Novelist James Patterson tells story stranger than fiction by criminal defense lawyer Barry Slotnick

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James Patterson, long known as a master of the imagination, dabbled in non-fiction a few years ago. So he’s perhaps more qualified than anyone to confirm one of the book’s oldest adages: Truth is stranger than fiction.

“I don’t know if it’s always been like this,” the best-selling author tells me. “But lately it certainly seems so. He adds, “No matter what they write in fiction, no one could say, ‘Well, that could never happen.'”

Patterson doesn’t have to look far to get his point across. Its final foray into real life will come next week (December 20) with the release of Defense lawyer. The book tells the story of Barry Slotnick, the New York criminal defense attorney who rose to prominence for obtaining acquittal after acquittal in some of Gotham’s most high-profile cases. Slotnick even had a twelve-year period in which he didn’t lose any business.

“A guy couldn’t be as successful as him,” Patterson said. “Well, yes, they could. “

America’s Best Criminal Defense Lawyer

Slotnick, 82, is best known for his successful portrayal of Bernhard Goetz, a white man accused of shooting four black teenagers in a New York City subway car in the mid-1980s. Slotnick also played a major role in securing not guilty verdicts for organized crime boss John Gotti and six co-defendants following a nearly seven-month racketeering trial in Brooklyn federal court. .

Although Slotnick was once called the best criminal lawyer in the country by American Lawyer, his name is unrecognized by today’s generation. What made Patterson, whose world is an oyster of subjects, choose Slotnick?

“Defense lawyers are interesting anyway,” the 74-year-old author told me in a telephone interview from his home in Palm Beach, Florida. “The idea that he went… 12 years without losing is pretty amazing.”

And despite the fact that Slotnick’s cases date back decades, Patterson isn’t worried that his new title, co-written with Benjamin Wallace, will suffer. “A good story is a good story,” he says.

Patterson also highlights the public’s fascination with criminal trials on cable news. He says lawsuits satisfy a human desire because they lead to an end. “They want to know what happened. One of the things about trials is that there is always a resolution. This may not be what you want. But there. “

With 425 million books printed, Patterson, unsurprisingly, sees the trials through a familiar lens: “What story does this jury need to hear and believe?” Why is my story better than the other guy’s story or whatever [woman’s]? “

James Patterson.

From the law faculty to the representation of wise men

Slotnick – these days retired and living in Boca Raton, Florida – took an express train to the profession. After skipping a few years in his youth, the Bronx native graduated from New York University law school at age 20. He had to wait until he was 21 to take the New York bar exam.

After taking the oath, Slotnick immediately headed down to lower Manhattan to set up a phone number, answering service, and mail service near the courthouse. As they got out of the taxi, the lawyer for a few minutes jotted down his mother’s phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to the driver, offering his services when needed. The taxi driver’s son, after being charged with impaired driving and hit-and-run, would become his first client.

Slotnick’s career trajectory began in 1966 with his portrayal of Joe Colombo, the notorious boss of New York’s Profaci criminal family. Colombo had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. Colombo, impressed with Slotnick’s work that day, hired him to become the sage’s go-to lawyer. Slotnick soon after represented him successfully before the United States Supreme Court in a double jeopardy case.

Once at Colombo, Slotnick, despite his youth, was now in the brotherhood of organized crime figures in need of representation.

Defense lawyer is one story after another of Slotnick’s dabbling in keeping his clients out of jail. Patterson tells me that one of his favorite tales involves Vincent “Chin” Gigante, then a Genoese crime family soldier, who was at risk of losing his beloved German Shepherd, Bullets. The dog had sunk its teeth into someone. As this was his third bite incident, Gigante’s best friend was euthanized.

During a hearing, Slotnick was allowed to leave the courtroom. He took Bullets and returned a moment later with two other German Shepherds. Slotnick asked the victim to identify which of the three dogs bit her. They looked the same and she couldn’t. The people against bullets, as Slotnick called the case, was dismissed.

“He understands human nature. He understands the drama, ”Patterson said of Slotnick’s strategy that saved Bullets.

