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A bulldog tenacity in the courtroom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Several years ago, defense lawyer Maria Cristina Gutierrez updated her wardrobe. Out went the demure, Brooks Brothers style. In came a bold, even defiant look -- miniskirts, low-cut blouses, high heels and scarves in a riot of brilliant colors.

Finally, her clothes and her courtroom style were in sync.

Passionate, fierce and relentless, Ms. Gutierrez is generally considered one of the top criminal lawyers in Maryland, a tenacious gut-fighter who will not give ground, go along or go away.

"Criminal defense is street fighting," she explained recently. "It isn't elegance. It isn't Wall Street."

The protector of the vilified, she now stands between Baltimore City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean and a potential prison term. She is also defense counsel for John J. Merzbacher Jr., a former Catholic school teacher who, accused of molesting students, faces the possibility of an even lengthier sentence.

Before Mrs. McLean and Mr. Merzbacher were other huge cases; Mark Howell, acquitted of killing a furniture store owner; Laurie S. Cook, an Anne Arundel County teacher cleared of having sex with a student; Sandra and Jamal Craig, mother and son who fended off charges of molesting children at their Howard County day care center; Anna Rescott and Jacqueline Bouknight, mothers accused of killing their children.

Few, if any, lawyers in Maryland have handled more high-profilecriminal cases in the past seven years. Usually, Ms. Gutierrez wins those cases.

As prosecutors and judges have learned, intimidation does not work against Ms. Gutierrez. "Tina's not someone you want to get in a cat fight with," says Ahmet Hissim, a city prosecutor. "If you fight with her, she'll fight back. If you're going to win, you know you're going to pay a price."

Some lawyers choose their battles; Ms. Gutierrez contests every piece of turf. "Frankly, I don't like to see her coming in my courtroom because I know she'll work me to death," says Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown.

But that assessment underestimates her. If she is combative withjudges and prosecutors, she can be a poignant supplicant to jurors, unusually adept at the theatrics of trial work.

To save one client from death row, she delivered her hourlong closing argument from directly behind him.

"I don't want them to have a moment when they take their eyes off this human being," she said of the jurors, who spared her

client from the gas chamber.

In the continuing plea bargaining over the McLean case, Ms. Gutierrez is framing the issues in the starkest way, raising the stakes as high as she can to keep Mrs. McLean out of prison.

Emphasizing Mrs. McLean's depression -- "her lethal disease" -- and her three suicide attempts, Ms. Gutierrez is insisting that her client would not survive prison.

"Whatever she may be judged guilty of, under the worst circumstances, she does not deserve the death penalty," Ms. Gutierrez says. "To fail to recognize that reality diminishes us all."

Create sympathy

Colleagues say Ms. Gutierrez has an instinctive ability to draw a jury to her side.

During one case, she invited the judge to sit with the prosecutor, claiming that the judge's bias was painfully evident. The judge exploded. Some prosecutors believe she invites such reaction to create sympathy for herself and the defendant.

"Tina will do what she can to the bounds of the law for her clients," said Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor.

Some prosecutors privately question whether Ms. Gutierrez's successes are a triumph of style over substance and assert that her pugnaciousness is manipulative.

Ms. Gutierrez becomes venomous over such criticism. "There are some prosecutors who accuse any defense lawyer who beats them as being dishonest and using trickery. I have nothing but contempt for them."

She nearly spits out her words. "They will go after my client simply because he is my client; they will take the case to the mat because they want my scalp."

An outsider

It is the bitterness of an outcast, which is how Ms. Gutierrez, 43, views herself.

Hers is an unexpectedly tumultuous past, one with dark corners and secrets, anguish and humiliation.

Yet, as successful as she is now, she seems unwilling to relinquish the resentments.

In interviews, she speaks of old wounds and new slights.

When she is asked for a list of people to talk to about her, she begins with prosecutors "who hate me." (None she named would be interviewed.)

"I engender great enmity," she says.

Many do dislike Ms. Gutierrez intensely, but it becomes clear that she needs to think of the rest of the world as lined up against her. She nearly acknowledges as much.

Her sense of having been wronged may be her greatest weapon on behalf of her clients, she says.

"Being treated unfairly, being treated hostilely are experiences that have made me uniquely qualified to be protective of them, to advocate for them, to be their warrior."

Tina Gutierrez sat at her kitchen table one day in March smoking one cigarette after another. She was home at her doctor's insistence. While defending her flamboyant partner, William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., against charges of battering his wife, she contracted pneumonia. During trials, it is not unusual for her to work around the clock for days. Finally, she reaches a point of collapse.

