Voices of experience Lawyers' advice: Participants in celebrated cases can seek the High-Profile Trial Mentor Team's support.

February 03, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

Where does a trial judge or a defense lawyer turn when the unexpected occurs during a murder trial?

Say, the defendant, a beloved Heisman Trophy winner, is writing a best-selling book from his prison cell?

Starting today, participants in celebrated cases have a place to go: the High-Profile Trial Mentor Team.

Few teams have a more impressive lineup. Members include lawyers and judges from some of the most intensely covered criminal trials in U.S. history -- those of Manuel Noriega, Susan Smith, Jeffrey Dahmer and O. J. Simpson.

After meeting today in Baltimore, the site of this week's American Bar Association convention, the team will be open for business. Members hope to be on call for their colleagues. Several said they expected to learn from each other.

"The conversations should be fascinating," said Barry C. Scheck, one of 11 team members and a defense lawyer in Mr. Simpson's trial. "Unless you have lived through one of these [high-profile trials], you don't know what it's like. They're a different species. There are a lot of things to think about that you don't want to think about. Every day, somebody's life is threatened -- witnesses, defense lawyers, prosecutors,"

Judge William M. Hoeveler, who presided in the seven-month federal drug and racketeering trial of Noriega, the former Panamanian dictator, said the job can be lonely.

"It's very difficult. You do the best you can by reading, digesting and talking. But these are unusual cases. Sometimes it is difficult to find someone to ask," said the judge, who is chairman of the trial mentor team.

Planning for the team began about six months ago, with the Simpson trial in full swing. Roberta Cooper Ramo, ABA president, said she and other officials began thinking about ways to assist lawyers and judges in high-profile trials in which intense media scrutiny can threaten the outcome of the case.

Ms. Ramo said she spoke to several lawyers and jurists who had been involved in such cases. All embraced the idea of an advice group.

"Uniformly they said, 'When I first got the case, the first thing I thought was, 'Who can I call for help?' It was clear to me there was a great need," Ms. Ramo said.

Neither Ms. Ramo nor the group members have decided exactly how it will function. Those details should be addressed at today's session, the first time members will meet as a group.

But already there are some informal guidelines.

The panel won't advise judges and lawyers on facts in the case or applicable laws. And its members won't inject themselves into cases uninvited. "We don't want to push our way in," said Neal R. Sonnet, a Miami lawyer who represented Noriega and several other notorious defendants.

When judges or lawyers want advice, however, team members will be available. Members said they might be called on to advise trial participants how to deal with pushy media and lawyers who talk too much.

"In the Noriega case, we had, at times, 100 reporters from all over the world. Where do you put them?" said Judge Hoeveler.

"There are ethical questions dealing with lawyers. How do you handle the lawyer who wants to give a speech each afternoon on the courthouse steps? You can dream up a variety of problems, not part of the case, that are very important to deal with," Judge Hoeveler said.

For lawyers, input from the trial mentor group could be equally valuable, Mr. Sonnet said.

"Fortunately, I have relationships with attorneys who have been involved in [high-profile] cases. Not every lawyer does. Having one, centralized resource where one can turn could be a nice advantage," the lawyer said.

The biggest unanswered question is whether lawyers and judges will use the trial mentor team.

bTC "I assume some judges would say, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' " said Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., a law professor and nationally recognized expert on legal ethics who is a member of the group. "They may feel they know what they are doing. Many are correct."

But Judge Hoeveler said he might have approached the group if it had existed in 1992 during the Noriega trial. "There were moments we had difficult problems. We solved them by the seat of our pants," he said. "Fortunately, most worked out very well."

Most members seemed content to wait and see.

"We're starting out on a mission, and maybe we won't be called," Mr. Hazard said. "That wouldn't break my heart. I'm not standing on one foot, waiting to be summoned."

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