He's no Perry Mason. He wouldn't make it on "L.A. Law." Vincent Fuller may be one of the best criminal defense lawyers in the country but he's not, well, dramatic.
"Some people say trial lawyers are actors and that a trial is like a play," he once told a reporter. "I think that's just misleading. It's really a battle, especially when the stakes are so high and the value is liberty."
Fuller, who heads the defense team in the Mike Tyson rape trial, faces a formidable challenge in the Indianapolis courtroom. But when it comes to winning battles, Fuller is considered a master. The 60-year-old
Washington litigator learned his craft at the side of the legendary trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams and, in what is still regarded as a stunning verdict 10 years later, convinced a jury that John Hinckley Jr. was not guilty by reason of insanity of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.
When boxing promoter Don King found himself in the middle of a nasty tax fraud case in 1985, he hired Fuller, who shredded the government's case and won a surprising acquittal. So when former heavyweight champion
Tyson, King's multi-million-dollar client, was indicted by a grand jury on rape charges, he too turned to Fuller, a senior partner at the Washington firm of Williams & Connolly.
"When he goes into a courtroom, he knows the facts of the case better than anyone alive," says Brendan Sullivan, another of the firm's celebrated lawyers, famous for his defense of Oliver North.
Fuller is best known in legal circles for his defense of white-collar criminal cases -- the kind of cases that are often won by overwhelming the prosecution with documents and motions in court. His style is somewhat distant and formal, his homework flawless, every utterance calculated.
But in a rape trial, emotional testimony can overshadow the often tedious presentation of evidence. Greg Garrison, the head prosecutor in the Tyson case, is riveting, charismatic and, according to courtroom observers, highly persuasive.
For the past week, the prosecution team has presented its case that the 25-year-old boxer raped an 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant in his hotel room on July 19. Now, it's Fuller's turn to convince the jury of eight men and four women that the young woman consented to sex with Tyson and filed charges out of spite -- hoping to collect a fat civil lawsuit judgment -- only after she realized it was just a one-night stand.
Fuller -- stocky, graying, dignified in his conservative Washington suits -- is a stark contrast to the lanky Garrison, who sports cowboy boots, leather suspenders and a shock of red hair. But, says colleague David E. Kendall, Fuller's formal style is the key to his credibility in the courtroom.
"He knows how to have the jury trust what he says on disputed issues," says Kendall. "It is a straightforward, nontheatrical presentation of argument and evidence. A jury doesn't look at you with deference and respect because you're glib. I think one of Vince's trademarks is that he becomes the most authoritative presence in the courtroom without threatening the judge."
Courtroom Demeanor With a gag order on all parties involved, Fuller cannot talk about the specifics of the Tyson case and is notoriously tight-lipped about himself. But given what has been called a strong prosecution case, Fuller and his defense team, who are getting a reported $5,000 a day fee, have their work cut out for them.
Courtroom spectators say Fuller, confined thus far to cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, seems somewhat aloof. He appeared awkward, they say, when he asked Tyson's accuser questions about sexually explicit rap lyrics.
"People should not expect a Perry Mason cross examination -- a sudden and dramatic demolition of a witness," says Kendall. "That doesn't happen very often."
But today, the Tyson defense begins its first full day. And colleagues and friends say Fuller is one of the most meticulously prepared lawyers who ever walked into a courtroom and has an unerring instinct for a trial's key issues. "Whatever the weaknesses in your case, Vince Fuller is going to bring them out," says longtime friend Bill Hundley of Akin Gump, a Washington firm.
Fuller's skills have landed him a string of high-profile clients including King, junk bond king Michael Milken, former representative Charles Diggs and former NASA administrator James Beggs. When King and an associate were charged with tax evasion, Fuller's defense team analyzed 140,000 documents, found thousands of bookkeeping errors and convinced the court that accountants were to blame. When Beggs was charged with defrauding the Department of Defense, Fuller won him not only a full dismissal but also an apology from the government -- after it was forced to examine 82 boxes of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. (In an interesting coincidence, Beggs's daughter Kathleen, a lawyer at Williams & Connolly, is part of Fuller's defense team at Tyson's trial.)
But those all involved complex accusations of white-collar criminal activity. Fuller has less experience at litigating what lawyers call "street crimes" -- such as rape and murder.
"Some said that the Hinckley case was not Vincent's typical kind of case, either," says Bob Barnett, an entertainment lawyer at Williams & Connolly. "But he won one of the more amazing results of 20th-century criminal law. I would trust him to try any case."
In what many consider a turning point in that trial, Fuller persuaded the judge to play the film "Taxi Driver" for the jurors -- despite the violent objections of government lawyers -- to prove that his client was obsessed with actress Jodie Foster. In a rare moment of courtroom levity, Fuller sat down and said to one lawyer, "Now let's get out the popcorn and watch the movie."
