Criminal defense lawyer relishes chance to do battle


At the end of a day spent bouncing like a pinball around Baltimore's criminal justice system, Jack Rubin, defense attorney, is consoling himself with past victories.

There's the 18-year-old Delaware kid who blew his best friend's head off after looting his bank account, confessed to police and got life without parole. On appeal, Mr. Rubin got the confession and the conviction thrown out.

"This," he says, slapping a pile of briefs from the Delaware murder, "is a great case. This is a beautiful case."

There's the reputed Baltimore drug enforcer, charged with both narcotics and murder. He beat the drug charges, and the state offered to drop the murder case, but with the right to revive it in the future.

"I didn't want that hanging over my client," he says. He rolled the dice and turned down the deal, risking a murder trial. The state dropped the charges.

There's the Baltimore County lawyer, caught with a king's ransom in cocaine in his golf bag, who walked out of the courthouse with probation.

"He paid me one third of his fee and declared bankruptcy," Mr. Rubin says, brown eyes ablaze, round face supported by an ample double chin. "Isn't that unbelievable? Isn't that gratitude?"

Few trades rankle the popular mind more than that of the criminal defense lawyer.

As long ago as 1933, H.L. Mencken was complaining about "the professional criminal" who escaped punishment "aided boldly by the kind of shyster lawyer he employs." Six decades later, the image has not improved. In this city of narcotics-fueled mayhem, the defense attorney is seen as working to keep the streets unsafe.

Jack Barry Rubin has no apologies. At 51, he has been doing this work for half his life. He does it at the fierce pace of about 50 court appearances a month, nearly a score of jury trials a year. By all accounts, he does it very well. Which means, of course, more of his clients walk.

"I have never acquitted anybody," Mr. Rubin says. "If making the state prove its case is unreasonable, I'm unreasonable."

He lives this work. He has left his sparse white hair white, he says, because "studies show that jurors trust people with white hair." He dropped bow ties when a psychologist told him jurors think a bow-tied lawyer is talking down to them. He is not fazed by the notices he gets occasionally from the Drug Enforcement Administration, saying his conversation with a client has been wiretapped.

He insists that he does not envy corporate lawyers their buttoned-down reputation.

"Never! Never!" He looms over you to answer, as he might loom over a jury. "That's the public perception: they're nice guys, we're slimeballs." Sigh. "Right. Respectable? Defending Dow Chemical? Union Carbide at Bhopal? It was OK to cover up what was going on with the Dalkon Shield?"

Mr. Rubin calls himself a "street kid from West Baltimore." His speech is peppered with profanity. He calls some clients "baby," as in, "Listen to me, baby: under no circumstances should you talk to the police."

But after a hard day consorting with alleged ne'er-do-wells, Jack Rubin likes to -- cook. "You can put your brain on the shelf. I must have a hundred cookbooks. French, Indian, everything." He listens to classical music. "I'm a subscriber to the opera, the symphony, the chamber society." He reads philosophy. "The 19th-century idealists. Nietzsche. Schopenhauer."

'Entrapment, my dear'

L The first call of the day has jangled him awake at 5:30 a.m.

"I'm looking for a lawyer," the guy says.

"It's 5:30 in the morning," Mr. Rubin explains.

"My trial's at 9," the guy says.

Mr. Rubin hangs up on him, a luxury he permits himself rarely. This is a business, after all.

A criminal defense lawyer, Mr. Rubin explains, is just like an obstetrician.

"People have babies in the middle of the night, and people generally get arrested at night," Mr. Rubin says. "Drug raids are at night or early in the morning. Bar fights, knifings, shootings tend to be after dark. I get three or four calls every day between midnight and the start of the working day."

To pull in these potential clients, no elaborate marketing strategy is required.

"Grapevine in the jail is real good," he says.

He says it sitting in the kitchen of his town house in Pikesville. It is 7:30. To prove his point, now comes the day's second call.

"Your son got locked up again." The voice is neutral, no condemnation, no sympathy.

"He's already out on bail for a felony, right? . . . Whether he had something on him or not isn't always relevant. . . . Can't promise we'll be there for the bail review, ma'am. But I'll check with pretrial and tell them I represent him."

This will be an ordinary, frustrating day: no tear-stained pleas for mercy, no courtroom confessions, just a couple of postponements, a waived hearing, an arraignment, and one successful invocation of The Idiot Defense.

There is the usual scheduling catastrophe. Mr. Rubin is due on three cases in two courtrooms, at different ends of Baltimore, at 9 a.m. -- heroin at Wabash Avenue, marijuana and PCP in the Southern District.

He is due downtown in Circuit Court at 10 with a young woman who was discovered in March in a car with a bullet in the chest and 1,100 glassine bags of heroin. He has a cocaine case, on North Avenue, at 2.

From the phone in his silver BMW, he shuffles cases. He makes a call on a nursing home aide accused of rape by a senile 92-year-old woman.

He breezes through the District Court at Wabash Avenue, booming greetings at the sheriff's deputies, patting the backs of fellow members of the bar, shaking hands with a passing police officer.

On the second floor, in the prosecutors' office, he stops to spar with M.J. Schroeder about a case.

"Hand-to-hand sale to an undercover officer of, what was it, 30 grams of heroin?" Ms. Schroeder says, a little taunt in her voice.

"It's called entrapment, my dear," Mr. Rubin replies, pinching her cheek as he strolls out the door.

