By Chris Smith, The Press Democrat
When Steve Turer departed Brooklyn Law School 14 years ago, the various fields of specialty lay before him like a smorgasbord: Corporate law, personal injury, bankruptcy, probate. He selected criminal defense.
“At the time,” recalls the black-bearded and ample-bellied layer, “criminal law seemed to be the one that had the most personal contact,” the one that “most directly affected people’s lives.”
Turer’s gotten what he wanted. In the recent past, he has achieved personal contact with two men who were known to have shot and killed tow other men and with a third man who professed to having beaten to death an 18 month old baby.
All three men were accused of murder and faced the prospect of their lives being directly directly affected by the charges until Turer argued successfully in court that each should be set free.
He frequently is asked how he can morally defend criminals, much less defend them with derring-do.
In one murder trial Turer implored that his client was legally unconscious minutes before the bloodshed but was consciously defending himself when he fired the gun. In another, he called a suspect to the stand and asked him only a few innocuous questions about himself and his family, thereby effectively limiting the prosecutor to the same type of small talk during cross-examination.
“Nobody likes criminals,” Turer said. “I don’t like criminals.” But his job, he’ll argue, is to represent a suspect’s rights, regardless of whether or not he likes to person- or even whether the person likes him.
Throughout his most recent murder trial, Turer’s client wouldn’t talk to him. The client, a self-proclaimed child killer, didn’t like Turer from the start. He liked him even less when Turer won an acquittal.
Turer says he knew the man didn’t kill the baby. But what about the times when a defense attorney knows his client committed the crime of which he is accused?
Turer said his own opinion of his client’s guilt or innocence is “not necessarily a consideration.” Guilty or not guilty, he said, a defendant has rights. He’ll argue with verve against the notion that rights exist to protect criminals.
“That’s an assumption,” said Turer. “It’s wrong.”
“The criminal is a citizen like everybody else, he may not be one of our better citizens,” he said. He insisted it isn’t by mistake that the Constitution affords protections to every individual accused by the government of a crime.
Turer is 38 and vigorous. He opts for more casual attire than the jurisprudential gray-striped suit and below his sports coat and slacks loiter a pair of pointed boots.
Many a juror has seen his favorite blue tie, but none could actually see that the dots actually are the rear views of tiny fellows holding their trenchcoats open and the letters D.O.M. (Dirty Old Man) below each figure.
He currently is preparing a defense for the Santa Rosa man accused of murdering a Calistoga wine industry engineer whose hogtied body was found last October in a car abandoned under the redwoods near Monte Rio. Behind him as he enters the case is an unusual – perhaps in Sonoma County, unprecedented- string of homicide-defense victories.
The first two cases had a lot in common.
In March of 1979, janitor Frank Arthur Roberts, then 28, retained Turer to defend him against murder charges in the shooting death of Forestville garage owner George McKenzie Colen.
There was never any doubt that it was Roberts who had fired the shot that killed Colen, 29, nor that Roberts had gotten to Colen’s mobile home by putting the gun to a man’s head and ordering that he be driven there – an act of kidnap.
Roberts todl the jury he and his wife had gone to Colen’s mobile home for a party and that he’d fallen asleep after some drinking. Early the next morning, he said, Colen and a second man awakened him and ordered him to leave. He said he protested that first he wanted to find his wife, then was beaten by the two men, thrown out and shortly thereafter beaten again.
He didn’t know what to do next. The prosecution said he drove to his home a few miles away, grabbed his gun and strapped on a bandolier of bullets. A man testified that he was sitting in his car near Robert’s house when Roberts stuck a gun in his face, got into the car and ordered him to drive to Forestville.
Roberts said he didn’t remember commandeering the car, but did recall walking back into the trailer and confronting Colen, who he said became enraged at the sight of the gun and turned away, threatening to get his own gun.
Roberts said he became frightened and ran out. Once outside, he said, he fired three shots in the direction of the car parked near the trailer. He was “just trying to scare” Colen, he said.
Two bullets apparently struck the car. The third flew through the thin wall of the mobile home and hit a woman who had been in Colen’s room. It pierced her stomach, then hit Colen, who was reaching under a mattress where two pistols were kept.
The bullets struck him in his mouth, then was deflected down his throat and through his heart. He died instantly. The woman survived. Colen’s wife was asleep in another room.
Turer walked a delicate line in trying to defend Roberts against both a second-degree murder charge and a charge of kidnapping the driver, itself a serious felony. He asked the jury to accept a story he admits contained a “technical inconsistency.”
He contended, and called to the stand a psychiatrist who agreed that the booze and the beatings had left Roberts dazed at the time he abducted the driver. The suggestion was that Roberts didn’t know what he was doing and could not be held responsible.
But here was the catch: Roberts testified that he fired the gun to ward of Colen. So, by his own account, he was consciously aware that his life was in danger and he needed to defend himself.
Despite the consciousness pickle, Turer pleaded that Roberts was desperate over his missing wife and that he wouldn’t have done any of what he did had Colen not started the trouble.