"It was a terrific victory and to call it otherwise is really being disingenuous," says Joseph diGenova, one of the deputy U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case. Fuller himself was more blase; after the decision, he told reporters, "Another day, another dollar."
"I don't think experience in rape cases is nearly as important as someone who's thoroughly at home in the courtroom, someone who's a first-class litigator," says a former Williams & Connolly lawyer who asked not to be identified. "It's true that he is somewhat stiff and formal. He's a very morally upright person. That doesn't mean that he wouldn't be good trying a rape case."
Roy Black, who successfully defended William Kennedy Smith in his sensational December rape trial, says he had only tried two or three rapes cases before that. But Black believes the keys to winning any case are preparation and strategy -- and quick thinking. "You have to have the ability to change direction at very short notice. You can be prepared for what you think is going to happen, but something else can occur and you have to be able to adjust your strategy immediately."
Tyson's accuser gave the most dramatic testimony as the trial opened. The college freshman testified that she accompanied the boxer to his hotel room, where he pinned her to the bed, raped her and laughed while she cried and begged him to stop. Other contestants in the Miss Black America pageant testified that Tyson behaved "like an octopus" at the rehearsal earlier in the day. The prosecution rested after 20 witnesses including the accuser's mother, who broke down on the stand, also moving one of the jurors to tears.
On Tuesday, Judge Patricia J. Gifford threw out the least serious charge against Tyson -- confinement, for restraining his accuser to the bed -- but he is still charged with rape and deviate sexual conduct and could get up to 60 years in prison.
A rape case that turns on the question of consent can be difficult to win if the defendant doesn't testify, according to legal experts. But Tyson, who has faced accusations of beating former wife Robin Givens, womanizing and violent behavior outside the ring, could be vulnerable on the witness stand. Before the trial, defense attorneys not involved in the case speculated that Tyson would testify only if the prosecution case was very strong.
"It will be very difficult to prepare Mike Tyson to testify," says Black. "He's not someone who engenders much sympathy. But Fuller has a big advantage -- he's in charge of a defense team from the premier criminal defense firm in the United States."
His Mentor's Example Before he graduated from Georgetown law school in 1956, Fuller's future was decided by one of his professors: Edward Bennett Williams, widely regarded as one of the greatest trial lawyers since Clarence Darrow.
Fuller was probably destined for the law. The son of Vincent Fuller, a municipal court judge and mayor of Ossining, N.Y., he graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts and then served a stint in the Navy as a communications officer during the Korean War before enrolling in Georgetown.
It was there he met Williams, who hired Fuller into what was then Williams, Wadden & Stein, where he spent his early professional years at Williams's side.
"He had incredible training," says Peter Taft, a Los Angeles attorney. "You can't copy a great trial lawyer, but you can learn from them to develop your own style and personality in the courtroom."
According to Evan Thomas, author of a new biography of Williams, Fuller was one of Williams's "surrogate sons" who not only worked with him on cases but ate, drank and socialized with him. Williams had Fuller in the courtroom when he defended Jimmy Hoffa on bribery charges and then-New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell on income tax evasion, among many others. The two remained extremely close until Williams's death in 1988; Fuller was one of the pallbearers.
Low Profile, High Intensity Fuller, now senior partner at Williams & Connolly, has been with the firm 36 years. He lacks Williams's charisma -- and his high profile. But he acquired Williams's mania for preparation, determination and burning desire to win. He also boasts a phenomenal memory and a deep, gruff voice -- almost a bark -- that opponents say can command a courtroom, unnerve witnesses and irritate some judges and juries.
"He often has the demeanor of a most respected doctor at a great hospital," says Brendan Sullivan. "So when he speaks, people listen intently."
Despite his successes, Fuller has always maintained a low profile. Friends describe him as charming and almost shy outside the courtroom. He is, said one colleague, a "classic family guy" -- married since 1957 to his wife, Beatrice, and devoted to their five children. "He's the firm's greatest soccer coach," says Kendall. "He was an ace coach on his children's soccer teams." His one other passion is the Navy. Fuller, who lives in Bethesda, has a weekend house in Annapolis, and his office walls are covered with pictures of ships. "My only complaint about Vince is that he's a reformed smoker," joked old friend Hundley. A Talent for the Endgame
The case, which was to resume this morning after a one-day postponement, will likely rest on the credibility of Tyson and his accuser. After months of his trademark investigation and preparations, Fuller now has the chance to present his client's defense. "There is no one personality that is magically effective," says Kendall. "It's in the closing that it all comes together. Vince is terrific at drawing together bits of the mosaic into a compelling picture."