It is early on a Sunday morning, and the summer sun has not yet begun to broil golfers at the Tantallon Country club in Prince George's County. Kenneth Michael Robinson -- a Washington defense lawyer with a 13 handicap that some think is too generous -- is gunning a golf cart toward the first tee when it occurs to him to mention that G. Gordon Liddy is also a member of the Tantallon Country Club.
"You could do a clever story," Robinson suggests to the reporter bouncing along with him, "that would say if Robinson had been out of the U.S. attorney's office when Watergate broke, they'd never have solved Watergate because . . . he would have gotten Liddy off."
And Robinson gives a great guffaw at the thought.
That Robinson -- a real self-promoter. Ask the courthouse reporters about him; they call him "a cowboy, a maverick, a free spirit who doesn't wheel and deal behind the scenes for his clients or play by the same rules as most uptown attorneys."
Yeah, boy, Kenny Robinson. His suits may be pinstriped, but he's still a good ol' boy in every sense of the cliche': a rangy, rumpled appearance, chipmunk cheeks, long sideburns and a South Carolina drawl that combine with an air of easy familiarity to give him the look of a door-to-door saleman about to make his pitch.
But despite the absence of a junior-partner-on-the-make look, Robinson, 36, is one hot defense lawyer thanks to a couple of well-publicized victories in tough cases. This spring he won an acquittal for Alexandria attorney James I. Burkhardt, who had been charged with a plan to "buy protection" for a Washington area prostitution ring.
Last summer Robinson successfully defended Linwood Gray against charges that Gray had directed the largest heroin operation ever prosecuted in Washington.(Gray was sentenced to 20 months in prison on charges of income tax evasion. But considering drug charges and the fact that a presentencing brief allleged that Gray was responsible for five murders and the attempted murder of an assistant U.S. attorney, the tax rap was peanuts.)
So far, Robinson has won 34 of the 42 cases he's argued before juries as a defense lawyer. Now, if all goes as scheduled early next month, Robinson will try to punch holes in the government's case against one of the Abscam defendents, Rep. John Jenerette Jr. (D-S.C.).
In that case, jenrette is charged with taking a bribe from FBI undercover agents to introduce legislation that would allow a fictitious Arab businessman to remain in the United States. Jenrette recorded phone conversations between Jenrette and others that purport to implicate the congressman. The prosecution also has video-tapes of Jenrette meeting in a Georgetown home to discuss the deal with men he didn't know were FBI agents.
Jenrette, well, boy, he's got Kenneth Michael Robinson.
Until Robinson was 11 years old, his father was a prosperous insurance agent in Greenville, S.C. But some bad business decisions and the beginning of a romance with the bottle began to take their toll on Robinson's father, who moved his family to rural Horry County. There he sold imitation fruit flavors to lower-income customers.
"Daddy used to sell the banana-flavored syrup out of his '51 Nash." Robinson recalls. "But he couldn't understand why people liked it until he he found out it had a certain alcoholic content. My brother and I would ride with him -- we'd pick up bottles and sell them for two cents each at Piggly Wiggly, then steal them again from behind the store while father bought a pint of Four Roses at Miss Tut's liquor store. Daddy caught us once and said my mother was right, I'd be a good lawyer."
Robinson's first love was baseball, and he hoped to grow up to be a professional player. In fact, his gait today, which is nearly a lope, and his slight tendancy toward a thick waist, give him a look of a ballplayer. Some chewing tobacco would complete the picture.
From Horry County, the Robinson family traveled cross-country in a 1954 Ford station wagon to Alaska where the senior Robinson had a line on a gold mine in Fairbanks. But there is no gold. Robinson's mother went to work as a secretary for the city manager of Fairbanks until she decided to return with her three children to South Carolina in 1959 and seek a divorce.
Robinson received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of South Carolina. He admits he didn't shatter any academic records; he married his wife, Jeanne, in his freshman year, and the couple's first daughter, Kimberly Dawn, was born during Robinson's second year in law school. (A second daughter, Cameron Marlow, was born three years later.) To support his family, he worked 40-hour weeks as a clerk in a pawnshop, an insurance agent and a termite exterminator, among other jobs.
After graduation in 1968, Robinson moved to Washington in search of trial experience in the U.S. attorney's office. He had to settle for a "boring" job at the Interstate Commerce Commision where he spent a good deal of his day playing basketball on the Justice Department roof court. It wasn't until he paid a visit to the senator, Republican Strom Thurmond, that he got results.
