Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove: Legacy And Inspiration

Tales Of Political Corruption Vol. 1, No. 4

The Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove:
Legacy and Inspiration

The Cool Justice Report
Sept. 30, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a lawyer; not just any type of lawyer -- but a criminal lawyer.

To my Dad, being a lawyer was the noblest vocation. He was orphaned at the age of 14. His Dad, a Bridgeport cop, had died of peritonitis when my Dad was eight. His Mom succumbed to cancer six years later. He was 15 when World War II broke out. He left Harding High School and convinced a recruiter he was 18. He almost made it to boot camp before they discovered his real age.

He was a tough Irish kid from Bridgeport who had grown up living in what was called the detention center. His Mom was the matron who ran the home for wayward boys that also housed juvenile delinquents.

His older brother, Bert, followed the family tradition and joined the police force after his military service. At 18, my Dad made it into the Army. He was stationed in the South Pacific but not in a forward combat unit. He wasn't a big man but tough. He became a champion Golden Gloves fighter in the service.

The War ended and he returned to Bridgeport eventually joining Bert on The Force, as they called it. For 14 years he walked a beat in the East side of Bridgeport. His neighborhoods were transitioning from stately old homes to tenements and increasing crime. You had to be tough to walk a beat alone. Cops didn't carry radios in those days, but reported in from call boxes on the street. I remember one family legend about a bear of a man accosting him on the street at night. The guy towered over my old man. There was no reasoning with him, and when the guy came at him my Dad dropped him with an open handed slap to the side of the head.

In the late 40's and 50's the cop on the beat was a fixture. He was a constant figure known to all in the neighborhood, a source of security and a problem solver. Drunks were taken home and wayward kids were returned to parents to be chastised. He met many people walking that beat. As a lawyer he was an uncanny judge of character and could converse as comfortably with a street kid as he did with a judge or some other professional. Walking those streets had given him a valuable tool that would be the hallmark of his trial abilities later.

When I was four he started college, nights at the University of Bridgeport. In those days, long before unions, cops worked weeks without a day off. We lived in a third floor tiny apartment owned by my Sicilian immigrant grandparents, my Mom's folks. It was a converted attic. From the time I could first remember I recall seeing him sitting at the top step of the stairs -- that was his desk -- studying. He carried books on the beat and would sneak in the back of the Homeport Grill to study when things were quiet. After five years of night school he became the first in his family to graduate from college. His dream was law school. Four grueling years later he realized that dream when he graduated from the night program at the University of Connecticut.

It was a demanding life. There were three of us to take care of at home. We saw little of him in those years, something that he worked hard to make up for later in life. There were no ball games or fishing trips. We would sit in the backyard and watch him leave with his briefcase to take the train to Hartford for class after working the 7-3 shift.

When he finally graduated I was thirteen. I remember going with him to New Haven to attend a class to prepare him for the bar exam. Nine hard years, however, wore too heavily on him and he was devastated when the results were published and he had failed. The weight of that long fight and this failure were too much for him and he spent six months in West Haven's Veteran's Hospital trying to regain the emotional capital to keep pursuing his dream. People didn't understand depression then. It was a stigma to be kept quiet in the family, as if it was an acquired personality flaw. He overcame that demon and passed the bar on his next try. He was the first cop in Connecticut to become a lawyer.

Dad had a political godfather in an old-time Bridgeport pol, Eddie Sandula. Sandula ran the local package store but had considerable political muscle. He helped arrange an interview for my Dad that led to an offer to join the U.S. Attorney's office as an assistant. The Kennedys ruled the White House and Bobby was the Attorney General. Dad was taken on a tour of the office and shown his desk. He resigned from the force after 14 years. About a week before he was to start word came down that the appointment went to another new lawyer. So after nine years and fighting back from depression here he was without a job. He got on a train to D.C. to confront Bobby Kennedy, but returned without the satisfaction of asking him why. My Dad detested the Kennedys the rest of his life.

A kindly lawyer, Sam Liskov, lent him some money and he opened an office. It was always a struggle for him. He only wanted criminal law. Ironically, every hearing or trial would find him confronting a cop on the witness stand, something that tore at him. He had great respect for cops, but couldn't abide a liar.

