Murder defense lawyers are the Lone Rangers of their profession. Leaving behind not a trail of silver bullets but a string of defendants gone free, the most talented command huge fees for their skills in the courtroom. The best-known—men like F. Lee Bailey, Edward Bennett Williams and Percy Foreman—are legends to both their peers and the public. But there are others, less famous by far, whose professional stature rivals even that of their illustrious colleagues. PEOPLE asked dozens of America’s foremost criminal lawyers the question: “If you were accused of murder, whom would you choose to defend you?” Here are some of their choices—lawyers’ lawyers in the truest sense.
John Flynn of Miranda fame relies on instinct
“It was like standing up before God,” recalls John Joseph Flynn of his appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966. Flynn, in fact, never stood taller. As counsel for Ernesto Miranda, an indigent laborer convicted of kidnapping and rape, it was Flynn who argued the case that led to the historic decision requiring police to read defendants their rights.
Ironically, neither adversaries nor associates back in Phoenix, Ariz, regard Flynn as a great student of the law. “He isn’t particularly well-read and he doesn’t have the academic background,” says one of his partners, Philip Goldstein. “But he’s got an uncanny gut instinct about people, and that’s his greatest strength.” Adds Maricopa County Attorney Charles F. Hyder: “John and I don’t have much love for each other, but when he walks into that courtroom he strikes fear into the hearts of prosecutors and judges alike. He’s the Muhammad Ali of Arizona. You can hit him and hit him, but he’ll always bounce back. And if you let your guard down he’ll paste you.”
A veteran of some 130 homicide cases, Flynn, 53, is known for his skill in picking a jury. But he attributes most of his success to exhaustive pretrial work and careful cross-examination. “First you’ve got to find the facts,” he says. “I’ve spent as much as 300 hours preparing for a murder trial. After all, the admonition by the judge that the defendant must be presumed innocent is meaningless. The jury sees the defendant sitting there and believes that he’s guilty. So you either have to destroy the prosecution’s evidence or put on irrefutable evidence of your own.”
For all the shrewdness that he displays in the courtroom, however, Flynn is less astute in his financial dealings with clients. “He always gives them his undivided loyalty,” says Superior Court Judge Robert Corcoran, “and he has done it in many cases where he hasn’t been compensated.” Complains partner Goldstein with exasperated affection, “John doesn’t know how to get fees. He’s done at least a couple of hundred cases for nothing, and now he’s at the point where I’ve got to lend him $2,500.” Four times divorced, Flynn lives on a 64-acre farm owned by his firm with two of his seven children and a woman with two of her own. “I don’t believe in saving,” he confesses, and suspects such an attitude helped break up his marriages. “It’s strange,” says Goldstein. “John is able to get the courtroom situation in perspective, but he can’t deal with his personal life. He’s a hard-luck story standing on principle.”
James La Rossa wants only the tough ones
James M. La Rossa puts in a compulsive 80 hours a week, most of them defending accused (and prosperous) white-collar criminals. He takes one or two murder cases a year, and then only if they are “interesting.” Which means? “Let’s say that if someone is caught with a smoking gun, that’s not interesting,” he explains.
The ethics of defending someone he knows is guilty do not bother La Rossa. “I’m not proving their innocence. I’m attempting to stop the prosecution from proving their guilt.” Nonetheless, there are some accused murderers La Rossa, 46, would never represent. “Terrorists, for example,” he says. “I have trouble stomaching that kind of thing.” Otherwise, his main objection is that few homicides offer the kind of professional challenge posed by white-collar crime. “A good criminal lawyer is trying a fact pattern,” La Rossa says. “International tax cases, with experts on both sides and 600 pages of transactions to read and understand, are much more complex. In a murder you need to know pathology or ballistics—simple stuff. They’re really whodunnits with the easiest patterns to try.”
When La Rossa does enter a murder case, he says, “My kind of legal service is complete. It involves retaining the right investigators, the right brief man, an accountant, psychiatrists, scientific specialists in ballistics and electronics.” La Rossa estimates that a first-class murder defense costs a minimum of $100,000; he personally charges $175 an hour in New York, where his six-man firm is located, and $200 an hour on the road, plus all expenses. (“Regardless of the case,” he says, “the preparation is more important than the trial. It’s what separates the mechanic from the artist.”)
The son of a mailman, La Rossa was brought up in New York. “I always wanted to be a lawyer,” he says. “I thought it was a profession where if you really worked you could grow without the obvious family connections.” After graduating from Fordham Law School, he spent two years in the Marines, then served a three-year apprenticeship as a Justice Department prosecutor. “It’s a great training ground because you handle cases you would wait years to try in a big firm,” he says. “Also, your adversaries are the finest lawyers.”
La Rossa’s 13 years of not-guilty verdicts have brought a palatial life-style for himself, his wife, Gayle, and their four children. He delivers 20 to 30 legal lectures a year and pursues few serious interests outside the law. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing,” he says. “I see good lawyers as the last of the gladiators.”
Bobby Lee Cook would give the Devil his due
“He goes for the jugular and he can make a prosecutor take a position he can’t defend,” rhapsodizes one of Bobby Lee Cook’s legal confreres in Georgia. “His skill and ability are such that he can do it with a scalpel or a sledgehammer; be like a slow-moving stream or a raging current; be quiet, then ferocious; put a witness to sleep or throw him out the window. He places the well-being of his client before anything else. If the Devil ever needed a defense, Bobby Lee Cook would take the case.”
Satan would be in reliable hands. Cook, 51, a small-town lawyer from Summerville, Ga., has got his clients off in about 90 percent of the 250 murder cases he has tried since 1949. Far from resenting his reputation, fellow lawyers admire his tireless dedication to their craft. “He didn’t become a great lawyer overnight,” says one. “It took years. A lot of trial lawyers couldn’t take the pressure and went into corporate or tax law. Bobby Lee can take the pressure, and he’s willing to put in the work.”
Son of a country store owner, Cook decided on a legal career after his discharge from the Navy in 1945. “I went into the Navy because I had never been anywhere,” he says, “and I was the first in my family to go to college or study for a profession.” He started out handling hundreds of bootlegging and moonshining cases (“Hell, that was the largest industry in the area back then”). Now he travels 50,000 miles a year—many of them in his chauffeured silver-and-blue Rolls-Royce—to keep up with the clients he attracts.
Cook begins each case by meticulously reconstructing the evidence. “Some people think all a good lawyer does is take a sack full of books and papers, dress up and look neat, and go to the courthouse and raise hell,” he says. “But if he’s not really prepared when he gets there, he can be the brightest fellow in the country and still be in bad shape.” So much depends on jury selection, Cook declares. “You do it by intuition. You just know some prospective jurors would convict their own grandmother. You need to find out all you can about each person.” Finally, a winning advocate must be believable. “There’s an old mountain saying, ‘You can’t pour water uphill.’ I’ve seen too many lawyers get in trouble by trying to be cute or devious.”
No subscriber to the belief that too many Cooks spoil the practice, Bobby Lee welcomed his son, Bobby Lee Jr., 28, into the firm in 1974. (Daughter Kris, 26, has taken the bar exam, while Sally, 22, is a college senior.) Seventy-five percent of the Cooks’ cases are homicides, and Bobby Lee Sr. thinks that ratio will continue. “I’m not going out of the murder business, because I think there’s still a lot of murder business left.”
Jo-Anne Wolfson turns lost causes into won cases
In Chicago legal circles Jo-Anne Wolfson has picked up an alias: She is known as “the Queen of the Hopeless.” “It’s a bit scary,” says a former prosecutor. “When you see her in action you almost begin to think that you can get away with murder.”
Wolfson, 43, has handled some 50 homicide cases in her 12 years of practice—with a 75 percent acquittal rate. “I don’t take any murder-for-hire stuff,” she says. “What I’m involved in is spontaneous life-combat situations. Murder is a crime of passion, and most murders are committed by real people. In fact, I’ve never represented a murderer, alleged, that I didn’t like.”
Though Wolfson jokes that “murder is the easiest crime to defend because the most important witness is missing,” she prepares meticulously for each appearance in court. “I read and memorize every word of every document, pore over police reports, listen to tape recordings,” she says. “A photographic memory helps. Then I sit and brood.” She tries to relax clients before they testify by rehearsing them in an empty courtroom. “Don’t avert your eyes when the jury comes in,” she tells them. “The jury is curious. They want to see what a real live murderer looks like. But don’t stare them down either.”
Wolfson is proud of her reputation as a winner of unwinnable cases—one a few years ago in which two black teenagers were accused of killing two white youths. After a 400-hour trial one defendant was found guilty—but the other, defended by Wolfson, went free. Circuit Court Judge Benjamin S. Mack-off, who presided, came away calling her “probably the most resourceful lawyer ever to come before me. She has no peer,” he adds. “She knows what the law is and does her homework—not all lawyers do.”
The product of a Chicago suburban childhood she describes as “miserable,” Jo-Anne Friedman was headed for a Ph.D. in English before leaving the University of Illinois out of boredom to sign on with a traveling animal show. (“I used to lie down under the elephant’s foot and walk the kangaroo.”) Back in school she dated and eventually married Warren Wolfson, now a circuit court judge. She originally entered law school with the intention of joining his practice.
Though Jo-Anne had to cut two days of classes to give birth to the Wolfsons’ daughter, Abby, in 1963, she feels her gender has never slowed her career. “I’m constant noise,” she says, “always carrying on, always fighting. And I just love to holler at policemen!” Remarkably, the cops don’t seem to hold any grudges. One, in fact, recently gave Wolfson a gold lighter with a note attached: “I can’t let the best criminal lawyer in town be seen with a 39-cent Bic.”
