Veteran attorney is noted for winning tough cases

Bernstein honed skills as a U.S. prosecutor

September 25, 1999|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

After seven days of testimony from a parade of prosecution witnesses, Larry Young's defense team had a key decision to make: Put on a defense to the state's case against the former state senator, or give the case to the jury without saying a word.

Young wanted to take the witness stand. But his lead defense lawyer, Gregg L. Bernstein, told him that the state had not made its case. "Larry, I'm telling you, don't say a word," Bernstein told him.

On Thursday, Bernstein surprised the courtroom, telling the judge: "The defense rests, your honor."

The gamble paid off.

In what could be considered one of the Baltimore lawyer's biggest victories in his 18-year career, jurors returned to the courtroom late yesterday after five and a half hours of deliberations to announce their verdict: Not guilty on all counts.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly identified a law firm that Larry Young's lawyer, Gregg L. Bernstein, joined in 1982. At the time, the firm was known as Melnicove, Kaufman, Weiner & Smouse. The Sun regrets the error.

While the verdicts were stunning, they came as no surprise to those who have followed Bernstein's career through Baltimore's legal community. For years, he has been taking on tough cases -- both as a defense attorney and prosecutor -- and scoring victories along the way.

Interviews with jurors following the trial yesterday showed that it was the very points raised by Bernstein -- such as the credibility of prosecution witnesses and their immunity deals -- that led to the acquittal verdicts.

From the start of the Young trial, Bernstein was a hit with the jurors. He made them smile. He created sympathy for his client. And with tough but almost always polite cross-examinations of prosecution witnesses, he and his associate, Steven F. Wrobel, undercut what appeared to be a strong bribery and extortion case against a once-powerful politician.

A Baltimore native and 1981 graduate of the University of Maryland Law School, Bernstein began his career as a clerk for a judge before joining what was once considered one of the hottest law firms in the city in 1982 -- Nelnicove, Kaufman, Weiner, Smouse and Garbis.

The firm boasted some of the best trial lawyers of the day, including M. Albert Figinski, Gerard P. Martin, Marvin J. Garbis, now a federal judge on the Baltimore bench, and Arnold Weiner, who represented former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

In 1987, Bernstein joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore as a federal prosecutor, learning much of his craft from Gary P. Jordan, the longtime first assistant of the office until his death in 1996.

"I wanted to hone my skills as a trial lawyer," Bernstein said. "As a trial lawyer, that's the greatest job you can ever have. You're able to work on incredibly interesting cases with a tremendous amount of autonomy, and there is a camaraderie and esprit de corps in the U.S. Attorney's Office that one simply does not find in the practice of law."

At the U.S. Attorney's Office, Bernstein handled a series of high-profile cases. In one of them, he secured a conviction against Conrail engineer Ricky Gates for lying about smoking marijuana before he crashed into an Amtrak passenger train in Chase in 1987. Sixteen people died and 175 were injured in the accident.

In 1991, Bernstein left the U.S. Attorney's Office to join a Baltimore firm, Miles & Stockbridge. He was named a partner, but left to begin his own firm with an early mentor, Martin, the lawyer he worked with in the early 1980s.

In 1993, Martin, Junghans, Snyder & Bernstein was formed, and the firm has been handling mostly criminal and corporate cases ever since. The firm has represented Honda Motor Co. of Japan, Merrill Lynch, and other corporations.

But by far, their highest-profile client was Young.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 9/25/99

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