"Entrapment my toenails!" Ms. Schroeder calls after him, as the door swings shut.

'I always liked talking'

His first job was sales. At 13, he started selling shoes at a store on Lexington Street for 60 cents an hour and 1 percent commission, Monday and Thursday nights and Saturdays. From a city in a more innocent era, the worst thing he can remember doing was replacing the teacher's hand cream with Elmer's glue.

He liked school -- "it was an opportunity to talk, and I always liked talking" -- and finished City College at 16. His father was increasingly disabled by heart trouble, and he kept working as he moved through the University of Baltimore and its law school.

Five days a week he investigated child abuse cases for the city, sharing a desk for a time with now-Senator Barbara A. Mikulski. Saturdays he sold clothes. Sundays he scrubbed floors at the Maryland Cup Company. When he got his degree, he practiced personal injury law for six months, but didn't like it. He wanted trial work. He wanted battle.

He could have had that as a prosecutor, of course. But he wanted to give his own children an easier ride than he had had. "To be a state's attorney it helped to have some money, which I didn't," he said. From his childhood, and from his child abuse work, he had an easy rapport with people from tough neighborhoods. He opted for criminal defense work.

On occasion, he finds the job less legal work than social work, putting in long hours disentangling a client's life. On occasion, Mr. Rubin said, he has a client who, presumption of innocence aside, he finds it difficult to abide. "I'm not a potted plant. Sometimes you say to yourself during a trial, 'God, I can't wait for this case to end, because I don't want to sit next to him any longer.' "

He sits there anyway. Like nearly all criminal defense attorneys, he takes his fee up front.

"If I were representing the president of General Motors, I could bill by the hour and be confident I would be paid," he says. "But if a guy gets 15 years, he's not going to write you a check from the Fallsway Apartments." The Maryland State Penitentiary and the Baltimore City Detention Center both have a view of the Fallsway.

Criminal defense law is far from the most lucrative branch of legal practice. For Mr. Rubin, whose wife, Carol, practices civil health-care law, it has helped put his two daughters through private school and private college; pay for the original art that hangs on his living room wall; and finance a trip to Europe about once a year.

He declines to discuss his fees. But handy on his desk he keeps a copy of a legal manual explaining the use of IRS Form 8300, which is used to report cash transactions of more than $10,000. "This is my Bible," he says.

Drug money prompted the IRS regulation. Mr. Rubin does not inquire about the source of his fees.

"A merchant doesn't ask where the money comes from," he says. "A guy who sells a BMW for $15,000 cash doesn't ask where the money comes from."

'He's an idiot'

At 2 p.m., he is headed for North Avenue, none of his cases resolved. He has spent much of the day waiting in the district court, listening to the surreal song of the city's underside:

Prosecutor: "Did he hit her only with his fists, or did he use some object?"

Witness: "He hit her with a pumpkin."

Judge (starting from a daydream): "A pumpkin?"

Witness: "A pumpkin."

At the Circuit Court arraignment, he has managed a long bench conference with prosecutor and judge. He wants to convey that his client, the 22-year-old woman caught with the bullet and the heroin, is an innocent who landed by way of a drug habit in a dealers' dispute. Sitting on a bench with hands and legs cuffed, she indeed looks out of place, like a college student acting in a play.

The conference is not wasted time. "You want a plant to grow," Mr. Rubin says, "you have to plant a seed."

He eats lunch -- turkey on rye and a diet Coke -- in the office with a client, a very pregnant young woman who is facing serious drug charges. She has brought a friend who will take care of the baby if she goes to prison. Another client drops by, simply to tell his former lawyer he is doing well and hopes not to need his services again.

At North Avenue, he has to explain to the judge why his client, given the break of probation in September for cocaine possession, got himself arrested in November with more cocaine. His client, Alan McNeil, could get four years. "I feel like the pallbearer at a funeral," Mr. Rubin says.

With little to lose, he decides on a novel approach.

"He's not a drug dealer," Mr. Rubin tells Judge Barbara Waxman, at the climax of his little speech. "He's an idiot, frankly, your honor. That's what he is."

Mr. McNeil, standing beside his lawyer, does not flinch.

Judge Waxman gives the defendant her own version of a lie-detector test. She asks him whether he has used any drugs recently.

"Not cocaine," he says.

"What, then?" she asks.

"A little reefer, maybe," he says.

She sends him to the basement for a urine test. A good 90 minutes later, the result comes back: positive for marijuana, negative for everything else.

Judge Waxman thanks Mr. McNeil for his honesty. "It's not often defendants are truthful. In fact, it's been several months," she says.

She gives him 30 days in jail, to be served on 15 weekends. This is a triumph. Mr. Rubin fairly floats to his car, arriving perhaps 30 seconds before it is to be towed.

Back at the office, there's a stack of pink phone messages to return: Shooting at Hammerjacks. Grand jury subpoena in a drug case. Question of an unpaid fee. There's a case to prepare for morning, sentencing of a man from Ghana on heroin distribution.

"Truth of the matter is, the better a reputation you get, the worse the cases are," he says. "This guy doesn't need a lawyer, he needs a magician."

Finally he heads up the JFX, to walk his golden retriever in the leafy glen beside his town house and think about dinner recipes.

The other world of dime bags and .38-caliber handguns evidence seems to recede quickly.

But the phone will ring at home again at 4:30 the following morning. It will be a woman, calling from Penn Station. Police will be searching her luggage for white powder.

They will find it. Mr. Rubin will take the case.

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