Donald Goldberg works quietly—and always alone
“If you’re really in trouble, and you’re guilty as sin,” says a fellow Philadelphia lawyer, “you get Donny Goldberg—and that’s a fact.” Such accolades bring Goldberg, 47, a parade of agonized clients—many of them accused white-collar crooks these days—and an estimated quarter-million dollars a year. “Of course Don is expensive,” says one of his peers. “But he will never gouge a client. When you hire Don Goldberg, that’s exactly who you get, not some junior guy in the office doing the legwork. I’ve known times when Don realized his client’s back was against the wall. That’s when you need him most, because he has researched every angle and knows where deals can be made.”
Goldberg operates his one-man legal rescue unit in a tiny suite of offices, assisted only by a secretary. He rarely takes on more than 15 new clients a year and prides himself on keeping most of his cases out of the courtroom. “I think,” he says happily, “that I’ve got the best practice in America.”
Goldberg’s father, an insurance agent, died when Donald was 5; his mother died five years later. Raised by an aunt and uncle, he was left slightly crippled after a childhood bout with polio. Physical therapy brought almost total recovery, and his ambition was undimmed by the illness. “I wanted to be a criminal lawyer since the first day I read Perry Mason as a teenager,” Goldberg recalls. “It was the idea of the individual pitted against organized authority.” After breezing with honors through a Philadelphia high school for gifted students, he studied business at the University of Pennsylvania. Later, at Harvard Law School, he startled the dean by announcing he intended to practice criminal law. “Then why,” asked the baffled teacher, “did you come to Harvard?” “Things have changed since then,” says Goldberg, with a trace of amusement.
In fact, Goldberg’s timing could not have been better. The corporate crime rate soared in the following decades. “It became more and more important for a good lawyer to know where the law library was,” he says. “My accountant’s training stood me in good stead. I enjoy looking up books and records.”
Though he insists on working alone in the courtroom (“I don’t like to have other people at the defense table; it doesn’t look good to a jury”), his relations with adversaries are quite amicable. “He never lets his reputation go to his head,” says an assistant U.S. attorney. “In the end, he winds up getting a lot more cooperation than some big-shot lawyer who walks in here with a dozen assistants tagging along behind him.” Never a headline seeker, Goldberg glories in his own anonymity. “Very often,” he says, “the biggest success in a practice like mine is when only two people hear about a case: your client and the government.”
Racehorse Haynes bids sweet potatoes adieu
When Richard “Racehorse” Haynes was growing up in San Antonio, Texas, his family was Depression-poor. Their Christmas tree one year was a mesquite bush with ornaments fashioned from cigarette packet tinfoil. His father, a plasterer, was paid off in sweet potatoes by a customer and the children ate them with every meal. “God, if you just let me get through this,” vowed young Race, as the schoolboy athlete was known, “I’ll never eat sweet potatoes again.”
Today, at 51, Haynes is in a position to keep that promise. With dozens of successful murder defenses behind him (including the celebrated 1977 acquittal of Texas millionaire T. Cullen Davis), he is widely touted as Percy Foreman’s successor as the finest murder lawyer in Texas. Scholarships got him through the University of Houston. Now he flies his own Cessna, sails his own handsome Cal 40 and drives both a $44,000 Porsche turbo Carrera and a $16,000 Excalibur. He owns sumptuous homes in Houston and the hill country near Austin, as well as a spread in south Texas.
Though Haynes travels constantly, he tries to spend weekends with Naomi, his wife of 27 years, and the two children, of four, still at home. An ex-paratrooper, Haynes skydives and races his dirt bike, though a tumble off a motorcycle several years ago cost him a bad knee that ended his tennis playing. “A young lady walked by in a T-shirt with no bra,” he explains. “I diverted my eyes for a millisecond and went over the rail into the snack bar. The girl didn’t even stop.”
Once on a case, Haynes becomes intensely professional. “His strength is his thorough investigation,” says Foreman. “He’s as good as there is.” Haynes’ partner, Donn C. Fullenweider, credits him with “reading people beautifully. He picks up on eye movements, body language, nervous gestures. He just captures witnesses. It’s almost like he reads their minds.” Haynes’ painstaking cross-examinations (“tedious but frightening,” says Fullenweider) have made him the butt of a hoary but true tale about a juror who dropped dead in the jury box. Haynes admits the incident, but insists he wasn’t bored to death.
Above all, Haynes believes the key to being a successful criminal lawyer is sympathy for human frailty. “People are strange,” he says. “When we have a fellow human in the water, bleeding and wounded, many times we attack like sharks.” His job, says Haynes, is to remind the jury that the accused is flesh and blood just like them. “I don’t think anybody can mount up a concern for the client that exceeds mine.”