The Senator and the Unicorn
How Arlen Specter helped a murderer skip bail.

Long before he became one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate — and the target of Congressman Pat Toomey's GOP primary challenge — Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania demonstrated a knack for notoriety. In 1964, as a member of the Warren Commission, he invented the "single-bullet theory" to explain how Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy. Conspiracy junkies have obsessed over him ever since. (In Oliver Stone's movie JFK, Kevin Costner's character labels Specter "an ambitious junior counselor" behind "one of the grossest lies ever forced on the American people.")

Between serving on the Warren Commission and becoming a senator, Specter was twice elected district attorney in Philadelphia, where he earned a tough-on-crime reputation. His most famous case, however, came in 1979, when he was in private practice and thinking about running for the Senate. A man named Ira Einhorn, better known as the "Unicorn," had been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend; she had been missing for a year and a half when police found her mummified corpse squeezed into a trunk hidden in Einhorn's closet.

Einhorn was a celebrated leftist and is credited with helping found Earth Day. He also had strong ties to Philadelphia elites — a group of people Specter was cultivating for his prospective Senate campaign when he agreed to become Einhorn's lawyer.

At an arraignment, the government demanded a $100,000 bail for Einhorn. Before Judge William Marutani, Specter called this "excessively excessive" and insisted on a reduced figure. Marutani wondered if Einhorn might "split for parts unknown." He mentioned Norway as a possible destination. "I have to disagree with your last statement," replied Specter. "Anybody is as likely to go to Norway as anybody else." Through the future senator's efforts, Einhorn's bail was dropped to $40,000. The accused man only had to put out ten percent of it in cash to secure his release.

As things turned out, Specter was proven correct: Einhorn didn't flee for Norway. He went to Sweden instead, slipping out of the United States shortly before his murder trial was scheduled to begin. Einhorn remained a fugitive until 1997, when police found him living in France under a phony name with his Swedish wife. He was eventually extradited to the United States. In 2002, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Specter, who quit the case soon after the bail hearing and rarely has spoken about it since, says he has no regrets about representing Einhorn or demanding the reduced bail. "If I had been D.A., I would have had him detained — there would have been no bail at all," he told me in an interview last year.

But by 1979, the tough-on-crime prosecutor had become a tough-on-prosecutor criminal defender. Perhaps he was just doing his job. It must be remembered, however, that his job, for which he volunteered possibly to curry favor with potential political supporters, involved reducing bail for a murderer who fled from justice.