Defense attorney in Chapman trial is no stranger to the spotlight

Martin has `low-key' style and high-profile clients

August 02, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

THE WASHINGTON LAWYER WAITED AS MONICA LEWINSKY — William R. "Billy" Martin is used to waiting in the spotlight.

The Washington lawyer waited as Monica Lewinsky -- who called him her "minister of defense" -- testified before the grand jury in 1998. He waited with the family of missing Washington intern Chandra Levy, publicly pushing investigators to follow leads that eventually led to the discovery of the 24-year-old's body.

But it is this waiting, the type he'll be doing today in Baltimore's federal courthouse, that can be most frustrating to a lawyer accustomed to knowing the answer to every question arising in a courtroom.

After seven weeks of trial, jurors are scheduled to start deliberating on whether Nathan A. Chapman Jr. defrauded the state pension system, stole from his companies and lied on his tax returns. And until the verdict, there is no way for Martin to know if he has been successful over the past seven weeks in trying to cast doubt -- in particular, by suggesting the Baltimore businessman's prosecution was politically motivated.

Martin is, by far, the best known of the lawyers working on Chapman's case.

Before Lewinsky and Levy, he represented professional basketball players Juwan Howard and Allen Iverson. Washington's NBC station hired him as their legal commentator during the O.J. Simpson trial. More recently, the 54-year-old lawyer successfully defended former NBA star Jayson Williams, who was accused of aggravated manslaughter in the fatal shooting of his limousine driver.

`A quick study'

"He's even better than his reputation," said Joseph Hayden, a prominent New Jersey lawyer who worked with Martin to defend Williams. "He's a very quick study, and can almost instantaneously put his finger on the pressure point of the case, and on the pressure point of a witness."

Washingtonian magazine regularly lists him as one of the top lawyers in the area. He has been profiled in dozens of newspaper articles from across the country. In 2002, Essence magazine profiled Martin and his wife -- Nightline correspondent Michel Martin -- as a well-adjusted power couple.

But during Chapman's trial, Martin's image was far from the stereotype of a slick, high-profile defense attorney.

In his conservative gray suits, he avoided dramatics, making checks on a notepad as he methodically asked questions. He leaned on the lawyer's podium, glasses on, pen poised between his fingers.

He paced more than the government prosecutors, but even that was in tight circles, away from the jury box. Still, his questions, no matter how even-toned, may have been damaging for the government -- working to portray a demure former employee as a grating know-it-all; a pampered mistress as a victim; and, maybe most importantly, an alleged greedy investment banker as a hard-working black entrepreneur with a dream.

Carefully, calmly, Martin also planted seeds of his theory, that Chapman was a consolation prize for a failed federal investigation into former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. During the last days of trial that theory burst into the open, with tantalizing testimony about political operatives and politicians, the FBI and money.

Not a `flashy' lawyer

"He's not a flashy kind of lawyer," said Douglas F. Gansler, the Montgomery County state's attorney. "He's ... somebody who understands how to massage the system and how to work with the prosecutor's office."

That style reflects the 15 years Martin, now a partner at Blank Rome LLP, spent as a prosecutor. His first job out of law school was in the Cincinnati city prosecutor's office. By the time he was 29, he headed the U.S. attorney's office in Dayton, Ohio, and continued to rise quickly through the top prosecutor's offices in the country -- ending up in the No. 3 position in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington.

He switched to the defense side in 1990 -- he had two children entering college, he said.

But part of what has been called his "low-key" style is also where he came from. The son of a Pittsburgh steelworker, Martin worked in the steel mills during winter and summer vacations to put himself through Howard University.

He decided to go to law school after he was rear-ended by a Porsche during one of those vacations. Martin started arguing with the other driver, who began to grin.

"He said, `You have a unique ability to argue facts,'" Martin recalled.

The driver was a lawyer and invited the younger man on a tour of his firm. Martin was hooked. He entered the University of Cincinnati law school after college.

"I think his background helps explain the level of decency and integrity he has," said Judy Smith, a former prosecutor who has worked with Martin on many of his high-profile cases.

Even as he defends the high-profile and well-funded, Martin has said he regards himself as "the people's lawyer."

Some of that same folksy tone came through Thursday, as Martin started his closing argument in Chapman's case.

"As I was in my bed last night, trying to rest my mind, I was troubled by the gravity of it," he told the jurors. "The only thing that separates [Chapman] from conviction is whether we've done our job."

Now, he can only wait to find out.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.