Owens' lawyer tops in corporate defense

Rape case outside the norm for Weingarten

July 18, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY AND BRADLEY OLSON | ANNIE LINSKEY AND BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTERS

As one of Washington's top white-collar defense lawyers, Reid Weingarten built his reputation defending corporate titans of embattled companies such as Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc. and Tyco International.

So, at first blush, it may seem odd that an expensive lawyer with a knack for untangling accounting problems and building sympathy for corporate executives is sitting in a military court martial next to a Naval Academy midshipman accused of rape.

As the lawyer for former Navy football star Lamar Owens, Weingarten has been arguing points about drunken blackouts, instant messages, and whether his client and the accuser were "friends" before the incident.

But those who've worked with and against Weingarten say his gentle touch, his courtroom antics, and ability to form a quick rapport with juries and judges make him a formidable opponent in any type of case.

"Criminal trials, whatever the subject matter, boil down to the same thing: Who do you believe? Why should we not believe the prosecution in this case?" said Washington attorney Eric H. Holder Jr., a friend of Weingarten's.

"You don't want someone who is going to be a mad bomber, and go in there screaming. These are among the most sensitive kinds of cases that are tried," Holder said.

Weingarten declined to be interviewed for this article or to comment on how he is being paid to handle this case. Owens' mother also refused to comment yesterday.

But Weingarten's firm has a connection to the academy. John E. Nolan, a partner at the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson, has served as general counsel to the United States Naval Academy Foundation. Nolan could not be reached for comment yesterday.

However Weingarten became involved in the case, he appears to be helping his client.

In his cross-examination of the female Naval Academy midshipmen on July 18, Weingarten posed questions quietly and methodically, avoiding any confrontational back-and-forth. He had promised jurors that, unlike on TV, he would not "make the poor rape victim cry."

There were no tears. During the six-hour examination his style was so understated that he managed to make the alleged victim - and the jury - smile.

The grin came when Weingarten asked the female midshipman if she'd prepared for the cross-examination. She said yes, and he asked: "Who played me?"

In the cross-examination, he focused repeatedly on whether or not she had invited Owens to her room in the early morning hours of Jan 29, particularly in a computer "instant message" conversation.

When the female midshipman said no, Weingarten began to walk in place, hunched over, as if prowling.

"So he was just trolling through the halls?" he asked.

But Weingarten also elicited testimony that she might have invited Owens to her room, and he argued that she had a "very serious drinking problem" that caused her to black out and not remember her actions. He also alleged that she might have intentionally erased instant messages between her and Owens, which the woman denied.

By the end of last week, the judge in the case stated that Weingarten that "eviscerated the alleged victim during cross-examination" and he indicated he'd have dismissed the case if it were up to him instead of a jury.

Weingarten stands about six feet tall and carries himself in a coordinated way, like a former basketball player. His curly hair grays at the temples and sideburns, and he tends to wear finely tailored suits that outline a husky frame.

He has the faintest of New Jersey accents, and speaks plainly when questioning witnesses or making statements to the judge, eschewing legal terms or military jargon.

The case against Owens, 22, who helped lead the team to a bowl-winning 2005 season, has some parallels to the legal work for which Weingarten is known.

"In a white-collar case you are a saying, `It happened, but it is not a crime.' With the jury's reaction, in white-collar cases, you are almost always relying on intent," said attorney John Carroll, who was the lead prosecutor against Michael Milken and Drexel Burnham. Weingarten defended a Drexel employee.

When defending Bernard J. Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, Weingarten never disputed that fraud occurred. Instead he blamed the fraud on others - distancing his client from the act. Ebbers was convicted of securities fraud, conspiracy and filing false documents, and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In the Owens case, there is no dispute that he had sexual intercourse with the alleged victim, but the question hinges on whether the act was consensual. Weingarten went so far as to say the alleged rape victim probably isn't lying. Instead, he said, she is guilty of "wishful thinking," and that sometimes people "wish something were true, wish it so much that in their own system it becomes true."

As Weingarten's list of clients has grown in prominence in recent years, so has he.

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