By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Louima had failed to stem the infighting among his legal team, which was spurred after Thomas referred to Sanford Rubenstein as a "bloodsucker" and an "obsequious piece of shit" who cut a deal with Louima's family to get in the case. In the car, Kino trashed the blunt and outspoken styles of the less experienced Thomas and Figeroux, immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago who've retained their sonorous accents and were formerly assistant prosecutors in the office of Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes.
"Those lawyers do not know what they are doing," Kino told Brenner. "They mumble. You cannot even understand them on TV. I don't know why Abner doesn't get [lawyer and media mogul]Percy Sutton or Johnnie Cochran in this case. All this conflict! It seems like they are amateurs! This does not send the right message to the world about the Haitians. We are not stupid people!"
Kino, according to the writer, felt that the contretemps among the lawyers had harmed a grassroots movement by Haitians to use the case to focus attention on the larger issue of police brutality. "They would settle for $50 million just to be done with it," said Kino, apparently referring to the original $55 million notice of claim Rubenstein had filed on Louima's behalf--which he would later raise to $465 million.
"Who could be a better lawyer for Abner, Percy Sutton or Johnnie Cochran?" Kino ruminated as they drove to the hospital. "Whites," he added, "hate Johnnie Cochran because of the O. J. Simpson case, but he is a brilliant lawyer. He takes this case to another level... You need Johnnie Cochran to get this on the world stage."
According to Brenner, Kino used the car phone to call his manager, Jamie Washington, the general manager of WLIB, one of the radio stations owned by the Sutton family. "You have to find me Johnnie Cochran on the telephone," the writer remembers Kino imploring. "I am going to introduce him to the family."
Brenner reported that Kino called her the following weekend and said that "a rich friend" had put him in contact with Cochran, who at the time was based in California. During a conference call that included himself, Cochran, and Sam Nicolas, Kino said he told Cochran he "did not like the way the other lawyers were handling the case" and that Cochran responded, "All right, if you would like me to handle the case, I will do it." He said that before hanging up Cochran told him, "Thanks, Kino, for putting me on the case."
Big fees are a subject of controversy among lawyers involved in high-profile cases and expecting windfalls. Some attorneys have not been allowed to pursue contracts because they have violated rules prohibiting excessive fees. With that in mind, Abner Louima may want to consider the novel argument that he does not have to share a dime with his dueling lawyers.
The matter was raised in Bronx Surrogate Court last year by attorney Harold J. Reynolds, who had conducted an investigation into so-called "lawyer overreaching"--the practice of exacting exorbitant contingency-fee agreements from personal-injury clients when it is likely that they will receive substantial settlements or awards. Under suchagreements, attorneys receive a third of any cash award.
According to documents filed in court, Reynolds invoked the Louima case as an example of overreaching, declaring that some attorneys never tell unsuspecting clients that it is not always necessary for them to agree to contingency fees. That may not be apparent to "the impoverished widow and infants of a poor man killed in the night on a highway, or by the worker who, having lost three fingers, watches his lawyer skip down the courthouse steps with the economic value of one of them," Reynolds asserted in a case involving another lawyer who had claimed more than $60,000 in legal fees in a wrongful-death suit.
"To [these clients] will fall the honor of having fattened a lawyer's wallet for a risk that, in fact, he never undertook," Reynolds wrote. He added that the Louima case is "a silhouette of the contingency-fee problem. So ingrained and unexamined is the notion of the one-third contingency fee that it has taken on the character of a natural law. Hence, it is doubtful that any lawyer, reading of the barbaric attack on Louima, considered whether a contingency fee in the millions... could be lawful when the city's liability and Louima's recovery of a substantial sum were certain.
"On the other hand, even a reflective frankfurter vendor standing outside a courthouse under a Sabrett umbrella might reason that, if liability and recovery were certain, then there is no contingency that Louima's lawyer is risking [since] his receiving... a fee is certain from the beginning, and if that is so, then the Appellate Division's rule would have done nothing except guarantee to that lawyer... a freight train of money that should have been paid to Abner Louima."
Carl Thomas begs to differ. He points to the immense risks he, Figeroux, and Roper-Simpson undertook to force Louima's plight into the spotlight and then persuade federal prosecutors to try the case.
For example, shortly after the attack, Louima was being portrayed by his assailants as a victim of "abnormal homosexual activity" and the lawyers' initial task was to circumvent this attempt to blame the victim. A nurse at Coney Island Hospital, where Louima was taken after his ordeal, said cops tried to convince doctors that Louima was found injured with his pants down lying in the street in front of Club Rendez-Vous, which they initially described as a "homosexual club." But the nurse suspected his injuries could not have resulted from gay sex, and called Louima's family.