Attorney award gives credit where it is due

Lawyer honor provides some glory to those who defend unpopular clients

July 19, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The lawyers whose names are etched into the brass and wooden plaque have all had the exchange - the predictable "how can you represent him?" questioning.

"I've had more dinner/cocktail party conversations than I can remember where people ask," said Gregg L. Bernstein, the first defense attorney to win Maryland's unique John Adams Award.

The clientele of the award's recipients is not particularly sympathetic: There are murderers, snipers, various characters of an urban nightmare.

Case in point: The last person added to the plaque, which hangs in the federal courthouse, was Arcangelo M. Tuminelli - recognized for representing Keon D. Moses of the violent Lexington Terrace Boys gang.

But the unpopularity of those clients, along with the limited pay the lawyers receive for representing them, is exactly why the award exists.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar created the John Adams Award in 1997, when he was Baltimore's federal public defender. It was a way to give credit when credit is scarce, he said.

"This society undervalues the work that some lawyers are willing to do for people who are accused of crimes, particularly horrible crimes, who can't afford legal representation," Bredar said.

He named the honor after John Adams, who, as a young and politically ambitious lawyer in 18th-century Boston, agreed to represent hated British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.

"I wanted to send the message that the work that these lawyers do in defending the people who live in the shadows is an act of patriotism," Bredar said. "I believe most of them do it out of a love for their country and a love for this wonderful justice system we have."

There are few - if any - similar awards in other federal courthouses around the country, lawyers here said.

"It's nice to know that the court appreciates that you're doing what the Sixth Amendment says you're supposed to do," said lawyer Timothy J. Sullivan of College Park, who won the award in 2002.

Most defendants in federal court cannot afford their own lawyer. Instead, they are represented by the federal public defender's office or by one of the lawyers on the Criminal Justice Act felony panel.

Private defense lawyers apply for a spot on the elite panel, which has about 100 attorneys. If accepted, they are called upon when a defendant needs representation. Compensation for panel cases is usually significantly less than payment for private practice work.

"They're very difficult cases with very difficult clients," Sullivan said. "And they're very time-consuming. They take over your life and your practice, no question about it."

Sullivan received the award after arguing a case about burden of proof in front of the Supreme Court. He was also recognized for representing Dustin John Higgs, accused of ordering the kidnapping and murder of three women.

Bernstein was honored after he defended James Howard Van Metre III, a Pennsylvania tree trimmer who police said kidnapped, raped and murdered a waitress, and then burned her body. Van Metre was convicted of first-degree murder in Carroll County, but the verdict was reversed when the state Court of Special Appeals ruled that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. Federal prosecutors stepped in, and indicted him for kidnapping.

Bernstein remembers getting the call from then-Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz asking him to represent Van Metre.

"He said, `Mr. Bernstein, how busy are you?' " Bernstein recalled. "And when the chief judge of the U.S. District Court ... calls you, you say, `What can I do for you, your honor?' "

Van Metre was convicted, as was Moses. Higgs was convicted as well - and is now the only Maryland defendant on federal death row.

Victory in court is measured in justice, not verdicts, these lawyers say.

"A lot of times you're defending the process as much as the individual," Bernstein said.

Tuminelli learned at a defense lawyers' conference that he was the newest addition to the plaque this year.

"It's a wonderful honor for any attorney to receive," he said. "I was greatly gratified."

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