Ms. Gutierrez says she has done better since becoming a parent -- she is the divorced mother of two young children.

She spends Saturday evenings at home until the children go to bed and the baby sitter arrives.

Then she returns to her Calvert Street office and works all night, reappearing for breakfast.

In the back yard were her washer and dryer. Her pipes burst a week before and she hadn't fixed the problem. A friend says Ms. Gutierrez once lost electricity during a lightning storm; it was weeks before she got power restored.

Keenly aware of bias

Ms. Gutierrez's biography conveys a great sense of speed, as though the events of her life tumble after one another in a headlong rush. But as she relates these incidents, she speaks slowly and somberly.

She is the second of 10 children born to a Mexican-American father, the owner of a customs brokerage business, and an Irish-American mother.

From an early age, Ms. Gutierrez identified herself as Hispanic and "a woman of color."

With her pronounced Mexican features, she says she was keenly aware of bias against her, particularly at Notre Dame Preparatory School, where she says she was belittled by the school administration despite being a top student.

Eschewing college, Ms. Gutierrez took a succession of menial jobs after high school while getting involved in political activism: the anti-war and McGovern campaigns, the civil rights and labor movements, later a rent control battle in Baltimore. Hard-working and well-organized, she became one of the most recognizable activists in the city. She had no interest in bull sessions or dialectics. She wanted to win.

'I felt I belonged'

In 1973, she joined the Venceremos Brigade, a parade of American youth, disillusioned with the U.S. government, the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, who traveled to Cuba to cut sugar cane.

While most reveled in the rebellion symbolized by their pilgrimage, Ms. Gutierrez found something more being among Cubans.

"They said my name right," she says. "They looked like me. I didn't feel ugly. I felt whole. I felt I belonged."

To her surprise, Cubans were critical of her bitterness toward her country.

"They asked me how I could give up on my country and how I could hope to change it if I perceived myself as an outsider."

She returned to Baltimore resolved to be a lawyer, thinking she could effect change. She finished college at Antioch in Baltimore and in December 1979 graduated from the University of Baltimore law school.

But it would be nearly three years before she was admitted to the Maryland bar. Her legal career was jeopardized before it started.

When Ms. Gutierrez applied to the bar in 1980, she made an admission. Nine years earlier she had been convicted of shoplifting using a different name.

Although she was now acknowledging the conviction, she had not previously been so forthcoming.

She lied about her record when she applied for a job as a law clerk on the Supreme Bench in 1975, and lied about it again when applying to law school in 1976.

Messy, unhappy details

It wasn't the shoplifting conviction that Ms. Gutierrez had been trying to hide, she told investigators. It was the details of her messy, unhappy life.

"My life does not easily fit into the lines and spaces provided," she wrote the Maryland bar's character committee in 1981. The panel's inquiry forced her secrets out.

At the time of her conviction, she was living with a man who physically abused her, causing at least one miscarriage, she says. He was black. Believing she could blunt resentments if people took them for a married couple, she started using his last name.

In 1971, she was arrested in a department store for shoplifting. Neither her boyfriend nor her parents would pay her $10 bail.

The next morning, frightened and disoriented, she pleaded guilty, believing it was the best way to make the nightmare end. She maintains her innocence.

The character committee voted 4-3 to admit her to the bar. The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed.

Tearfully, she recently recalled the feelings of being falsely accused, abused and abandoned.

"The man I loved and trusted was a lowlife. My family was angry at me. There was no way I could gratuitously talk about the conviction without having to wrestle with all those other things, too."

'Emotions, passions'

Even now, she says, she doesn't feel she has come to terms with those years.

But she's not sure she wants to. She does not want to forget feeling victimized. That is how her clients feel when she meets them.

"Without those emotions and passions, the client wouldn't be served," she says.

While the jury deliberated during Ms. Gutierrez's first murder trial, shewrote her letter of resignation.

She was convinced that her incompetence had lost the case, had cost her client his freedom. The jury returned with an acquittal. Her last acquittal for a client charged with murder was Wednesday. In between have been many others.

From the moment she began in the public defender's office, Ms. Gutierrez was handling the worst crimes -- murders, rapes, assaults. She worked hard.

At the end of a day in court, she would head to public housing projects to interview witnesses.

After that, she would return to the office to prepare for the next day, going over her notes again and again and again.

Her habits didn't endear her to either prosecutors or administrators in her office.

