B.J. Bernstein a media-savvy courtroom competitor
By Jeremy Redmon
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
12:43 p.m. Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Editor’s note: The two men who are suing Bishop Eddie Long, claiming that he had sexual relationships with them, are represented by Atlanta attorney B.J. Bernstein.
Bernstein is perhaps best-known for her successful representation of Genarlow Wilson, a Douglas County teenager who was imprisoned for 10 years for having consensual sex with a minor female.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published this profile of Bernstein in July 2007 as the Wilson case went to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Before B.J. Bernstein begins her frequent news conferences, she slowly and clearly spells her name for reporters covering the child molestation case against her client, Genarlow Wilson.
She warns a television cameraman when he is blocking the shot of a competitor. And Bernstein, who tops out at 5 feet, obligingly stands on an equipment box rather than force TV reporters to lower their microphones.
She is the feisty defense lawyer taking on Douglas County prosecutors, the Georgia attorney general’s office and the state courts themselves, all through a sophisticated media blitz. She set up a Web site, www.wilsonappeal.com. She hired a media relations company. With her help, the case has continued to attract national news media attention. Wilson’s story has appeared on CNN and ESPN and in The New York Times.
Bernstein is seeking to free Wilson from prison, where he has spent more than two years of a 10-year sentence for receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. His sentence, Bernstein argues, is cruel and unusual punishment for a teenager who had consensual sex with another teen, though the age of legal consent in Georgia is 16.
Her media-savvy approach has invited criticism as well as attention.
“There does appear to be more of an attempt for publicity and future book and movie deals and limousines and Web sites and publicists, that you begin to wonder whether or not Genarlow is the highest priority, ” said state Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), who has been outspoken in his criticism of Wilson. “When you have a case, you try it in court. When you don’t have a case, you try it in the media.
“That is what is going on.”
Bernstein said she is not seeking publicity for herself, saying she is trying to highlight what she asserts is an injustice in Wilson’s case so it won’t happen again.
“Letting the world know about what is happening to Genarlow Wilson, ” she said, “is the only reason we have a shot at saving Genarlow Wilson and protecting other kids.”
Intense focus pays off
Brenda Joy Bernstein wasn’t always so outspoken. She said she was shy, even “nerdy, ” growing up in Columbia, the daughter of an insurance agent and a nursing teacher. She said she rarely dated and wasn’t popular in high school, focusing on academics instead of cliques. She skipped her senior prom so she could attend a model United Nations conference, a forum for students to debate international issues.
“It wasn’t like I had a date, ” Bernstein said with a laugh.
Bernstein said she got hooked on the law in the eighth grade after she participated in a mock trial with the help of a real judge. She found she enjoyed explaining complex issues in public.
Paul Kurtz, who taught criminal law to Bernstein at the University of Georgia in 1984, said Bernstein’s media campaign probably played a role in a Monroe County judge’s decision last month to grant Wilson’s appeal and order him freed from prison.
Attorney General Thurbert Baker is appealing that judge’s decision to the Georgia Supreme Court, which has scheduled a hearing in the case for 10 a.m. today.
After she graduated from law school in 1987, Bernstein went to work as a prosecutor for about 6 1/2 years. She spent most of that time in Gwinnett County, working under then-District Attorney Tom Lawler and his successor, Danny Porter. For about two years, she worked on a special team assigned to child-molestation cases, invaluable experience that she said has helped her in Wilson’s case.
Bernstein eventually opened her own law firm with $10,000 her parents set aside for her wedding. That wedding never happened, she said, because she hasn’t met the right man. She lives alone in a Midtown apartment, doting over two cats, Jaedon and Yo-yo. The sometimes combative lawyer melts when she describes how the two furballs spoon with each other in her bed.
That soft side carries over to the people she represents, particularly the younger ones.
“I definitely pay more attention to them more, ” she said. “I think that may be a little bit of mothering showing up in there. . . . Maybe because I was nerdy and not the cool kid, I can understand a little bit when they are a little out of place. And so it makes it easier to talk to them.”
Bernstein’s intense focus on her work paid off before she met Wilson, helping her snag several high-profile clients, including the platinum-selling rapper Da Brat, who faced charges of aggravated assault in connection with an early-morning brawl at a Buckhead nightclub in 2000. Bernstein also landed on TV as a legal commentator before she picked up Wilson as a client, discussing everything from Scott Peterson’s murder trial to pop music star Michael Jackson.
Bernstein said she learned how to deal with the news media from veteran Atlanta criminal defense attorney Steve Sadow, who represented former Gold Club owner Steve Kaplan in his sensational racketeering trial in 2001. Bernstein shared an office with Sadow for eight years and considers him her mentor, saying he showed her “the balancing act between the public interest in needing to know about a case and making sure that a client was able to be fairly dealt with by the courts.”
Sadow praised Bernstein’s grasp of the law and her ability to connect with people.
“I give her better than 50-50 odds, ” Sadow said of Bernstein’s chances of winning Wilson’s case before the Georgia Supreme Court. “I put my money on her.”
Wilson’s mother, Juannessa Bennett, hired Bernstein after hearing about her from Wilson’s trial attorney.
Bernstein said she has been representing Wilson for free. A separate attorney not working on the case is administering a legal-defense fund for Wilson to which donors have contributed more than $10,000 during the past year. Some of that money has gone to pay the media-relations firm assisting Bernstein in the case.
“She is doing a great job, ” Bennett said of Bernstein this month after attending a rally for her son at the Douglas County Courthouse in Douglasville. “Her heart is definitely in this case.
” I don’t think I could have picked anybody to do a better job.”
Sen. Johnson and others have been critical, saying Bernstein’s chances of winning Wilson’s freedom are extremely slim and that she should accept a plea deal Douglas County District Attorney David McDade is offering.
Wilson would get a 15-year sentence with five years in prison including credit for time served. And he would be able to avoid registering as a sex offender, McDade said.
“She is interested in publicizing the case for her own personal gain, ” McDade said. “She has lost sight of what is best for her client.”
University of Georgia professor Donald E. Wilkes Jr., an outspoken critic of Baker’s handling of the case, said Bernstein’s argument — that 10 years in prison for consensual sex is cruel and unusual punishment — has precedent in Georgia.
In 1997, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a man to 12 months in jail and fine him $1,000 for criminal trespass. McDade may have followed the letter of the law in prosecuting Wilson, but, Wilkes said, “Constitutional rights always trump statutes.”
Bernstein says she has discussed McDade’s plea deal with Wilson and that he will accept nothing more than a misdemeanor.
So the fight will continue.
“This is not about me getting famous, ” Bernstein said. “It is just the stupidest thing I have ever heard. If people believe that, so be it.
“I have to be a lawyer, and after this is over, I am still a lawyer.”
Staff writers Steve Visser and Jeffry Scott contributed to this article.