Sunday, August 23, 2009

Both Sides Now

Like Judy Collins, Robert Simels could say that he's looked at life from both sides now. He's gone from criminal lawyer to criminal. The prominent New York criminal defense lawyer was convicted of plotting to kill witnesses last week. N.Y. Defense Attorney Found Guilty of Bribery, Attempted Witness Tampering:

Attorney Robert Simels was convicted Thursday of 12 felony counts -- including bribery of a witness, attempted witness tampering and conspiracy to commit witness tampering -- stemming from his efforts to prevent potential witnesses from testifying against his client, Guyanese drug-smuggler Shaheed "Roger" Khan.

Simels was acquitted of only the least-serious charge against him, making a false statement to a corrections officer in order to visit an inmate.

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"The defendants' crimes were an affront to the criminal justice system," Eastern District U.S. Attorney Benton J. Campbell said in a written statement Thursday. "This case demonstrates that those who seek to use their license to practice law as license to commit crimes will be brought to justice."

When Simels was indicted last September, he ranked among the city's better-known defense attorneys, with a roster of clients that had included mobster Henry Hill (of "GoodFellas" fame), drug-trafficker Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff and former New York Jet Mark Gastineau.
As Jonathan Turley explained, Two New York Criminal Defense Attorneys Convicted of Witness Tampering:
Simels is a former prosecutor who often appeared on Fox and CNN as a legal expert. The charges stem from his representation of Shaheed (Roger) Khan, a major cocaine trafficker from Guyana. He was convicted of tampering with eight witnesses and both Simels and Khan were convicted of possessing illegal eavesdropping equipment.

Much of the trial focused on Simels taped statements boasting to a gang member. He is heard saying such things as planning to “neutralize,” “eliminate” and “destroy” a government witness against Khan. Simels insisted that he was just talking “street” to a lowlife (who proved to be a government informant): “Guyana is a Third World country. They sometimes speak in a very unappealing fashion, so I spoke down in a manner he would appreciate.”

On his website, Simels tell prospective clients: “I have been providing personalized legal services to individual and corporate clients in criminal and civil matters for more than 30 years. My exceptional success as a litigator has earned me a renowned reputation in the legal community.” Prosecutors insist that it became a bit too personalized in this case and crossed over into criminal acts.
It's more than a truism to say that lawyers like to win. From my days practicing as a young lawyer at a large firm, I can recall the senior attorneys preaching a "scorched earth" view of litigation. That is, in order to be a really good attorney, it wasn't enough just to win. You had to destroy your opponent as well.

And I also spent some time in the DA's office, where I experienced the "win at all costs" mentality of many prosecutors first hand. This personality trait is not left behind when moving over to criminal defense work. The case of Robert Simels may be an extreme example of the line crossing that sometimes results. See Judge rips 'dark side' of attorney Simels in murder plot conviction to protect drug lord client.

Stony Olsen of Law Crossing humorously explains the difficulties and perils of crossing the line when zealous advocacy, in When Zealous Advocacy Goes Too Far:
It's important to be zealously engaged on behalf of your client. But there are lines that no attorney should ever cross. Sometimes the ethical decisions are hard. . . .

But sometimes the ethics are completely clear. It's just too bad that Robert Simels didn't think so. Simels was once a Special Assistant Attorney General for New York's Special Prosecutor Office, and thereafter he went into criminal defense.

And in that defense practice, he managed to represent some real winners. Simels claims, for example, to have represented mobster Henry Hill, whose story was retold in the movie GoodFellas. Simels also represented another drug kingpin who is now in prison for life without parole and, according to the IRS, once targeted rapper 50 Cent.

But this time Simels went too far. He was representing one Shaheed Kahn, who was facing charges of cocaine trafficking. Or rather, he was representing Kahn until the federal government arrested him on September 10th, 2008, on charges of witness tampering. Apparently, wiretaps have Simels urging various witnesses against Kahn to be ''eliminated'' or ''neutralized.''

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Now, my memory of professional responsibility in law school is admittedly a bit hazy. But, I do think that arranging to eliminate witnesses against your client is against the rules. Of course, with the kind of trouble Simels is in, I imagine his law license being yanked is the least of his worries.

Still, in case other attorneys are reading this, let me warn you that witness tampering and trying to eliminate the other side's case against your client will not be looked on favorably — not by the bar or by the authorities. So don't do it!
And like most lawyers, Simels certainly didn't help himself when he ended up taking the stand in his defense during the trial. In another instance of seeing both sides now, the former defense attorney who was known for killer cross-examinations, was crushed when he himself was on the stand. As the NY Daily News noted, Robert Simels, lawyer who defended drug kingpins, convicted of plotting to kill witnesses:

At one point, Simels' became so combative on the stand that Judge John Gleeson ordered the jury out of the courtroom and chided Simels.

"Your career is at stake, your liberty is at stake . . . but I'm not going to allow this to continue," Gleeson said. "I'm going to step on you in front of the jury, and it's not going to help your case."

The final experience of both sides now will come with when the prison door closes.


Susan said...

Terri's husband was second chair for Simels's lawyers. Prepping for trial was why no honeymoon.

Anonymous said...

ms. irving will prevail on appeal. there was nothing reported in the press that suggested that she did anything wrong. i feel sorry for her.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Ms. Irving is innocent and hopefully the right thing will be done on appeal.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Irving is absolutely innocent. I attended the trial and there wasn't a shred of evidence against her. The only possible rationale for her conviction (or indictment to begin with) is her supposed connection to Simels through her being employed as his associate. In short, it's bullshit.