Thomas P. Puccio, a former federal prosecutor who won the convictions of several members of Congress in the Abscam bribery scandal in the early 1980s and later became a prominent defense lawyer who secured for socialite Claus von Bulow an acquittal in his second trial on charges that he twice tried to kill his heiress wife, has died. He was 67.
Puccio, who lived in Weston, Conn., died of leukemia March 12 in Yale-New Haven Hospital, said his wife, Kathryn.
Known as a tough, aggressive and tenacious lawyer, Puccio was head of the Organized Crime Strike Force for the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he gained national attention as head prosecutor in four of the eight Abscam trials.
FOR THE RECORD:
Thomas Puccio: An earlier version of this online article said Thomas Puccio's first marriage was to Carol Ziegler, which ended in divorce. In fact, Puccio had an earlier marriage, to Evelyn Malfatone in 1968, which was annulled after three years.
Abscam, a code name, was a two-year undercover sting operation in which FBI agents posed as Arab sheiks or their representatives and paid bribes in return for favors from politicians.
Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D-N.J.) and six House members were among those convicted.
Puccio's aggressive style of prosecuting the case included "healthy doses of ridicule directed at the cornered congressmen," the Washington Post reported.
In the wake of the Abscam trials, Puccio was named as a possible candidate for United States attorney forWashington, D.C., in 1981. But after 13 years as a prosecutor, he said he had had enough and went into private practice. He was a partner in two prestigious New York law firms before establishing his own firm in 1992.
His most celebrated case was the 1985 retrial of the Danish-born von Bulow, who had been convicted in 1982 of twice trying to kill his wife, Martha, with insulin injections at their Newport, R.I., mansion in 1979 and '80. Known as Sunny, the heiress spent almost 28 years in a coma before dying at age 76 in 2008.
Puccio led the successful defense team for von Bulow's second trial after Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz took up his defense on appeal and the 1982 conviction was reversed. The high-profile case became the subject of Dershowitz's best-selling book "Reversal of Fortune," which was turned into a 1990 movie.
Though praised over the years for his extensive pretrial preparations and his skill in the courtroom, Puccio had his share of critics who questioned his tactics, which included intimidating witnesses, humiliating his adversaries and courting the media.
As defense lawyer for Alex Kelly, who had jumped bail as a teenager and spent eight years in Europe before returning in 1995 to face charges of raping two girls, Puccio riled women's groups in 1996 when he characterized Kelly's accuser in one rape trial as having been a high school flirt and derided her as a "very unvictim victim" after the jury deadlocked.
Puccio once said that his job "is to defend people and to defend them well. Every possible legal angle that can be exploited to their advantage I will use."
In his 1995 book "In the Name of the Law: Confessions of a Trial Lawyer," which he co-wrote with Dan Collins, Puccio included a list of Puccio's Principles.
Among them are "Go for the jugular" and "Not losing is more important than winning."
Puccio was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 12, 1944. He received a bachelor's degree in English from Fordham University and graduated from Fordham Law School in 1969, the year he joined the Justice Department's U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York. He spent his early career as a federal prosecutor on investigations of major narcotics cases.
His first marriage, to Evelyn Malfatone in 1968, was annulled after three years. His second marriage, to Carol Ziegler, ended in divorce. Their only child, Matthew, died in 1995 when the car the teenager was driving went off the road into a Connecticut yacht basin. Puccio, who was teaching his teenage son to drive, escaped from the passenger seat, but the boy drowned.
Puccio's wife, Kathryn, is his only immediate survivor.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun