Showing posts with label Leibowitz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leibowitz. Show all posts

15 June 2018

Attorney cannot free himself from murder case

[Following is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution.]

Leibowitz
The first-degree murder trial of Charles Sberna and Salvatore Gati was set to begin before Manhattan General Sessions Judge James G. Wallace on the morning of Wednesday, June 15, 1938. They were charged with causing the death of Police Officer John H.A. Wilson during an attempted robbery of a precious metals refining business in September 1937. A key component of the case was missing, however. Gati’s defense attorney, the celebrated Samuel Leibowitz who had never lost a client to the electric chair, was not in court.

Leibowitz was, in fact, in a different court in a different New York borough, representing a Brooklyn client accused of extortion. A clerk from Leibowitz’s office appeared before Judge Wallace to apologize and to explain that Leibowitz's partner Vincent Impellitteri would handle the Gati defense as soon as he was finished with the racketeering trial of Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro in federal court.

Assistant District Attorney Jacob Rosenblum, lead prosecutor in the Sberna-Gati case, protested that the involved attorneys were given plenty of notice of the trial date and that Leibowitz had only two days earlier committed himself to the Brooklyn extortion case.

Rosenblum
Judge Wallace understood that Leibowitz was trying to wriggle free of his obligation to represent Gati. When assured by the clerk that Impellitteri should be available by early July, if not sooner, Wallace responded, “As I understand, [Leibowitz] was the one that was retained... He cannot divorce himself of responsibility by assigning somebody else.”

“I would like to see Mr. Leibowitz when he concludes his case this afternoon,” Wallace told the clerk. “You will instruct him to come here. I would like to talk to him about his case.”

At twenty-five minutes after four that afternoon, Leibowitz showed up in Wallace’s courtroom. The defendants and the prosecutor also were present. Assistant District Attorney Rosenblum kicked off the discussion by saying he had received word that both prosecution and defense in the Brooklyn extortion case had delivered their summations, and a jury verdict could be expected the next day. Rosenblum saw no reason that the Sberna-Gati trial could not begin on the seventeenth.

Wallace turned to the truant defense attorney: “What about that, Mr. Leibowitz?”

Leibowitz attempted to sidestep the question. He spoke of Impellitteri’s work on trial preparation and asked that the case be put over at least until the middle of the following week. Rosenblum countered that Impellitteri was not the attorney of record for Gati and was not even associated with Leibowitz’s office at the time Gati acquired his defense counsel.


(Rosenblum’s own interest in the matter is uncertain. There was no obvious benefit to tangling with the far more experienced Leibowitz rather than Impellitteri. Rosenblum may have looked forward to the new challenge. Leibowitz had not defended a first-degree murder case in New York since District Attorney Thomas Dewey appointed Rosenblum to lead the Homicide Bureau. In recent months, Rosenblum had compiled a perfect record of convictions in eight first-degree murder trials. Or, possibly, Rosenblum knew his case against Gati was airtight and would surely ruin Leibowitz’s spotless trial record.)

Salvatore Gati

Judge Wallace asked Gati who was hired as his defense attorney. Gati said Leibowitz was hired and was paid a retainer for his services. That resolved the matter as far as the judge was concerned, but not Leibowitz. The defense attorney produced the written agreement signed by Gati and showed it to the judge. Leibowitz composed the agreement when he first heard rumors that Gati's fingerprint was perfectly preserved in molten wax that had fallen onto Officer Wilson's handgun at the time of his murder. The document granted Leibowitz the permission to withdraw from the case if the rumors turned out to be true.

“Those papers are just for the eyes of the Court,” Leibowitz said. “I do not want to have them made public in the newspapers.”

Wallace looked over the document and told the defense attorney, “I direct the trial to proceed on Friday and that you represent this defendant.”

For Leibowitz, the matter still was not closed. He requested a conference with the judge and the assistant district attorney, out of the hearing of the press. He then explained his concerns:


I told Mr. Rosenblum two months ago that if [Gati’s] fingerprints were on the gun I will absolutely not try the case, and under no circumstances did I want to defend him... I will under no circumstances defend a man, with his fingerprints on the gun, who is guilty of murder. Mr. Rosenblum said that two days before trial, he would make an appointment, so that we could have an inspection of the gun and our expert could look at it and examine whether it has his fingerprint. Now, we have been trying to get a look at this gun for a long while. On Monday of this week, Mr. Rosenblum made an arrangement with Mr. Impellitteri to have the gun examined, and why that was not done I don’t know. ... Now, Your Honor, if this man’s fingerprint is on this gun, I have not got the kind of energy, or the kind of interest in the man’s case. I am willing to return the fee...

The judge noted that Leibowitz was retained before the fingerprint became an issue. “[Gati] has been locked up for ten months charged with a serious offense. The case ought to be tried… I think you have a moral and a legal obligation to defend this man.”

Fingerprint just forward of cylinder

Rosenblum acknowledged that his office had conversations with defense counsel about viewing Police Officer Wilson’s handgun and the fingerprint on it. He noted that, while he was not required to do so (under the "discovery" rules of that era), he would make the “voluntary contribution” of allowing defense access to that evidence once the trial date was established.

Leibowitz, apparently already convinced that the fingerprint was genuine, abandoned discussion of evidence accessibility but continued to protest: “I do not find that I can give this man the kind of zeal, the kind of energy, the kind of devotion that a lawyer should give to a man who is on trial for murder.”

Gati fingerprint

“Is it your theory that you never represented anybody except a man who was innocent?” Wallace asked.

“I have never had a case yet where it was claimed by the prosecution that the fingerprint of my client was on the incriminating instrument… Witnesses may be mistaken. But I don’t know of a case yet where there has been a mistake on the part of fingerprints…,” Leibowitz argued. “I do not feel that the Court should ask a lawyer to represent a man, especially where his life is at stake, where the lawyer’s heart is not in the case… If convicted, he is going to the electric chair, and I do not think he should be represented by counsel who at least has not got the interest of the client at heart.”

Wallace would not budge:

You are an able and experienced trial counsel having defended a great number of persons for murder in the first degree. Moreover, I do not think that in all of the cases in which you went to the jury that your defendant was innocent, but that you felt merely that he was entitled to a trial to the best of your ability, and I feel that you can give this man an adequate and proper defense. Therefore, I direct, inasmuch as he has expressed an opinion that you were to try the case, that you proceed with this trial on Friday.

The conversation was over, but Leibowitz’s frustrations related to this trial were just beginning.

Read more:

Wrongly Executed?