Roy Black

Over burgers and eggs, Marv Albert's attorney discusses the nature of evil, 19th century literature and why it's useless to burn a shooting victim.

Published April 9, 1999 12:06PM (EDT)

Television lawyers -- real ones and actors -- are as culturally popular in
millennial America as TV cowboys were back in the 1950s. Of all the current legal
wranglers, Roy Black may be the most gentlemanly -- think Gene Autry as a
criminal defense attorney. "I'm not an obstreperous kind of person," this
54-year-old has said. "Like ones who get carted away by the bailiff or the
marshal. That's not my style. I'm low-key. I don't scream or yell a lot."

You can catch the low-key mouthpiece on the tube all the time. He moderated
the O.J. Simpson case for NBC. He was on the news as a winner after he
successfully defended William Kennedy Smith against a rape charge, and as a
loser when another client, sportscaster Marv "Jaws" Albert, copped a
plea admitting he sank his teeth into a woman. When Black isn't giving
legal TV sound bites, he practices law in Miami, where he lives with
his wife, Lea (no kids).

I interview Black at Ellen's, a downtown Manhattan restaurant on lower
Broadway, next to the courthouse. The joint has a respectable noir quality
about it. This is not a contradiction. Ellen's is a place for lawyers and
low-ranking city employees and Mafia fixers who want cheap eats because they
lack expense accounts. The place is decorated with placards of various girls
who won the designation "Miss Subway" in the late '40s and '50s.

I meet Black
at the door. He's a friendly looking middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair
(more salt than pepper) wearing butterscotch-frame glasses. He reminds me of
Quentin Crisp because his face is still caked with makeup (he just appeared
on "Court TV"). As we walk through the restaurant, men rise from their tables
to shake Black's hand. He generously gives each the time of day.

Black has agreed to lunch to promote his book, "Black's Law: A Criminal
Lawyer Reveals His Defense Strategies in Four Cliffhanger Cases" -- his
account of four cases that don't involve celebrities, but stress his view
that the American legal system is skewed to the advantage of the state, not
its citizenry. "I [love] the image of being a single crusader representing
the dispossessed riffraff of society against the state with its well-funded,
popular prosecutors. The Miami justice system blends law and economics to
create a monster conveyor belt capable of speeding each defendant to the
state penitentiary at the lowest possible cost per unit, and it's a
pleasure to derail that factory machinery by throwing a constitutional
monkey wrench into its gears." The book is both entertaining and literate,
but I miss hearing about Marv Albert's choppers.

After Black and I are seated beneath a photograph of "Miss Subway, 1953"
(she's cute), I say, "If this lunch were a scene in a novel, I would be an
impostor who has just killed his wife and wants free legal advice."

He laughs. "First, don't say a word to the police ..."

"If the cops stormed in and arrested you for murder, who would you want for
your mouthpiece?" I ask.

He immediately answers, "Johnnie Cochran." The two are longtime friends.
Black launches into a story about Cochran being mashed in an elevator full of
randy female prosecutors. During the telling, our anonymous-looking waiter
leaves menus.

I open one and ask, "Do you believe in evil?"

Black drops his menu to the table. "I can tell you're a novelist. That's such
a difficult question." He picks the menu back up. "Do I think there are
people who do evil things? Absolutely. Is there anyone who is 100 percent
evil? No." He postulates that almost everyone has some good in them. "Even
Hitler liked his dog and his mistress, right?"

The anonymous waiter appears again. "I'm going to have a cheese omelet and
coffee," Black tells him.

"Rye, whole wheat or pumpernickel toast?" the waiter snaps back.

"Rye sounds good."

It's my turn. I order a well-done "British Burger" (a cheddar cheese burger
on an English muffin). "I don't eat burgers medium rare anymore, because of mad cow disease," I volunteer to my lawyer companion.

We talk about burned and unburned hamburgers, a subject that then segues
(on my direction) into a discussion about how inexperienced murderers try to
burn their victims' bodies in the mistaken belief that police won't notice the
bullet holes.

"Burning a body is the dumbest thing you can do," Black insists. "I had a
case where the prosecution accused my client of killing a federal informant,
then chopping up his body and barbecuing the pieces to dispose of them." He
shakes his head. "I brought in an expert from a funeral home who said you
could never burn a body with a little barbecue. He said, 'You see pictures in
India of funeral pyres? It takes three days to finish a body in a huge

This talk reminds me of a famous literary cremation. "When the poet Percy
Bysshe Shelley was cremated on a beach in Italy," I tell Black, "Lord
Byron retrieved the dead poet's intact heart from the ashes. The thing
refused to burn."

"Wait a minute," Black says. "Wasn't it Byron who drowned?"

"No. Shelley." I say.

