Every so often a defense lawyer comes along who has a season like Babe Ruth. Suddenly he is on the side of every famous accused felon, every wounded politician, every raw social issue. In this, his season, Barry Slotnick is about to plunge into the high voltage defense of Bernhard Goetz, New York’s infamous subway gunman who has admitted shooting four black youths and whose claim of self-defense seems, on the face of it, a difficult brief.
Slotnick sits in his office in lower Manhattan holding a filter-tip cigarette, ready to demonstrate that in all human affairs the gap between appearance and reality may be the difference between guilt and innocence.
“How long have you smoked?” he is asked.
He taps away an ash, then says rather casually, “I don’t smoke.”
Slotnick, 47, inhales again from what is indisputably a lighted cigarette.
“How long haven’t you smoked?” persists a visitor.
“Look,” he says with a cold Bronx twang that cuts off the discussion, “I do not smoke.”
He takes another puff. “Are you going to believe your eyes or what I tell you?”
This, then, is the working strategy of a masterful persuader. Slotnick is a criminal lawyer. A litigator. It is his job to make juries doubt what they see, to blow smoke in their eyes.
Earlier this year Slotnick engineered the defense of John Gotti, who authorities say is the leader of one of the nation’s most powerful organized crime families, and six of his associates. All were acquitted after a seven-month trial in Brooklyn’s Federal District Court.
Slotnick’s clients don’t have to be facing long years behind bars to benefit from the full range of his ingenious talents. Take the defense he mounted for the owner of a dog accused of biting a woman’s leg. He demanded a lineup and the victim couldn’t pick out the guilty canine.
Or the case of a teenager who claimed he was beaten up by two Hasidic Jews—members of an Orthodox sect who all wear beards and dress in long black coats and large black hats. Slotnick bussed in 52 Hasidic Jews from their New York City neighborhood and slipped his clients among them. The witnesses all were baffled.
Is Slotnick really functioning, as he claims, on some higher, idealistic plane, or is he sabotaging the ends of justice? “I try to make the jurors see things in another way,” he says. “Things are not always what they appear to be.”
Barry Slotnick is the child of middle-class parents who emigrated from Russia. His father, Meyer, was a Roosevelt supporter, a captain in the Bronx Democratic machine. Slotnick has vivid memories of sitting down to dinner while job seekers and supplicants lined up outside the house. His heroes were liberal Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and Hugo Black. Today Slotnick is a Republican and a conservative, and he is not completely certain whether the world has tilted away from him or he from it. He claims that his cause is still human rights.
“We criminal lawyers are the last defense against tyranny,” he says in his own defense. “I protect unpopular people against the abuses of the state.”
Indeed, although Slotnick has his detractors—critics claim that his practice is weighted in favor of members of organized crime—there are others who disagree with the “mob lawyer” slur. “I respect him,” says the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District, Rudolph Giuliani. “He is a good lawyer and an honorable person. I have always seen him keep his word.”
Among his current clients is Congressman Mario Biaggi (D-Bronx), who is facing corruption charges. Last February Slotnick’s appeal won back U.S. citizenship for Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, who had been stripped of citizenship when he became a member of the Israeli parliament.
But it will be the defense of Bern-hard Goetz that will decide Slotnick’s place in the defenders’ pantheon. Goetz, now 39, an electrical engineer, was riding a New York subway train at about 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 22, 1984, when he was confronted by four black youths, who may or may not have been out to rob him. Pulling an unlicensed pistol from his shoulder bag, Goetz gunned down James Ramseur, then 18, Troy Canty, 19, Barry Allen, 18, and Darrell Cabey, 19.
The case has become emblematic, a symbol of vengeance for embattled subway riders as well as a symbol of white oppression for angry urban blacks. “My client was defending himself,” insists Slotnick, who has learned to speak in crisp sound bites for the benefit of reporters’ microphones. “He could have spit, but that wouldn’t have stopped the robbery.”
