JERUSALEM — John Demjanjuk, the retired Cleveland auto worker accused of being the sadistic Nazi death camp guard "Ivan the Terrible," fired his chief attorney Monday, just one week before he is scheduled to take the stand in his own defense.
A three-judge panel hearing the war crimes case took only 20 minutes in extraordinary session to accept the 67-year-old defendant's decision and release Buffalo, N.Y., attorney Mark J. O'Connor, who had represented Demjanjuk in various legal actions for five years.
An obviously bitter O'Connor rose at the end of the session and walked quickly off the stage of the theater-turned-courtroom being used for the trial. He left without comment to the press and without looking at either his former client or at Yoram Sheftel, the Israeli attorney he hired as co-counsel and the man he blames for his dismissal.
O'Connor initially fought Demjanjuk's decision but finally gave up over the weekend after the defendant refused to see him in his isolation cell at Israel's Ayalon Prison. And on Sunday the attorney wrote a strongly worded letter to the court blasting Sheftel and asking to be relieved.
'Negligence and Misconduct'
The four-page letter, a copy of which was made available to The Times, accused Sheftel of a "pattern of negligence and misconduct" during the five-month-old trial.
It was at Sheftel's urging that members of Demjanjuk's family put pressure on the Ukrainian-born defendant to fire him, O'Connor wrote. And then the Israeli acted as "family enforcer" to make sure that Demjanjuk complied even though it was against his former client's better judgment, the letter added.
O'Connor contended that neither Sheftel nor a third defense lawyer, Cleveland attorney John Gill, are adequately prepared to proceed with the case, but he said that under the circumstances "there is nothing more that I am capable of doing."
Speaking to reporters on behalf of the family, the defendant's son, John Demjanjuk Jr., called the charges in O'Connor's letter "completely unjustified. . . . In one word, the letter is garbage."
He charged that it was O'Connor who was unprepared and said "he should have been dismissed weeks ago."
The younger Demjanjuk said it was "unfortunate" that Chief Judge Dov Levin had ruled against a defense request for more time to prepare its case. However, he added, "My father is most anxious to take the stand. We have complete confidence in Mr. Sheftel."
It was first learned more than a week ago that Demjanjuk had signed a letter dismissing O'Connor. But the Buffalo attorney requested a court hearing to ensure that his client fully understood what he was doing. The hearing took place last Wednesday, but when Demjanjuk appeared under Levin's questioning to be uncertain about his decision, he was given until Monday to make up his mind.
"If it please the court," the defendant told Levin as the session reconvened, "you have given me four days of further thinking, and I should like to tell you that I would like to release Mr. O'Connor, even though the trial will resume on July 27."
Levin then thanked O'Connor "for the efforts he has invested in the defense of the accused, and for his cross-examination of the witnesses up to this point."
Demjanjuk, who emigrated to the United States after World War II, was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and extradited to Israel last year to face a possible death penalty for crimes against humanity and against the Jewish people.
The prosecution alleges that he was a particularly cruel guard at the Treblinka Nazi death camp in World War II Poland, where 850,000 men, women, and children, the vast majority of them Jews, were murdered.
Demjanjuk contends he is a victim of mistaken identity and was never at Treblinka. He is expected to testify next week that he was captured by the Germans while fighting in the Soviet army and that he languished in prisoner-of-war camps for the balance of the conflict.