The jury was swayed. It refused to convict Roberts of the killing, the kidnap or the injuring of Colen’s women friend.
Some people were angered that Roberts wasn’t convicted of anything. Turer conceded, “Without a doubt, he was technically guilty of a kidnap and he killed somebody.” But, he said jurors acted rightly.
“Looking at the totality of the event, what they said was, ‘We are not going to condemn this man for what he did.”
Turer responded firmly when asked if it were not true that defendants sometimes lie to save themselves and that it then becomes the role of defense attorneys to assist their clients by obscuring the facts.
“My job is not to conceal the truth,” he said. If someone lies, he said, the lie should be detected by the prosecutor during cross-examination.
However, staging what a judge called a “tactical ploy,” Turer short circuited the cross-examination process in the trial that followed the June 1980 shotgun death of Santa Rosa carpenter Louis Pelleriti. But he said he didn’t do it to hide anything.
The maneuver, he said, was intended only to assure that his client would not say or do anything to “put some jurors off.”
The client, Ronald Cohen, then 39, was arrested after Pelleriti, a former business partner, died at Cohen’s Sebastopol house from a pointblank blast fired from Cohen’s shotgun. Cohen told authorities Pelleriti had repeatedly threatened him over a disputed $744 debt and that he feared for his life when Pelleriti suddenly drove into his yard.
He said he got a shotgun and was headed for the door when Pelleriti walked in and surged at him. He said the carpenter grabbed the shotgun barrel, causing the weapon to fire.
Cohen was charged with first-degree murder. Early in the trial, the prosecutor said victim Pelleriti had told people he had an appointment to see Cohen and collect the debt. It appeared, the prosecutor suggested, that Cohen had armed himself, waited for Pelleriti to arrive, then killed him.
Turer brought to the stand several witnesses who described Pelleriti as a hot-head prone to violence.
Then he called Cohen to the stand. He recalls that he preferred not to have Cohen testify, but that juries want to hear from the accused.
He asked Cohen a few questions about his family, and community service. Then, to the astonishment of the courtroom, he told Judge Kenneth M. Eymann he had no further questions.
The prosecutor stood, ready to interrogate Cohen about what had happened prior to Pelleriti’s end. But Turer objected, reminding the judge that law requires that cross-examination be limited to the matters addressed in direct examination. Eymann agreed, advising the prosecutor that he could ask Cohen only about his family and his public service.
If Cohen were innocent, how could his case have been hurt by full cross-examination?
“You’re dealing with human nature.” Turer replied. “I frankly wanted to avoid as much pressure on him as I could.”
Besides, he said, Cohen’s taped statements to a detective were played for the jury, so his account of the shooting was already known.
Jurors deliberated just 90 minutes before acquitting Cohen.
Turer called the murder trial of George O’Brien “the clearest example of how the system should work, and does work.” It was also possibly the strangest trial ever held in Sonoma County.
O’Brien was a friend of Steven and Mary Lumsden and Neil Aldridge, the trio convicted of killing Lumsden’s 18-month-old son, Grant. The child died in Santa Rosa on July 1, 1978. He’d been beat to death.
Aldridge, a chiropractor, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Later the child’s father was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and his mother pleaded guilty to the same charge. Both were sentenced to four years in prison.
In February of 1980, nearly two years after the murder, O’Brien suddenly confessed that it was he who killed the child. He said the Lumsdens and Aldridge had been wrongly convicted. He said he was homosexual and referred to Aldridge as his “idol.”
Soon after the confession, a judge set aside the manslaughter convictions against the Lumsdens. A second judge refused to do the same with Aldridge’s murder conviction.
Turer was appointed by the court to represent O’Brien. “I think, quite frankly, that I got O’Brien because I had the experience with the other cases,” he said.
O’Brien immediately disliked Turer, as Turer had declared his intention to prove that O’Brien was for some reason lying. He refused to talk to Turer, even as they sat side by side in court.
The jury ultimately accepted Turer’s account over that of O’Brien and the prosecutor. Not guilty, it said. Even as he was set free, O’Brien continued to insist he was the murderer.
The case perfectly illustrated the role of the defense attorney, Turer said, because it involved a man who the lawyer didn’t particularly like and who didn’t even want to be defended. But because the man faced the prospect of a murder conviction, the legal system assured that his rights would be represented and the evidence fully disclosed.
“The role of the criminal defense attorney,” he said, “is to represent his client’s rights.”
Turer gets paid for filling that role. He drives a BMW and could afford to dress better than he does, and he’s not oblivious to the fact that some begrudge him for making a living by defending known and suspected criminals.
“I pay the price,” he contended. “I also have to deal with these guys, make them part of my consciousness.” Turer said defense attorneys are far from the only professionals whose bread and butter is the people who venture on the wrong side of the law. Police officers, prosecutors, judges, jailers, probation officers, newspaper reporters and others are in the same business, he said.
“We all live off criminals.”
Source: The Press Democrat
Tags: Criminal Defense
, L. Stephen Turer
, Press Democrat
, Santa Rosa CA