“No, it wouldn’t…” begins Goetz, but Slotnick holds up his hand—a traffic cop stopping his client from crossing this particular intersection. The lawyer is unwilling to risk any further indiscretions by Goetz, who has a tendency to shoot off his mouth.
Does Slotnick think about the four young men Goetz shot with such efficiency? “No.”
What about Darrell Cabey, the most seriously wounded of the youths, who was permanently paralyzed? Cabey was lying on the floor when Goetz came over to him and reportedly said, “You don’t look so bad, here’s another,” then fired a bullet into his back. That follow-up attack is expected to present serious difficulties for the defense. Does Slotnick think of Cabey?
“I have to think of him as the thug I contend he is, a mugger who got what he deserves,” says Slotnick. “When it’s over, I’ll reflect on him as a human being.”
Most members of the prospective jury enter the case with understanding for Goetz’s vigilante behavior. Half the panel had been victims of crime. Slotnick spent three weeks helping to pick the jury. Jury selection, he insists, is the most important phase of the trial, and in this process, he was at his best. For example, Slotnick spent a lot of time questioning one particular prospective juror, Robert Lorenzo, 34. Not because he thought Lorenzo might sit in judgment on Goetz—there was no doubt he would be dismissed for cause—but because he wanted the other jurors to hear Lorenzo’s story.
Robert Lorenzo, who works in advertising, had come to court as a gun control advocate. He had difficulty imagining a violent reaction to an attack. However, under Slotnick’s questioning, he said that one night, in the midst of jury selection, he and his fiancée were assaulted by a gang of thugs. Lorenzo, the gun-control advocate, said that if he had had a weapon, he would have used it.
If Slotnick was quick-tempered with his adversary, assistant district attorney Gregory Waples, he was poetic and humble before the jury. “There will come a time when we will rise when you enter the courtroom,” he told the 12 jurors. “When the case is completed and goes to you, you become the judges of fact, and we will stand.” All visibly stiffened with pride.
“It’s all preparation,” says Slotnick, deflecting praise to his two assistants. “I sing the songs that others write.”
After the jury was picked there was a three-week adjournment of the trial. Deeply fatigued, Slotnick suffers a psychological letdown. Behind the closed door of his office, the strain showing in the extra baggage under his eyes, Slotnick begins to ruminate about his pressured life. “I work very hard,” he says. “I can’t slow down, I can’t change directions. What else can I do? I can’t cook, I’m not a great artist. How can I modify my life?” He has little real inclination to do so and appears to enjoy the trappings of his success. He wears $2,500 suits and costly shirts with monogrammed cuffs. On his wrist is a gold Piaget watch, a gift from a grateful client. Outside wait a driver and a limousine.
In the austere anteroom of Slot-nick’s office, you can find the human contradictions that seem to characterize his practice. A woman leaving the office is stopped by a very tough-looking character in expensive clothing. She looks a little startled. “You forgot your purse,” he says. The woman is grateful and she begins calling him “the last honest man.” Then suddenly, from a conference room, steps John Gotti, reputed godfather of the Gambino crime family. The character steps protectively between everyone else and Gotti. The last honest man turns out to be John Gotti’s bodyguard.
Slotnick, who says that his acquittal rate is 95 percent and who boasts that he once went 12 years without losing a case, earns a seven-figure income. Wall Street firms make tempting offers. He can fly away on expensive vacations with his wife of 19 years, Donna, and their children, Stuart, 17, Melissa, 15, Shoshanna, 13, and Chani, 5. “They think I can do anything,” he says, not without pride. “They even ask me for Billy Joel tickets!”
Yet Barry Ivan Slotnick says something curious. “Sometimes I go to funerals to pay respects and I think maybe there should be more time to reflect. Sometimes I’m lonely.”
This comes at a gleaming moment in Barry Slotnick’s career, but, as he would be the first to admit, not everything in life is as it appears.