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‘Charlie Kray was a charmer’

Jonathan Goldberg is one of the most colourful criminal barristers in Britain. But what is it like defending people that the rest of us think are guilty?

    Jonathan Goldberg defended East End gangster Charlie Kray
    Jonathan Goldberg defended East End gangster Charlie Kray

    Every time Jonathan Goldberg QC attends a party, he faces the same question: “How can you defend a man you know to be guilty?”

    It’s something he has come to expect, having acted for some of the most notorious murderers, rapists and fraudsters in criminal courts at home and abroad for the past 41 years.

    He has won over jurors with Jewish jokes, exposed liars on the stand and made emotive speeches at the close of a case — a skill he got from watching his father Rabbi Percy Selvin Goldberg deliver sermons at the Manchester Reform Synagogue.

    “At every dinner party I go to, [guests ask] ‘how can you defend a man you know to be guilty?’” he says.

    “The answer is, you don’t know. If I look back on my career, many of the men who were acquitted with my help were guilty. But there’s no doubt in my mind that there were many innocent men who were falsely accused.”

    For Goldberg, the son of one prominent rabbi and the brother of another, one case stands out.

    He famously acted for Charlie Kray — the elder brother of notorious twin gangsters Ronnie and Reggie, who ran London’s East End in the 1950s and 1960s. But he has nothing but praise for Kray, who was convicted for masterminding a large cocaine deal in 1997, aged 70.

    “Charlie Kray was the most perfect gentleman, the most beautifully-mannered man,” says Goldberg. “He was the charming face of the Kray brothers. Women of all ages loved him. You would have been very happy to have dinner with him.

    “You couldn’t get down to the case because he was reminiscing about ‘the great characters of the East End’. He said: ‘all the rape, murder, robbery; when me and my brothers ruled the roost we would tolerate none of it. The police couldn’t control it, but we did.’

    “[The Krays] were very fond of the Chassidim in the East End. He said: ‘We had a very good relationship with the frumers’.”

    Speaking of which, I point out that he’s acted for a number of high-profile Orthodox Jews, from Rabbi Baruch Chalomish who was cleared of dealing drugs, to Charedi Jeremy Bernstein, who was acquitted of historic sex abuse this year.

    A cartoon sketch of the top QC with Kray at the 1997 trial
    A cartoon sketch of the top QC with Kray at the 1997 trial

    He laughs. “I would call myself standing counsel to the ultra-Orthodox. I speak a little Yiddish, I’m not observant but I’m proudly Jewish, and they like that. They don’t want a snotty English counsel.

    “I’ve acted for Old Etonians who have not been gentlemen and criminals who have been perfect gentlemen. It always amazes me how stereotypes are deceptive. All human nature is the same, it’s just the outer trappings that look different.”

    I met Goldberg at his home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, north-west London.

    Seconds after I ring the bell, he swings open the door. “Oh, I was expecting a man,” he laughs. “I would have made more of an effort.”

    But even in a pair of cream combat trousers paired with leather loafers, Goldberg does middle-class smart well.

    He shuts a case file strewn across the floor and puts the kettle on in the kitchen, leaving me to walk around the living-room.

    I walk past a menorah on the mantelpiece; a photograph of him with his wife Regina Skyer, a New York lawyer he met on JDate, a website for Jewish singles; before stopping in front of an array of colourful — some scantily clad — artwork.

    After a noisy room-to-room exchange over the boiling kettle, we agree to abandon coffee plans and open up a bottle of red wine.

    He takes a seat, leaning back in his red armchair, wine glass in one hand and spectacles in another.

    Goldberg’s warm manner has even endeared some of his less-savoury clients.

    “I’ve never had a personal threat,” he says. “The English criminal is more civilised.

    “I’ve had cases where people have gone down for 20 years and said ‘thank you Mr Goldberg, wonderful job’. One guy had gone down for armed robbery and gave me a beautiful Dunhill tortoise shell cigar lighter the night before the verdict. I still use that, it’s my favourite.”

    In the face of legal aid cuts, 50 per cent of his work is now civil, but his heart is in the Old Bailey: “There’s nothing else that gets the adrenaline going — waiting for the ‘guilty, not guilty’ verdict is a buzz. The courtroom is the best theatre.”

    “How do you expose a liar?” I ask, topped-up glass in hand. “Anyone who says you can read anything in a face or body language, it’s not true.

    “I expose a liar very carefully. You have to listen to the answers more than your own question. Listen to each word and watch for the clue.”

    The Cambridge University graduate, who was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1989, pursued law on the advice of his Warsaw-born mother Frimette: “She was a very shrewd woman. I think because I’m argumentative, good at debating and a good public speaker. Those I got from my father.”

    His voice softens at the mention: “He used to come and watch me in court whenever he could. He got tremendous naches out of it.”

    Now, a member of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, he has found comfort in the American Conservative movement and joined the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

    It has affected his opinion of our communal groups. A director at UK Lawyers for Israel, he says: “We are amateur, children in comparison. We are pathetic, fractured, divisive, competitive, ill-organised.

    “The Americans say ‘the squeaky wheel gets the oil’; the English Jewish way traditionally has been ‘don’t make waves’. I make waves. I’m a maverick.”

    As he’s famed for closing speeches, I give him an opportunity to address JC readers as I polish off a final glass. He pauses for a few seconds. “Fight back. Don’t let the b******* grind you down.”

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