Legal Dream Team on the Defensive

Is the Dream Team over the top? They’re getting that reputation. A growing chorus of critics is accusing the lawyers of meddling in the two most volatile criminal cases in the city-the trial of four police officers accused of abusing Abner Louima and the indictment of another four cops in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo-to benefit their own civil cases on behalf of those victims.

Last month, before the Louima trial got under way in court, lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld were right there as Federal prosecutors conducted a weekend dress rehearsal for Mr. Louima in the Brooklyn courthouse. They watched as Mr. Louima practiced his intended testimony for the criminal case.

Courthouse observers and the press jumped on them, raising questions about the ethics of mixing a criminal case with a civil case that could yield their client millions.

Just a few weeks earlier, the lawyers were criticized for what some saw as another ethical breach. Leading the charge was, of all people, Michael Dowd, the criminal defense attorney, who has joined forces with Mr. Neufeld and Mr. Scheck in the past. That incident involved a press conference, held with the family of Mr. Diallo. “I was stunned by their behavior at the press conference,” Mr. Dowd said.

That day, March 31, had begun with the arraignment of the four officers in Criminal Court in the Bronx for the shooting of Mr. Diallo, drawing a noisy police demonstration to the courthouse, with an equally noisy anti-cop protest by supporters of the Diallo family.

The Dream Team press conference took place hours later, at 4 P.M., in the quiet of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund offices at 99 Hudson Street. Attending were Mr. Scheck and Mr. Neufeld, along with Kyle Watters and their longtime colleague Johnnie Cochran, who represent Mr. Diallo’s family in their wrongful death civil suit against New York City and the four officers who shot their son. Also there were the Diallos and their adviser, the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The attorneys used the press event to announce the results of an autopsy report of Mr. Diallo that they commissioned for the suit. Their autopsy revealed that the officers shot him in the bottom of the foot and the calf. “It doesn’t take an expert to see he was shot after he was down,” said Mr. Scheck.

To Mr. Dowd, watching a news report at home that evening, the lawyers’ statements seemed irresponsible. By discussing the facts of a criminal case before they were on the record, the three experienced defenders had poisoned the air around the unpopular defendants. Worse, he concluded, they did it to benefit their potentially lucrative civil case. He wrote out a half-anguished condemnation of the attorneys-one of whom he had worked with on cases, two he knew personally, and all of them he had respected-and the Daily News published it five days later on the Opinion page under the headline “Dream Team Out of Order on Cops.”

“Lawyers know that kind of medical evidence is speculative and dependent on a number of assumptions, yet there was Neufeld saying it before an audience of millions,” wrote Mr. Dowd, who handled a police brutality case himself earlier this year. (He also was opposite Mr. Neufeld in a case involving an ambulance crash, but said that played no part in his criticism.)

Mr. Dowd said that many attorneys called him in support. Several other defense attorneys shared their comments in interviews.

Gerald Lefcourt, onetime defender of the Black Panthers and Abbie Hoffman, thought that what he saw of the lawyers’ press conference could be construed as injurious to the defendants, already the targets of Mr. Sharpton’s then-escalating attacks against the Police Department. “The thing I didn’t like was the joining of all the political stuff with the legal stuff. I would probably have shied away from having the political activists at the press conference,” said Mr. Lefcourt. But he disagreed with Mr. Dowd on one point: He thought it was fair play to release the autopsy.

Kevin Doyle, who defends many notorious sorts as the head of the State Capital Defender Office, gave the team’s performance a good review. “My understanding was that they did take some pains to make clear that they were not just shoving aside the presumption of innocence or the right to remain silent,” he said.

But Mr. Doyle, too, had his quibble with the Dream Team. “The one thing that is a little troubling–not troubling, maybe, but somewhat strengthens Dowd’s view-is that Peter [Neufeld] has taken this occasion, rightly or wrongly, to make statements not only about the particulars of this case but about broad police policy, like the 48-hour rule,” said Mr. Doyle.

(In fact, the Diallos’ lawsuit does challenge broad police policy. They charge an unconstitutional pattern and practice of shootings and cover-ups have existed in the Street Crime Unit, which has been specifically helped along by the 48-hour rule. To not have included a claim against Police Department policy would have been tantamount to malpractice, allowing the city and its deep pockets to escape liability.)

The criticism by his fellow defense attorneys has not rolled off Mr. Scheck. “You should read the full transcript. Everyone should read the full transcript,” he moaned. “What’s frustrating is, we really thought through these issues. We held our conference inside an office. It was very dignified, very lawyerly. We spoke, our clients spoke, Reverend Sharpton-our client’s adviser-spoke. This is our one great opportunity to change practices in the New York Police Department, and so we made sure to be careful to respect everyone’s fair trial rights,” said Mr. Scheck. The planning went on for a few days, right up until the minute the press conference started, he said.

Mr. Scheck said he and his clients were well within their rights and the ethics rules to discuss their own autopsy, since it was not a direct part of the criminal trial evidence. Nor were they being opportunistic, he added, because the report had been sitting quietly in the lawyers’ office for many weeks. The Dream Team decided to go public with the damning conclusions only the day before, when defense lawyer Stephen Worth told the New York Post -in a cover story-that Mr. Diallo did not fall at any point while the cops were shooting, Mr. Scheck said.

“You know what it is, they … flashed on television the pictures from the courthouse up at the Bronx, and flashed to the conference room where we were talking,” said Mr. Scheck. But Mr. Scheck’s clients and their inflammatory adviser spoke at both scenes. At one they may have spoken quietly into the camera, but at the other, they shouted their comments to 1,000 demonstrators who were noisily chanting: “No justice, no peace, no more racist police.” Mr. Scheck, who has gotten his fair share of media attention, will have to work his legal magic to convince a jury of his peers that he’s been a media victim.

You can reach N.Y. Law through confidential e-mail at mfleischer@observer.com.