For former federal prosecutor Alan Vinegrad—called “the embodiment of a real law-enforcement officer” and “a cruel sonuvabitch” for his handling of one high-profile case—the best thing about the job was the opportunity to combine public service and “Perry Mason moments.” BY DAVID PORTER

The federal civil-rights trial of Charles Price and Lemrick Nelson Jr. was winding to a close in early 1997, and lawyers for the two defendants in the highly charged Crown Heights murder case had just pulled a maneuver straight out of the O.J. Simpson trial. Parading Nelson in front of the jury, attorneys Christine Yaris and Trevor Headley had him try on the pair of blood-stained pants he was alleged to have worn on the night in 1991 when a rampaging band of youths killed Yankel Rosenbaum during rioting stemming from an auto accident earlier that day. In contrast to the famous bloody gloves that Simpson had made a show of barely squeezing onto his hands, Nelson stepped into the pants, pulled them up and then let go of the waistline, watching as they dropped below his knees. The startled looks on some of the faces in the jury box led many observers in the courtroom to make the logical assumption that the prosecution’s case against the two men had just been severely damaged, if not put on life-support.

At the prosecution table, Alan Vinegrad W’80 looked on impassively. One of the hallmarks of a good attorney is the ability to anticipate potential land mines and sidestep them; prosecutors in particular must preserve the integrity of their case against the attacks of defense attorneys who seek to confuse and confound a jury whose grasp of the law may be tenuous to begin with.

A prosecutor’s job, then, is not that much different from that of a movie director who maps out every tiny step in advance while preparing for all sorts of potential deviations. In the script for U.S. vs. Lemrick Nelson Jr. and Charles Price, Vinegrad, the Brooklyn-based U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, had anticipated just such a demonstration by the defense, and over the previous weekend had written his own Hollywood ending.

In a two-hour summation, Vinegrad called the defense’s ploy “theater of the absurd” and did his own show-and-tell by walking in front of the jury with news photographs of Nelson wearing the jeans on the night of Rosenbaum’s murder, the bloodstains clearly visible. He elicited chuckles from the courtroom by joking that “maybe that’s why the cops were able to catch him so fast, because he was holding onto those baggy pants.” Then, as the summation reached its climax, Vinegrad showed that he, too, could borrow from the Johnnie Cochran playbook.

“If the pants don’t fit, I don’t give a …” He paused for effect and then continued, “You fill out the rest.” The jury found Price and Nelson guilty of violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights, and a year later the two men were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Vinegrad describes this as a “Perry Mason moment,” harking back to the 1960s television series in which the actor Raymond Burr, as Mason, invariably turned the most intractable witnesses into quivering masses, extracting emotional confessions from the guilty against impossible odds. In truth, though, the Nelson summation was more than theater: It was the kind of moment prosecutors secretly dream about when they close their eyes at night, when the endless hours and obsessive preparation that precedes a major criminal trial pays off, the moment when they can turn around the defense’s own bombast and use it as a cudgel.


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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 02/28/03

 

 

 

 

 

 

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