Waiting for Ted Koskoff.
Koskoff served as president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America from 1979 to 1980 and was president of the Roscoe Pound Foundation from 1976 to 1977. He was renowned for his eloquence and brilliance, his genius with trial tactics, and, above all, his supreme mastery of persuasion.
Koskoff was a lawyer's lawyer. I did not meet him until I had been prosecuting in Connecticut for about a year. Then, on March 1, 1975, the Sponge Rubber Products Co. in Shelton, the area's biggest employer, was blown to smithereens in the middle of the night.
Fifty-gallon drums of gasoline, linked together with a fuse, had been placed throughout the plant. This event was preceded by the altruistic kidnapping of three security guards by masked men who kindly deposited their victims deep in the woods of a neighboring town before the fuse was lit back at the plant. The Sponge Rubber building--a full city block in size--exploded and was decimated by fire. The blast put hundreds out of work and gutted the core of Shelton's economy.
FBI agents were on the case in a heartbeat, working the largest arson investigation the bureau had ever conducted until then. They set up a command center on the site, established contacts with state and local authorities, and brought in arson experts. Within hours, agents had combed the area's motels and hotels, interviewed hundreds of people, and analyzed the company's financial records and a web of interrelated telephone records. Suspicion quickly focused on the plant's new owner, Charles Moeller. The suspected motive was insurance, which, when paid, would unburden Moeller of a financial albatross.
The FBI's investigation also led to a collection of misfits from Pennsylvania who, records revealed, had traveled to the plant before the explosion and were linked to each other through long-distance telephone records. The wild card was the Rev. David Bubar, a professed psychic on whom Moeller had relied for financial advice. Bubar had predicted to others that the plant would be destroyed by fire.
Moeller was indicted along with Bubar and the eight Pennsylvania arsonists. The case was brought to trial in the U.S. District Court in New Haven. I was second chair to U.S. Attorney Peter Dorsey, now the district's chief judge. Judge Jon Newman, who would later become chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, was to preside over the trial.
I met Ted Koskoff because he was going to represent Moeller, the lead defendant. I was looking forward to this experience. As a young assistant U.S. attorney, I was going to be in the catbird seat at one of Connecticut's biggest trials, before the smartest judge I'd ever seen in a courtroom, against a bevy of hotshot defense attorneys. And the lead defendant was represented by the legendary Koskoff. There could not be a better learning opportunity for any lawyer, I thought.
I was to conduct the pre-trial hearings, most of which were routine and didn't present a problem for the prosecution. Koskoff advanced the legal issues for Moeller. At this stage, as I anticipated, the other defense lawyers consulted with and deferred to the master when the arguments were presented. Fairly ordinary stuff.
The prosecution's case would be based on eyewitnesses, physical evidence, and the insurance motive. There were no legal technicalities to rely on. I would have to wait for the trial to begin to see the genius at work. I could not wait to watch Koskoff dominate the courtroom, to see him turn certainty into gnawing doubt with the skillful scalpel of cross-examination. This was really going to be something.
Ted Koskoff looked like the legend he was. There was a lot of him; he could, as they say, fill a room. He was not so tall as he was big--heavy really--but well dressed and graceful. He was bald, with a fringe of white hair, and he wore big, dark-framed glasses that took up much of his face.
And what a voice. When he spoke, it rumbled around the entire courtroom. He spoke smoothly and slowly with an understanding, fatherly tone that was explanatory rather than demeaning or accusatory. Even in casual conversation, his persuasive powers were evident.
But I was to be disappointed. Once the jury was in the box, Koskoff was not the center of attention as I had expected. He didn't display the dazzling questioning techniques I anticipated. He sat back and let the younger tyros rush around, flailing at witnesses whose testimony had stung their clients. I watched the other lawyers as they tried to strip away the many layers of the government's evidence.
I watched and waited to see the great Ted Koskoff unwrap the skills I knew he possessed. The trial dragged on, day after day. Weeks became months until the evidence concluded. I was still waiting. Where was he? Where was this giant of the trial bar about whom I had heard so much? Why was he not running this show, tying the government up in knots, outshining us with his trial wizardry?
Closing arguments came, and Ted did not even go first. When he did take center stage, he did a respectable job, reminding the jurors of their responsibilities. In his booming James Earl Jones voice, he spoke of the difficult hurdle of reasonable doubt that the prosecution must overcome in criminal cases. He observed that if the motive for this crime was recovering insurance proceeds, why did his client not have an actual insurance policy instead of an uncertain oral binder? He ended by reviewing the foundations of U.S. democracy.
The arguments on both sides of the case concluded. Apparently, I had waited for nothing.
The jury deliberated and convicted the Pennsylvania arsonists. Moeller, Koskoff's client, and one of the Pennsylvanians who had driven a rental truck to the plant on instructions from the others were found not guilty. A good result for Moeller, yes, but not, I thought, because of Ted Koskoff's legerdemain.
That was my Sponge Rubber trial experience. I learned a good bit. There were some humorous moments, especially those involving the psychic minister and his equally bizarre counsel. We prosecutors had convicted most of the people we had set out to convict.
What I had waited for--Koskoff's demonstrated genius--never occurred. His client was acquitted, sure, but that was mostly because our case against him was not as strong as it was against the others. I concluded that although the jury had let his client off, it was not because Ted Koskoff had done anything brilliant.
But I was wrong. Sometimes it takes a while for things to sink in. A long while. About three years after the Sponge Rubber trial, I was mindlessly mowing my front lawn. I had left the U.S. attorney's office two years before and was now in private practice. I never really thought much about the case other than to share war stories with the defense attorneys whose camp I had now rejoined. Sponge Rubber was just an occasional three-year-old memory.
As I crossed my lawn that day, my mind wandered back to the trial, and, suddenly, it hit me. I understood Koskoff's brilliance. What he had done was breathtaking. He had represented the lead defendant in a monster case and had gotten lost in the courtroom. Koskoff--and, therefore, his client--hid so well that the jurors effectively forgot he was there.
Rather than become the focal point of the trial, Koskoff had deflected all the attention to others. He had managed to make his client incidental to the prosecution. He understood that a trial was not a lawyer's opportunity to stroke his ego by showing others he was a great lawyer. He was secure enough to stay out of the way of the evidence--or lack of evidence--and know it would take his client out of the case.
Koskoff's brilliance in this case was not to be found in dazzling questions or stentorian beratings of the prosecution for unjustly accusing an innocent man. He recognized that if he got lost in the courtroom, so would his client, and there would be an acquittal. He did, and there was. That is the work of a brilliant lawyer.
The wait--all three years of it--was worth it.
William F. Dow III is a partner with Jacobs, Grudberg, Belt & Dow in New Haven, Connecticut.
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|Author:||Dow, William F., III|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1998|
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