Stress Clamps a Heavy Hand on Lawyers in Nonstop Trial
Like a rug that has been tread on too often, a dozen defense lawyers are wearing thin in what will become the longest federal criminal trial in U.S. history next month, and there is no end in sight.
They are showing the stress and emotional strain of defending a dozen men and woman accused of running an interstate drug cartel dubbed “The Company” that allegedly resorted to violence to protect its multimillion-dollar operation.
One attorney got a divorce and vows never to practice law again. Another cannot meet the demands of his impressive client list.
A third cannot get his law practice off the ground. Yet another says his partner is having to pull the load.
All have been greatly affected, even changed, by the year-old trial, both personally and professionally--and mostly negatively.
‘We Just Hate This Trial’
“We love our jobs. We just hate this trial,” Assistant U.S. Public Defender Patrick Flanagan said, summing up the feelings among the lawyers who have sat on the fifth floor of a Reno courtroom for 169 days over the last year.
“Who knew it would take this long? It wears you down, physically, mentally, emotionally. It takes an extra effort each day just to get going, to get back to it.”
Attorney Steve Wassner agreed. “The hardest part is just not knowing when it’s going to end, when you can get on with your life and your practice.”
The prosecution rested its case Jan. 11, eight days before the Nevada-California drug conspiracy trial’s first anniversary. By conservative estimates, the defense is expected to take at least four months.
The record for a federal trial in the United States is held by a case in Newark, N.J., that ended last year with the acquittal of 20 reputed members and associates of the Lucchese organized crime family. The trial lasted 21 months, but consumed only 187 actual trial days from the beginning of jury selection.
When the Reno trial resumes Jan. 24, it will be one year and five days old and in its 170th court day.
Costs Approach $8 Million
Court officials said costs for the pretrial investigation, the trial itself, salaries of the prosecutors and fees of the appointed defense attorneys have inched toward $8 million.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Anthony White defended the price tag, noting that laws allow the government to seize property and proceeds from criminals.
In this case, he said, “The Company” had $2 million to $3 million in assets the government is targeting for seizure. Last year, he said the government seized $57 million from criminals in this country.
“Most of the time, prosecution of these types of offenses makes money for the federal government,” White said.
White said he, too, is feeling the strain of working weekends and nights, but defended the length of the trial.
“You have to understand the significance of this case,” he said. “These people are accused of providing drugs to children. We’re not just talking about people who made dope. We’re talking about people who killed people.”
Still, the trial before U.S. District Judge Edward C. Reed was not supposed to last more than six months.
“If I would have known it was going to go this long I wouldn’t have taken the case,” said attorney Larry McNabney.
“I’ve gotten a divorce during this trial. I’ve gone through a lot of personal changes. I’m not saying it’s directly the result of this trial. But the pressure has speeded things up.
‘Maybe I’ll Play the Flute’
“I think I’m going to quit practicing after this is over. Seriously. Maybe I’ll play the flute or take a year off and do nothing. If I never set foot into a courtroom again after this it will be too soon.”
Wassner said he used to have a reputation for taking great vacations to different places around the world--and for the frequency of the trips.
“I haven’t been on vacation for more than 1 1/2 years. That’s just unimaginable for me,” said Wassner, who commutes to Reno an hour each way from his home at Lake Tahoe.
Worse yet, the trial has put a noose on the former state public defender’s fledgling law practice.
Wassner left the state office just before his appointment to “The Company” case, set up an office and put an ad in the Yellow Pages.
‘I’ll Have Nothing’
“It’s all gone to waste,” he said. “I’ve been turning people down. I can’t take on new cases. At the end of this trial, I’ll have nothing.”
Attorney John Aebi, who has been practicing for seven years, had built up an impressive client list, including the Nevada Industrial Relations Division.
When a huge rocket fuel plant blew up in Henderson, Nev., in May, 1988, Aebi was virtually powerless to help the division handle the cases of hundreds of injured workers and two employee deaths at the plant.
“I didn’t lose them as clients,” a frustrated Aebi said. “But I had to bring in help. This trial has just crippled my practice. I’ve got two office employees who I don’t want to fire but who are sitting around, well, with not as much to do.”
Aebi also is a lobbyist for several groups but will not be able to provide full-time help in the Nevada Legislature, which opened its 1989 session Jan. 16.
He estimated that it will take him at least a year to get back on track when the trial does end.
Larry Wishart, an introspective local attorney, has grown a beard throughout the long months of the trial and, by his own accounts, has withdrawn and become difficult to be around.
“I don’t want to get into details, but there is personal friction you have to deal with,” he said. “This trial has affected everyone personally.
“You have to be alert in there every day in order to make objections and represent your client. It’s stressful. The difference between a normal trial and this one is the difference between acute stress and chronic stress. This stress goes on and on.”
Lawyer David Nielsen was doing his partner, Ben Walker, a favor when he took on “The Company” trial. Normally a civil attorney, Nielsen was forced into the criminal drug trial when Walker became tied up in a prolonged child sex abuse case in Carson City.
Now, Nielsen said, Walker has to shoulder some of his load. Sometimes they have to turn away potential clients. Others go elsewhere.
“Some clients just can’t hang with you,” said Nielsen, who along with his peers puts in 12-hour days and often works weekends and nights.
‘Like Working Two Jobs’
Flanagan said that as the only public defender in northern Nevada, his colleagues must be flown up from Las Vegas for even simple arraignments in Reno, although he tries to keep up with other cases while “The Company” trial continues.
“It’s like working two jobs,” he said.
Financially, some of the attorneys are doing worse and others better. As appointed lawyers, the government pays them $60 an hour, about half of what many charge in private practice.
But Nielsen pointed out that “The Company” case is steadier employment than some attorneys have, so the money is always flowing in.
Amid the burnout of the job and the personal and professional hardships, the group of attorneys said they had become close from the shared experience. Some joked that the ties that bind are similar to what hostages might feel.