Controversial shooting in the metro

Three days before Christmas in 1984, Bernhard Goetz, as he drove in a New York subway car, believed he was about to be assaulted. Goetz, 37, who was previously robbed, pulled out a gun and shot four teenagers, paralyzing one. He claimed to have fired in self-defense.

The case polarized the city. For those who are fed up with rampant crime, Goetz was a hero and nicknamed the “Watchful Underground”. Others saw it differently: the teens were just playing with Goetz and had no intention of stealing him. His fear was the product of racism.

Slotnick’s biggest challenge was his client. After the shooting, Goetz fled to New Hampshire, where he transformed into a police officer nine days later. He gave three confessions – written, audio and video – containing statements that made self-defense a tall order. Slotnick’s task was to debunk his client’s confession.

Goetz was acquitted of all charges except one weapons-related offense, for which he served eight months. Slotnick’s defense centered on Goetz’s perception of the situation, based on his previous attack, the nature of the teens’ actions towards him, and the cramped space of the subway car. Slotnick persuaded the judge to allow jurors to visit the type of subway car the shooting took place in. This was an older and more restrictive model than the newer models the jury may have been used to.

Cover of the book Defense Lawyer

A bit of Forrest Gump

In addition to Slotnick’s many plays in courtrooms, Patterson also describes a Forrest Gump type nature of his career. Representing a deposed Dominican Republic official, Slotnick sat across from then-President John F. Kennedy in his suite at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City to discuss US policy toward the country after a military coup. The president was assassinated a week later.

And in another incident involving Colombo, the gangster, upset by what he saw as Italian-American slurs in the media, persuaded the film’s producer The Godfather to remove objectionable language from the script, including all references to “the Mafia”. After that, there were no more unexplained broken cameras or missing production equipment on set. The task of marking out the film’s script fell to Slotnick.

Before marrying Melania Knauss in 2005, Donald Trump knew she needed a reputable lawyer to make sure their prenuptial agreement would hold. The future president sent his fiancée to Slotnick.

With a pace as fast as the best legal thrillers, Patterson’s myriad of stories in Defense lawyer reveal Slotnick’s secret sauce. But for avocados looking to try it out, it can’t be bottled. The basic ingredient in making Slotnick King of the Hill was the optimism that every case was winnable. From there, he combined jaw-dropping creative tactics, highly effective cross-examination, and a trained former New York City detective as an investigator. Slotnick also believed that no problem was too small and that no advantage was too small.

Patterson says that during a trial, Slotnick noticed a juror wearing a piece of jewelry with a foreign language inscription. He had it translated. It was a term of affection, and Slotnick incorporated it into his conclusion.

Slotnick’s sartorial hallmark, Italian bespoke three-piece suits, were worn shamelessly and in a practical manner. “The district attorney, in his crumpled seersucker, comes across as the poor official doing this for the sake of justice,” says the couture-sports lawyer in Patterson’s biography. “But if I enter wearing my polyester special, the jury will know it’s a ploy. The worst thing you can do is lie to a jury, verbally, emotionally, or visually. If you do that, you’re gone.

Describing the basis of his father’s success, Slotnick’s son, Stuart Slotnick, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney shareholder and director of the company’s New York office, told me, “He loved to win. He was never competitive the way you see competitive people in sports, but when it came to it he wanted to win.

This victory, says young Slotnick, created a misconception about his father: “I think people perceived my father as a ‘killer’ because he was winning so much. He was not a “killer” in the way people thought he was. He was not a crier or a threat. He was a “killer” because he was smart, worked hard, had the angle, and knew what he had to do to win. People met my father and were surprised to find him low-key and calm.

Patterson’s enthusiasm for his upcoming work is undeniable. “I’m a fan of that stuff,” he says of testing. “I have read Grisham novels.”


Randy Maniloff

Randy Maniloff is a lawyer with White and Williams in Philadelphia and an assistant professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law. He runs the CoverageOpinions.info site.


This column reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the ABA Journal or the American Bar Association.


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