By ALAN SMASON
Mike Fawer is a no-nonsense, criminal defense attorney. Unlike the fictional Perry Mason, who never lost a case, Fawer has been defeated in the defense of his clients from time to time. But for the majority of those who hired him, his legal acumen and defense strategies have resulted in acquittals and dismissals for his highly-visible clients. In many of those hard-fought cases which ended in mistrials, district attorneys and U.S. attorneys declined to reprosecute his clients.
Now 82, the scruffy and gray-bearded Fawer still manifests a youthful gleam in his steely blue eyes. Mindful of his astounding record, he has spent much of the past year and a half cataloging never-before-revealed details from his work on some of his most notorious and celebrated cases. As the defense attorney of record for some of the most well-known and highly regarded figures in New Orleans and Louisiana history, he knows all and tells all.
Fawer sets the record straight in his “From the Bronx to the Bayou: A Defense Attorney’s Odyssey from Charles Evers to Edwin Edwards and Beyond.” Published by former State Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown’s Lisburn Press, the 350-page book details his work defending high profile clients like Governor Edwin Edwards, local businessman Aaron Mintz and Mississippi civil rights figure and legislator Charles Evers as well as cases with historic names like Brilab.
The book also gives Fawer an opportunity to brag a bit about himself and his legal work that made him a champion of the downtrodden and a legal hired gun to be admired both by his peers and the judges before whom he practiced. Throughout the book, there are a number of notes sent to him through the years from various judges and magistrates who took time to comment on how well-prepared and on point he was in his work.
But it was not accolades from judges or his fellow attorneys that Fawer derived the most pleasure, as he explained in an interview with the CCJN. It was to successfully defend, and oftentimes, free his clients.
“Edwards publicly said to the Times-Picayune – it’s quoted in the book – that the stupidest move he ever made was getting rid of me,” Fawer pointed out.
That was in reference to the second trial of Governor Edwards, the one that ended up costing him a decade of his life behind the bars of a federal prison. Fawer represented a co-defendant of Edwards in the first trial and was on Edwards’ team of attorneys for him a decade later, but dropped out as they neared the trial phase.
“I had cut a deal before the trial while I still represented him where he would have plead, Stephen would not have been indicted, he would have gotten a sentence of between 24 and 28 months,” Fawer recalled. “Edwin ran that proposal plea – he was in favor of it – by his son Stephen who threatened to commit suicide. Edwin backed off the deal and, of course, ended up going to trial. I was not in the trail. I was happy not to be in the trial. I didn’t like the mix of lawyers in that case.”
Fawer still has strong feelings about that case in which the former governor was convicted of extorting San Francisco businessman Eddie DeBartolo. “There’s no more likelihood that Edwards shook DeBartolo down than the sun doesn’t come up tomorrow,” he demurred. “It’s all bulls**t. He got $400,000 from DeBartolo. There’s no question about that, but it was no shakedown.”
To this day, though, Edwards and Fawer remain friends.
Born in the fabled borough where Yankee Stadium is found, Fawer was a graduate of Cornell College and Columbia School of Law. He first came to learn the judicial system as a prosecutor and was just starting out at the Justice Department when Bobby Kennedy was appointed as Attorney General.
“When he became Attorney General, I was reassigned to the Organized Crime Section. While I was there I was sent down here to try a case, one of three lawyers who were on a case in ’61 or ’62,” he remembered. It was his first time down to New Orleans and he stayed for several months.
Eventually, the book reveals, he moved here and became part of the New Orleans law firm of Kullman and Lang, before later opening his own firm with attorney Randall Smith, Smith and Fawer in 1995.
The book leads off with the Aaron Mintz trial in which he was accused by New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr. of having murdered his wife Palma (“Pam”) in their tony Uptown residence on Versailles Boulevard one Super Bowl Sunday morning.
A founding member of the Northshore Jewish Congregation and still the treasurer of its executive board, Fawer has been connected to the local Jewish community in many ways. But the celebrity that came with the Mintz defense made him more well known in local Jewish households, many of whom thought Mintz guilty because of his ongoing infidelity with his wife.
Fawer knew better. His gut told him that his client was not capable of such a heinous act. During the trial, a police detective tried to implicate Mintz by linking him to a pillow he had moved upon discovering his wife’s body. The pillow had a bullet hole, but forensic evidence such as blowback from the gun was not found on it.
“I knew categorically was he didn’t kill her using that pillow,” Fawer stressed. The prosecution rested much of its case on Mintz’s unusual behavior in moving it, but failed to show any evidence that he had anything to do with her death. Much to Fawer’s delight, one unimpressed juror made an inquiry to the judge on the bench. His question: could Pam Mintz have shot the pillow outside in advance of taking her own life in an attempt to set up her husband for murder?
Those following the trial over local TV seemed to side with the prosecution. “Most likely I was the only one who knew I was going in as the favorite,” Fawer recounted. “Everybody thought he was guilty.”
Mintz was found not guilty and later married the woman with whom he had cheated on his wife.
Fawer’s mostly successful defense in the Brilab case in which the federal government charged reputed crime boss Carlos Marcello and others including Charles Roemer, the former chief of administration for Edwin Edwards.
The very involved scheme involved a fictional insurance firm set up by an FBI informant that intended to seek out influence in state insurance programs for its employees. Initially, the FBI intended to entrap Edwards, but Edwards was on his last of two four-year terms and Roemer had begun to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Sonny Mouton.
“The Brilab case was in ’81,” Fawer said. “Brilab was a case in which they were trying to make a case against Edwin.”
Instead, the government considered the money as being “bribes” paid to Roemer, but in his capacity as Mouton’s campaign chairman, Roemer considered them campaign contributions and nothing more. Marcello was approached by the informant, Joseph Hauser, who Fawer describes in the book as “a convicted insurance swindler, a talented manipulative con man, and an admitted liar.” Marcello had several taped conversations with Hauser in which the two discussed some possible payoffs to state officials at later dates.
Led by U.S. Attorney John Volz, with whom Fawer had many entanglements, the government lost all of its specific charges against all the defendants except for Roemer and Marcello, who were each found guilty of one racketeering (RICO) violation. Ironically, those convictions were later overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals after Roemer had completed his sentence and Marcello was nearing the end of his prison term. Both men’s convictions were vacated in 1989.
Fawer also relates his successful defense of Curtis Kyles in three retrials from 1996 to 1998. How Fawer was able to get Kyles, a bricklayer and small-time drug dealer, off death row is told in detail through various court transcripts in which he interrogated police officers. Fawer not only was able to put reasonable doubt into jurors’ minds, but he actually came up with a more plausible suspect for the killing, whose identity was never revealed by prosecutors in establishing their case against Kyles.
Despite his legal maneuvering, Fawer does include some cases he lost. One of these is Dr. Richard Schmidt, a Lafayette gastroenterologist, who was convicted of injecting an ex-lover with the HIV virus. Convicted in a 10-2 decision, Schmidt was a cousin of his first wife. Under newly passed Louisiana legislation, Schmidt could not be convicted of the crime today unless the decision of the jury was unanimous.
With an almost incidental nod that his time as an attorney is waning, Fawer acknowledged “I am phasing out. I have one trial left.” But he couldn’t help adding a little dig at the end. “Fifty years of it is enough.”
“From the Bronx to the Bayou: A Defense Attorney’s Odyssey from Charles Evers to Edwin Edwards and Beyond” is available at all local bookstores ($26.95) including Barnes and Nobles, Octavia Bookstore and Garden District Books. Fawer continues to appear at events signing his book. Books can be ordered online at his website or on Amazon.