The insight he had developed and honed on the streets for 14 years made him an instinctual cross-examiner. He was methodical, almost surgical in his approach to a witness. Despite the rough edges one would expect from the path he took to the law, he was a soft-spoken advocate, never raising his voice or losing control of his emotions in a courtroom. He became known as the iron fist in the velvet glove.

A contemporary of my Dad was the legendary Bridgeport lawyer, Ted Koskoff. Ted was a renowned trial lawyer who was as comfortable trying a medical malpractice case as he was representing the likes of Bobby Seale, the Black Panther leader who came to fame in the late 60's. Ted mentored my Dad, and they spent a lifetime of admiration for each other, both leaving a legacy of children and grandchildren as lawyers.

Koskoff preached preparation. Despite the sometime drudgery, cases were won or lost in the preparation. Dad learned this lesson and passed in on to me and later my son when he joined the firm many years later. He always taught us that every case was to be prepared as if it was going to trial; and the day that you showed up unprepared was the day a judge would call for a jury panel and put your feet to the fire! A hallmark of his, and later my success, was that we were always prepared. I lived in anxious fear if I didn't.

My Dad never made much money as a lawyer. Criminals rarely paid the entire bill. Bookmakers were the worst. They always worked behind you, and they were frequent flyers. Dad would charge the same paltry amount for a murder case that he would charge for a breach of the peace; and he prepared the breach of the peace case as if it was going to be a murder trial. When he started there were fewer cases and more trials. Lawyers could cut their teeth in the courtroom trying relatively minor cases, ones where you couldn't do a lot of harm as a rookie.

He accepted an appointment as the part time Public Defender in what was then the Circuit Court, a level of our court system that handled largely misdemeanors. When I left for college in 1966 he had just been appointed the Chief Public Defender for the State -- great title, lousy pay. I eventually returned to start law school and began working part-time for him doing research. By then he had risen to prominence as one of the pre-eminent criminal trial lawyers in the state.

My last semester at UConn Law was spent in the Criminal Law Clinic. The concept was that a student would work in the Public Defender or State's Attorney's office. Because of the lawyer Dad had become I convinced the Dean to allow me to work with him instead. Connecticut had just created something called the Law Student Practice Act. I was the first Law Student Intern to actually try a case! It was actually a hearing on a Motion to Suppress evidence. I remember lying awake the night before the hearing with this fear that I would open my mouth in the courtroom and nothing would come out, or if it did it would be incomprehensible gibberish. I don't even recall who the client was but God bless him; he was the springboard that launched my career.

Just a brief word about law school: I entered with this naiveté, that all lawyers tried criminal cases. I remember showing up to register for the second semester, getting there early to sign up for advanced criminal procedure. I didn't want to miss getting a place in this class. When I arrived there was a long line at one of the registration tables. It wasn't for criminal procedure. That was the commercial law course. No one was in line for crim pro! Those commercial folks are probably mostly retired now after lucrative careers. No one makes much money in criminal law.

What reinforced my decision that I wanted to be a criminal trial lawyer was the first verdict I ever sat in for. I had one year of law school under my belt and with two infant sons at home I was balancing working full time for my Dad with completing school. He was representing a young black man who was a waiter at a restaurant in Norwalk. The fellow was charged with murder. Apparently there was a network of petty criminals who were working as wait staff and stealing credit card information that was being funneled to an organized group using the account information to charge large amounts on these cards. Supposedly someone who had discovered this kid's participation in the scheme was threatening to blow the whistle on the whole scheme. In true TV like fashion the future whistleblower showed up very dead and the leads pointed to Dad's client.

The courthouse in Bridgeport was a stately 19th century structure that dripped tradition. The jury was out all day and the trial judge was determined that there would be a verdict that night. The courtroom had magnificent floor to ceiling windows. The jury came in around 10 that night. The normally bright windows were now black with the night and served as the backdrop for the jury box. Fourteen solemn figures filed in, clearly emotionally spent from the ordeal of sitting in judgment of another human being.