It turns out Black is a Byron freak. "Oh, wait. Byron goes to Turkey," Black
says. "He dies out there. I don't remember exactly how it is." Then he adds,
"You're testing my history."

Our food comes. Between bites, Black continues talking about Shelley.
"The part I love is Shelley's wife writing 'Frankenstein,'" he says. "You know
the story how 'Frankenstein' got written? They had a contest: who could write
the best story over the weekend."

I bite into my burger. It's good ... very good. I tell Black that I think
Percy ruined Mary Shelley's manuscript by editing it. "He added all this
purple prose, but her original 'Frankenstein' was really lean.
Hemingwayesque. Modern."

"You know the difference between novels and nonfiction?" Black asks. "Fiction
needs logic. If you invented the story of O.J. before the trial, it wouldn't
have sold. No one would believe it."

I hold up his book. "You really wrote this, right? No ghostwriter?" He assures
me that he did. "Weren't you tempted to try a Grisham-style novel?"

"I don't think I have the talent to do a novel," Black answers modestly. "I
already had the trials' whole built-in drama. Sitting down and coming up with
a story would be far more difficult."

I decide to convince him differently. "Is there a trial you lost that you
still eat your liver about?"

"Marv Albert," he answers. "The whole case was a tissue of lies, but they
embarrassed him into pleading to a misdemeanor."

"So write a novel where you get Marv off," I suggest.

He eats some omelet and thinks. "That's good," he finally says. "I could get
revenge on all of them."

"Could you ever be a judge?" I ask.

He immediately answers, "No!" Then he explains: "Most judges, you sit in court
all day listening to lawyers arguing and you rule on them once in a while --
I don't think the job is interesting at all." He claims he couldn't
live with sentencing people to jail, or worse -- death. "It worries me about
people who want to do that kind of work."

"My wife's nickname for me is 'The
Judge,'" I confess.

The lawyer laughs. "Why's that?"

"I'm very judgmental," I say. "And I never forgive anybody."

"There is a difference between judging things and being a criminal court
judge," Black explains. "You don't hold anyone's life in your hands. Judges
do. And the decisions some of them make don't disturb them in the least.
After a while, it's just, 'Next case.' Bang!" Black hammers down an invisible gavel.
"'Give him 10.' Bang! 'Life.' Bang! 'Death penalty.' I would have difficulty
doing that."

"So you don't worry about being judged yourself someday by --" I point to
the ceiling, "the big guy upstairs?"

Black shakes his head. "I'm not religious that way."

"So what makes you take a case?" I ask.

"Something about it has to be compelling," he answers. "I'm in a trial right
now where a guy is charged with conspiring to buy a Russian submarine to use
to import cocaine into the United States. In my opening statement, I said,
'Tom Clancy couldn't sell this story.'"

Black spends 10 minutes patiently arguing the impossibility of buying a
working submarine in Russia. He's lucky I'm not on the jury because I
disagree. Everything is for sale in Russia. But I fail to convince him. To
change the subject, I ask, "Has there ever been a Perry Mason-style trial where a
lawyer made a witness on the stand confess to a murder?"

He smiles. "I can't think of one." Then he tells me of a fascinating murder
case in Los Angeles where the body was never found. "True story -- the
defense lawyer gets up in his final argument and says, 'They never found the
body. Did they really prove that so-and-so's wife is dead? I can prove she's
not -- she's going to come through the back door of the courtroom.' Everyone
in the jury looked. So he said, 'See? You all turned. That means there's a
reasonable doubt.' Then the prosecutor got up and said, 'That was a clever
argument, but when he told everyone to look, there were two people in this
courtroom that didn't turn. Me -- because I knew that the woman was dead. And
the defendant, because he knows she's dead as well.'" Black wipes his lips
with a napkin and chuckles.

It's a great story, but something nags me. Wait ... "You had the defense
give their closing argument first, but in every TV show I see, it's the
prosecution who begins."

"What usually happens," he explains, "is the prosecution gives an argument.
Then the defense. And the prosecution gives a rebuttal. So they get two
arguments and you get one." Prosecutorial dominance is Black's pet peeve. "I
try to point this out in my book: how much power we give prosecutors,
especially in the last 20 years. It's no shock that we now have more people
in prison than any country on earth except Russia."

"But you could argue that we're an intrinsically criminal nation," I say.

"An excellent argument," he answers. "But I don't think so. My experience is
that crime generally remains the same throughout history. Read 'A Tale of
Two Cities.' That first sentence that goes on for pages -- in the middle, it
says that when the Lord Mayor of London leaves town he has to put all of his
furniture in storage or else it won't be there when he gets back."

The coffee comes, but we barely get to finish our mud before Black has to
leave to do a radio show. Before we leave, he inscribes his book. Later, I
read: "To David: When I get back home to Miami, I am going to research
Shelley's heart."

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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