A bulldog tenacity in the courtroom

May 15, 1994|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

Several years ago, defense lawyer Maria Cristina Gutierrez updated her wardrobe. Out went the demure, Brooks Brothers style. In came a bold, even defiant look -- miniskirts, low-cut blouses, high heels and scarves in a riot of brilliant colors.

Finally, her clothes and her courtroom style were in sync.

Passionate, fierce and relentless, Ms. Gutierrez is generally considered one of the top criminal lawyers in Maryland, a tenacious gut-fighter who will not give ground, go along or go away.

"Criminal defense is street fighting," she explained recently. "It isn't elegance. It isn't Wall Street."

The protector of the vilified, she now stands between Baltimore City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean and a potential prison term. She is also defense counsel for John J. Merzbacher Jr., a former Catholic school teacher who, accused of molesting students, faces the possibility of an even lengthier sentence.

Before Mrs. McLean and Mr. Merzbacher were other huge cases; Mark Howell, acquitted of killing a furniture store owner; Laurie S. Cook, an Anne Arundel County teacher cleared of having sex with a student; Sandra and Jamal Craig, mother and son who fended off charges of molesting children at their Howard County day care center; Anna Rescott and Jacqueline Bouknight, mothers accused of killing their children.

Few, if any, lawyers in Maryland have handled more high-profilecriminal cases in the past seven years. Usually, Ms. Gutierrez wins those cases.

As prosecutors and judges have learned, intimidation does not work against Ms. Gutierrez. "Tina's not someone you want to get in a cat fight with," says Ahmet Hissim, a city prosecutor. "If you fight with her, she'll fight back. If you're going to win, you know you're going to pay a price."

Some lawyers choose their battles; Ms. Gutierrez contests every piece of turf. "Frankly, I don't like to see her coming in my courtroom because I know she'll work me to death," says Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown.

But that assessment underestimates her. If she is combative withjudges and prosecutors, she can be a poignant supplicant to jurors, unusually adept at the theatrics of trial work.

To save one client from death row, she delivered her hourlong closing argument from directly behind him.

"I don't want them to have a moment when they take their eyes off this human being," she said of the jurors, who spared her

client from the gas chamber.

In the continuing plea bargaining over the McLean case, Ms. Gutierrez is framing the issues in the starkest way, raising the stakes as high as she can to keep Mrs. McLean out of prison.

Emphasizing Mrs. McLean's depression -- "her lethal disease" -- and her three suicide attempts, Ms. Gutierrez is insisting that her client would not survive prison.

"Whatever she may be judged guilty of, under the worst circumstances, she does not deserve the death penalty," Ms. Gutierrez says. "To fail to recognize that reality diminishes us all."

Create sympathy

Colleagues say Ms. Gutierrez has an instinctive ability to draw a jury to her side.

During one case, she invited the judge to sit with the prosecutor, claiming that the judge's bias was painfully evident. The judge exploded. Some prosecutors believe she invites such reaction to create sympathy for herself and the defendant.

"Tina will do what she can to the bounds of the law for her clients," said Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor.

Some prosecutors privately question whether Ms. Gutierrez's successes are a triumph of style over substance and assert that her pugnaciousness is manipulative.

Ms. Gutierrez becomes venomous over such criticism. "There are some prosecutors who accuse any defense lawyer who beats them as being dishonest and using trickery. I have nothing but contempt for them."

She nearly spits out her words. "They will go after my client simply because he is my client; they will take the case to the mat because they want my scalp."

An outsider

It is the bitterness of an outcast, which is how Ms. Gutierrez, 43, views herself.

Hers is an unexpectedly tumultuous past, one with dark corners and secrets, anguish and humiliation.

Yet, as successful as she is now, she seems unwilling to relinquish the resentments.

In interviews, she speaks of old wounds and new slights.

When she is asked for a list of people to talk to about her, she begins with prosecutors "who hate me." (None she named would be interviewed.)

"I engender great enmity," she says.

Many do dislike Ms. Gutierrez intensely, but it becomes clear that she needs to think of the rest of the world as lined up against her. She nearly acknowledges as much.

Her sense of having been wronged may be her greatest weapon on behalf of her clients, she says.

"Being treated unfairly, being treated hostilely are experiences that have made me uniquely qualified to be protective of them, to advocate for them, to be their warrior."

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