The recitation of a verdict in a criminal case follows the same script established in the 18th century. It is a true ritual. The foreperson stands and the defendant is required to stand and face the jury. The clerk then intones the almost talismanic preambles to the announcement of the verdict: "Mr. Foreman, to the count of the Information charging the defendant with the crime of Murder, how say you, is the defendant guilty or not guilty of the crime for which he stands?" No one talks like that anymore and probably hasn't for the last two centuries.

When those words were spoken there followed an eternity until the foreman responded. It was really probably several seconds, but seemed eternal. It was in that brief space of time standing still that I found the most heady drug I had ever encountered. A life was to change forever in the minutes that would follow; not only the client's but often the lawyer's as well. Mine certainly had. I was addicted to the moment and would spend a career waiting for the next fix. "Not Guilty!" That sealed it for me.

I graduated near the top of my class and accepted a clerkship with a Connecticut Supreme Court Justice, Herbert "Hub" McDonald. Judge McDonald was a conservative old line Yankee. I remember lunch with him at New Haven's Graduate Club, an "old boys" haven for Yale grads. He was aghast because they had decided to hire women as wait help. To Hub this was almost sacrilegious.

There were five criminal appeals assigned to Justice McDonald to write the majority opinion. In those days the Justices would provide the briefs to their clerks to check the research before the case was to be argued. Following oral argument the Justices would meet immediately to discuss the case and take a preliminary vote. The Chief would then assign a Justice to write the draft majority opinion. In Hub's case that was left to me to provide the first working draft after we would spend time working through the issue together.

I think one of the reasons this conservative Republican gave me the appointment was because I was willing to challenge him on legal issues. Of the five criminal appeals assigned to Hub that year, I convinced him to submit a draft opinion reversing the conviction, despite the group's preliminary vote to affirm. All four cases were reversed.

As my one year appointment was coming to a close Hub encouraged me to interview with several of Connecticut's prominent law firms. Supreme Court clerkships were traditionally a ticket to a partnership track with most major firms. I remember visiting the fellow who had preceded me as Hub's clerk. He was an associate with just such a firm. When I walked into his office he took out a time log and note my arrival and departure. He was an indentured servant, slavishly chained to grinding out billable time -- not the life for me.

In June 1975 I returned to Bridgeport and Dad and I renamed the firm Meehan & Meehan. We began a partnership that transcended the practice of law. We caught up on all that lost time from the years he pursued his degrees. New York Giant football games, fishing trips and a "You and me against the world" attitude eventually put us collectively on the highest echelon of criminal practitioners in the state.

I spent my early career doing the grunt work, carrying my Dad's briefcase and second- seating trials. I saw the amount of work demanded by a serious criminal case. I saw the price a lawyer paid for chasing this narcotic. We worked as hard for the client who didn't care and didn't pay as we did for the client who did.

My Dad started winding down in the mid-90's. He would never retire. He lived to see my son, Mike, join the law firm and shared with me the pride that we were the only law firm in the state with three active generations.

In January 2001 I was retained to represent Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who was the target of what was to become the largest public corruption case in Connecticut history. In July of 2002, well after the indictment had been returned I came home from a tarpon fishing trip in Florida. I had just built a house in Charlotte Harbor, the tarpon fishing capital of the universe. Dad was pretty frail when I left and was looking forward to traveling to Florida in September to see the house. He didn't travel much any longer. He had loved our annual fishing trips to Central America but his declining health wouldn't allow him to travel like that any longer.

He lived vicariously through the fishing tales we would relate to him. He had just turned 79 and when I arrived home he was in the hospital. I was amazed to find him with a nasal-gastric tube and oxygen. He was failing but lit up when I told him of the 100- pound tarpon I had landed the week before. He was laboring to breathe and really could not speak above a whisper. He struggled to ask me how the case was going. At that time there was only one case; it had become a full-time job for me and would continue as such until the verdict the following March.

A lawyer to the end he whispered to me, "I have a theory about the case." He closed his eyes and drifted off again, he was heavily medicated because of pain. He never spoke another word.

I jokingly said to him, "Dad, don't do this to me. You can't just say that and go without telling me." But, he did.

He died the next morning, lawyer's lawyer. I never learned what his theory was. Nine months later when the jury convicted Joe I sat and wondered what that old warrior's theory was. I sure missed him.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Andy Thibault, author of Law & Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Website, and Blog,

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