officer? “I write an effective letter”, he says.