Michael B. Pasternak said he likes representing the underdog and the pursuit of justice, two things that led him to representing Eugene Johnson, who, along with Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover, are commonly referred to as the “East Cleveland 3,” three East Cleveland residents who were imprisoned for 20 years for a murder they did not commit.
While Pasternak helped secure judgments of $5 million from East Cleveland and $1.5 million from Cuyahoga County for Johnson’s wrongful imprisonment, Pasternak acknowledged it would be a “challenge” to collect the settlement from the poor suburb of East Cleveland, but was pleased with the decision.
“It was a once-in-a-career moment to participate in helping get their story out and getting them some compensation for being wrongly imprisoned,” he said.
He said, despite the attention East Cleveland has received from this and other cases and the spotlight on the city due to the reporting of the investigative reporting podcast, “Serial,” which based its third season in Cleveland, he’s seen “no evidence” of East Cleveland changing its ways.
“The city doesn’t seem to get the focused attention from outside entities (as other locations do),” he said. “On some level, because (East Cleveland is) not sitting on a pile of cash, they feel they’re judgment proof, so that makes them feel emboldened to not change. I’ve seen no evidence that (these cases have) changed their conduct, sadly.”
He said his Jewish values line up well with his work.
“My goal in business is to do the right thing, honorably represent my clients,” Pasternak said. “I go against big companies, insurance companies, cities ... and I try to honorably represent my clients and be advocates for justice. But that’s what all lawyers are supposed to do, regardless of whether they’re Jewish or not.”
He said representing Johnson was a bit of an eye-opener for him.
“In terms of the East Cleveland case, I grew up privileged in Beachwood, never had any bad experiences with police officers or the court system,” he said. “Working on the East Cleveland 3 case was a scary eye opener for me. There are members of American society, where the system is not just and it’s not fair. And we overlook it and tend to move on.
“There are lots of cases where people are wrongfully charged, wrongfully convicted,” he said. “The thing about the East Cleveland 3 we need to take away is we all have to take criminal justice reform seriously and address the bias we have. The first recognition is that we do have a bias problem, that literally is the first step. The system, as it exists today, is biased from the way lawyers are paid, to the way someone thinks when they are charged with a crime. You can’t ask the question if you’re not going to entertain possible solutions.”