She tried more cases than anyone else rather than plea bargain.

She would not waive preliminary hearings at District Court. She filed motion after motion.

Trials slow the system; she didn't care. Expert witnesses drained the budget; it wasn't her concern.

"She swims against the tide in the culture of mass justice," Mr. Millemann said. "There's enormous impetus to plea bargain and to wholesale justice."

Before long, she was considered one of the best in her office. "She is the most tenacious lawyer I have ever seen," says Danny Shemer, a colleague from those days and a close friend. "You push her, you better be ready to kill."

In 1986, worn by her fights with her bosses, Ms. Gutierrez quit. Before long, she joined Billy Murphy, the one-time judge, one-time mayoral candidate and forever gadfly for whom she had once clerked.

'No fear in the courtroom'

"I assiduously courted Tina because she was in my opinion one of the finest trial lawyers in the state," Mr. Murphy says. "She loved to try cases. She would, as we would say, throw down in a minute. She had no fear in the courtroom, of anybody or anything."

They make an incongruous pair. Self-assured and impish, Mr. Murphy is a spellbinding courtroom performer, considered one of the authentically brilliant practitioners in Maryland.

Ms. Gutierrez, who even her friends say is humorless and self-conscious, has more prosaic gifts, an endless capacity to work and a bulldog tenacity. What they share is a talent for making their clients sympathetic.

That skill was evident in one of her first private cases, representing Mytokia Friend, a Baltimore City policewoman who shot her husband six times while he lay in bed.

"The facts clearly showed a first-degree conviction," Judge Arrie W. Davis, who presided over the case, said recently.

Ms. Gutierrez, the one-time abuse victim, made the case that repeated beatings had unhinged Ms. Friend to the point that she saw no alternative to killing her husband. It may have been the first time a battered spouse defense had been made in Maryland.

Judge Davis convicted Ms. Friend of second-degree murder, "A victory," he says, for Ms. Gutierrez.

Ms. Friend was sentenced to 15 years in prison rather than life. Eventually, she was pardoned by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

'She saved my life'

A more clear-cut victory was won in 1991 in the case of Mark Howell, a 20-year-old Morgan State University student accused of killing Aaron Levenson, the owner of a South Baltimore furniture store.

Ms. Gutierrez faced the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of Mr. Howell's self-incriminating statements to police. So confident was the prosecutor that his best offer was a 50-year prison sentence. Mr. Murphy counseled Ms. Gutierrez to make a deal. She refused.

'I trusted my instincts'

"I trusted my instincts that there was a way to package that case in a way that could win," Ms. Gutierrez says. She first eviscerated the state's witnesses. Then she put Mr. Howell on the witness stand, knowing he would strike jurors as gentle and naive.

His story seemed implausible. He said he had gone to South Baltimore with a co-worker who promised to introduce him to someone who could cut his fade haircut. On their way, Mr. Howell said, the other man shocked him by pulling a gun and shooting Mr. Levenson.

Ms. Gutierrez led Mr. Howell through a lengthy discussion about his hair and his difficulties finding the right barber in Baltimore. If the prosecutor didn't believe that story, the jurors -- all of them black and five with fade haircuts -- did.

The jury forewoman, Alison Velez Lane, said the jury liked Ms. Gutierrez very much. Jury members were flattered by her attentiveness and impressed by her professionalism, particularly in light of the judge's apparent hostility.

It took the jury 10 minutes to acquit Mr. Howell. Some of them hugged him. Said Mr. Howell, now a student teacher in New York, "She saved my life. Period."

Three years later, Ms. Gutierrez still gloats over that case. "It was beyond their comprehension," she says of the police and prosecutor, "that Howell would not just go to the Hair Cuttery."

Taking case to public

Next for Ms. Gutierrez are Mrs. McLean and Mr. Merzbacher.

In the McLean case, she is taking her case to the public. She has held no fewer than three news conferences and is more solicitous of reporters than ever before. Her strategy is to substitute the view of Mrs. McLean as betraying the public trust with a more sympathetic portrait: a successful black woman who, suffering from the pressures of public life and debilitating mental illness, deserves compassion.

Ms. Gutierrez identifies with her client. "I told Jackie after this is over, she and I should write a book: 'Depression and Me.' "

Last week, she was daydreaming about giving up her law practice, of going into teaching or moving to the Southwest with her children and starting a ranch.

A moment later, though, Ms. Gutierrez says she has to get off the phone. A new client is downstairs.

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