SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - The murder of seven-year-old Danielle Van Dam, who disappeared from her Sabre Springs home back in 2002, rocked the San Diego community. More than a decade later, the lawyer who defended the man convicted of killing the little girl is opening up to CBS News 8 about the case.
After a stellar 40-year legal career, Steven Feldman is packing up his Golden Hill office and ready to retire. Although the Westerfield case brought him international notoriety, it's not the singular trial he wants to be remembered for.
"I was a student at Berkeley between 1967 and 1970. It was the height of the anti-war movement," he said.
Among other things, it was his arrest as a student activist that sparked Steven Feldman's desire to become one of San Diego's most well-respected and well-honored criminal defense lawyers for decades.
"I've never been a particularly conservative person. I don't feel as though prosecution or law enforcement is my bailiwick. I wanted to be a defense lawyer," he said.
While it was the David Westerfield murder trial that thrust him into the media spotlight in the early 2000s, it's not the case that the now-retiring 66-year-old calls the highlight of his career.
It was a case from the mid 80s where a capital murder defendant had been behind bars for years and Imperial County had refused to pay for certain defense necessities. Eventually, after the state Supreme Court got involved and the case was re-tried, the man was acquitted.
"When the jury acquitted him, they hugged him… and we literally went out to dinner the next night in Orange County with the jury. At that party, the jurors presented me with photographs of them, complimenting my work on the case. Friends have said, my wife has said I'm best when I'm in the courtroom," Feldman said.
And it was that demeanor that was seen around the world for weeks during the Westerfield case that ultimately caused him a lot of grief personally and professionally for defending a man many called a monster.
"There were anti-Semitic remarks, there were anti-defense lawyer remarks. I got letters, "if a bus should kill you, I would say thank you god.' It hurt my reputation. When I took the case, I thought, another capital case. After the media got done with me, I was called by the San Diego Union the most hated person in San Diego next to David Westerfield. And as I said at the time, what about Osama bin Laden?" he said.
He and his co-counsel Robert Boyce were even targets of nationally known Fox TV news show host Bill O'Reilly. He tried to get the pair disbarred, which never happened.
"There was Bill O'Reilly's camera crew outside my house. It's true I'm a criminal defense lawyer, and because I'm a criminal defense lawyer, I'm not listed. But I've learned there's really easy ways to get your phone number and your address," Feldman said. So of course I had no comment for them and I went back in the house and the phone rang and they said 'this is 'The O'Reilly Factor' and I had some terse words and hung up."
Feldman says he doesn't want his epitaph written with Westerfield at the top. He wants to be remembered "As someone who can be remembered as giving his clients the best possible defense, as being an ethical and honest person, as someone who's made a difference to the criminal defense community and dead-set against the death penalty."
Getting back to the Westerfield matter, it has gone to the state Supreme Court for review, but has not been heard. Feldman says with the backlog of death penalty case appeals, in general, it's possible his former client may outlive all of us.