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Albert's Lawyer Wins on Appeal

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 1997; Page B01

Roy Black may be the only man alive who has not only read Marv Albert's autobiography, but painstakingly highlighted passages with a bright yellow marker.

It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it. And Black is very well paid for his labors.

Today, the famous Miami lawyer is scheduled to appear in Arlington Circuit Court to defend Albert on charges that the NBC sportscaster bit a Vienna woman and forced her to perform oral sex in a Pentagon City hotel room. Albert denies the charges.

On Friday, Black sat in his suite at Georgetown's Park Hyatt hotel, taking a brief break from trial preparations. On the glass coffee table in front of him lay Albert's autobiography, "I'd Love To, but I Have a Game: 27 Years Without a Life." Beneath it was a book called "Rape on Trial" and another titled "Sexual Violence."

There's a lot more reading matter in another suite in the hotel -- the "war room," Black calls it -- a temporary office filled with files and equipped with computers, a fax machine and three phone lines. There, Black and his team of attorneys and investigators have gathered for a week, getting ready for the trial.

"We live, eat and sleep this case," he says. "I like getting people together and brainstorming ideas."

Black won't reveal how many people are working on Albert's defense, but he is known as an attorney who likes to have an army around him. Defending a man accused of shooting a dog a decade ago, Black hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on the dog. Defending William Kennedy Smith on a rape charge in Palm Beach in 1991, he employed no fewer than five private investigators to ferret out information on Smith's accuser.

It was the Smith case that made Black famous. He'd been one of Miami's top lawyers for over a decade, defending accused dope dealers and alleged murderers. But he was catapulted into celebrity when the Smith case was televised on Court TV, highlighting Black's gentle but devastating cross-examination of Smith's accuser, whose image was hidden behind a big blue blob. He won that case and immediately joined the ranks of America's elite defense attorneys -- Gerry Spence, F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz, the late William Kunstler -- hired guns who ride into town to take on the local lawmen.

He also became a legal talking head, appearing regularly on the "Today" show and "Geraldo" to handicap the O.J. Simpson trial. The fact that he predicted O.J.'s acquittal did not hurt his reputation for legal sagacity.

But Black gained more than fame from the Smith case. He also gained a wife -- Lea Haller. She was Juror No. 1. On the night of Smith's acquittal, Haller, who owns a cosmetics company, accidentally ran into Black at the bar where he and his team were celebrating.

"She told me, `Where did you get your haircut? And where did you buy those clothes?' " Black recalls, grinning.

"His hair was a little short, his pants were a little short, and his glasses were a little dated," she says. A decade younger than Black, who is 52, she's a vivacious blonde with a big grin and hands that never stop moving.

They met again on the set of "Donahue," where they'd been invited to discuss the Smith case. One thing led to another and they were married in 1994. It was her second marriage, his third.

"It just goes to show: I know how to pick a jury," he says.

Sitting there in a blue shirt, faded jeans and loafers without socks, he seems less the big-name defense attorney than just another soft-spoken middle-aged guy. Which is exactly the persona he presents in court.

"He's a nice man and it shows," says Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who may or may not be an expert on niceness. "He's wonderful at destroying a witness's credibility in a nice way. He does it with a scalpel, not a sword."

Or as the Palm Beach Post once put it: "Roy Black, the criminal defense lawyer with the bedside mannerisms of a kindly country doctor and the heart of an assassin."

Genuine or not, his nice-guy style works well in court. "There are not very many cases you'll find that he's lost," says H.T. Smith, a Miami lawyer who worked as a public defender with Black back in the '70s. "He's the Michael Jordan of criminal defense lawyers in America."

Black smiles when he hears that. "Lawyers are subject to hyperbole, as you know," he says modestly. Nobody is the best lawyer in America, he adds. "I think there are the best lawyers for particular cases. In the O.J. Simpson case, Johnnie Cochran was the best in the United States for that case."

He pauses. His eyes light up mischievously. He is thinking of Robert Bennett, President Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Jones case, a man who is not widely known for his niceness. "Bob Bennett is great when you want to grind down the other side and beat them to a pulp." He bursts out laughing. "That's when you want Bob Bennett."

Obviously, Black keeps a close eye on his competition. But he has also studied the great defense lawyers of the century. Reading Louis Nizer's "My Life in Court" inspired him to become a lawyer. And then he discovered Clarence Darrow, the legendary "attorney for the damned" who defended labor leaders like Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood as well as John Scopes, the Tennessee teacher prosecuted for teaching evolution. Black has read everything he can find on Darrow and carefully studied the master's closing arguments. "He was unquestionably the greatest genius who ever practiced at the bar," he says.

Talking about Darrow gets Black excited. "Darrow was one of those lawyers who was on a crusade: He represented the working man and organized labor." He mentions the century's other great legal causes -- the Nuremberg war crimes trial, the civil rights movement. "These are the crusades that the rest of us lawyers are jealous of."

He sounds wistful. It's the lament of a man who longs to defend heroes like Debs or Martin Luther King Jr. but finds himself marooned in an era that presents him only with William Kennedy Smith and Marv Albert. Maybe that's the tragedy of our tepid times -- too many lawyers, too few heroes.

Still, Black prepares as assiduously as if he were defending Jesus Christ in the court of Pontius Pilate. He is legendary for his obsessive preparations.

"It's purely neurotic," Black says. "I'm neurotic and I just worry that something's going to happen that I hadn't thought of or prepared for, so I overprepare."

His wife is here to keep him from getting too obsessed -- and also, she says, to help him choose the proper clothes for court.

"We always travel together," she says.

"I traveled with her through Indonesia and Malaysia," he says.

That was a sales trip. They spent three weeks promoting her line of cosmetics in Asia.

"He was telling everyone how great my cosmetics are," she says, smiling at him.

"It's difficult being in Asia because women are treated differently," he explains. "The businessmen didn't want to talk to her. They wanted to talk to me. They're not used to doing business with a woman. And I don't know anything about cosmetics."

"Roy's a quick study," she says. "If he hears something once, that's it, he can do it himself. So they'd talk to him and he'd tell them about my cosmetics." She laughs. "So I was basically on vacation."

Back home, he has been helping hawk her Sudden Youth cosmetics on the Home Shopping Network. "He critiques me. He says, `Say this, don't say that.' He says, `When you say that, the phones ring.' "

Obviously Roy Black knows how to appeal to the public. That's not surprising. Trial lawyers are, after all, a breed of salesmen, and Black is one of America's best. This morning, he'll roll into court in Arlington, peddling his most profitable products -- innocence and reasonable doubt.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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