Robinson remembers that when he walked into Thurmond's office, the senator immediately asked him, "what's your name, where are you from, what do you want, why do you want it, and what's your party?"
"I told him, 'I'm Ken Robinson, I'm from Greenville, and I want to be an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington. I'm a Republican and was before it was fashionable.' I told him the best trial experience was here, but they're always hiring those Ivy League guys, and I thought it was about time some University of South Carlina boys had a crack at a job here, too. That got him. He told me to get the U.S. attorney on the telephone."
But Robinson reminded Thurmond that at the time that the senator was holding up the U.S. attorney's appointment to a federal judgeship. Shortly thereafter, however, when a new U.S. attorney was named in Washington, Thurmond made the phone call and Robinson became a prosecutor.
Of the 20 murder cases Robinson tried, he brought home 19 guilty verdicts. He had a way with juries. Among some judges, he was no favorite, but how your average juror did love Kenny Robinson! He was no preppie lawyer sharpening his skills to sell later to the K Street firms he was one of the little, just trying to do his job as best he could. It was an advantage Robinson quickly realized and has exploited ever sense.
"He was a terribly likable person, which I think is one of his primary qualities and one which comes through in his jury advocacy," recalls Roger Zuckerman, who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney with Robinson in the late 1960's. "He really comes across as a genuine person with an almost childlike, state-of-nature innocence.
"Most people develop, as a defense mechanism in the way they relate to the world, a facade or veneer through which they pass their honest feelings and beliefs," Zuckerman says. "I think Kenny just doesn't have that. He gives the impression of being absolutely ingenuous. The only other human being I can think of like that is Muhammad Ali."
That enthusiasm had its price. Of Robinson's 19 murder convictions as a prosecutors, four were eventually overturned because -- ruled the appeals court -- Robinson's summary arguments were so filled with rhetoric and emotionalism that the juries were unduly influenced.
"I go in swinging with both hands," says Robinson, who shares, along with trial lawyers such as F. Lee Bailey and Melvin Belli, a love for the attention that accompanies a theatrical courtroom manner. One writer attributed to him a "swashbuckling rage," Robinson notes with obvious delight.
"I like that," he says, "I'm sort of a fat Errol Flynn."
But while Zuckerman notes Robinson's personality, he suggests Robinson is not so strong "in areas dealing with arcane legal analysis -- or not-so-arcane legal analysis. He doesn't enjoy it, doesn't excel in it. He had a genius for fact development before a jury that is so overwhelming in its superiority to his skill as a legal analyst that it's just not an attractive part of the practice to him."
Former colleagues, even former courtroom opponents, echo Zuckerman's opinion. And in the close, tough, impolite world of Washington lawyering, that kind of unanimity is unusual. Sure he's a self-promoter, a boaster. Sure, he didn't climb the ladder of success the way some of his peer group did -- working nights and weekends to make partner. But he's so open in his ambition to be a famous defense lawyer that it inspires more humor than envy among the courthouse press and his colleagues. And his damnable likability means he's made few enemies.
Robinson isn't hitting well this Sunday on the golf course. He never plays well with the press watching, he jokes. Robinson is in the perfect time: a couple of big wins behind him and a big case yet to come. Around the fifth hole he allows as how some of the uptown lawyers have started being nice to him recently. In 1977 he bought a red frame townhouse on Sixth Street NW, just off Judiciary Square. Robinson paid $120,000 for it and figures he could sell it for more than $300,000 now. But he likes it because Daniel Webster once practiced law there, and Robinson would like nothing more than if his office were to become a tourist attraction like Melvin Belli's charming, antique-filled townhouse in San Francisco. Other advantages include his space -- rental checks from lawyers on the second floor more than cover Robinson's mortgage -- and he's just a block from the courts.
But for big money law firms, the prestigious addresses are on Connecticut Avenue or along K Street, near Farragut and McPherson Squares, or below Dupont Circle within walking distance of The Palm. Judiciary Square is for the "Fifth Streeters," the shiny-suited, fast-moving lawyers who pick up one-shot clients in the hallways or juggle a load of court-appointed cases. But since his name and picture began appearing in the newspapers, Robinson says four uptown lawyers he used to know have called and said the nice things about getting together for lunch soon or sharing a case someday.
"This was this guy from a big firm in town I had some real confrontation with on a civil case, and he used to really talk down to me," Robinson says. "I was on a murder case recently, and he was in a civil case next door. He must have stopped to talk to me everytime he could see me. "Ken, how you doing?' All of a sudden, all these guys' guards are down, I'm one of the boys, all because I have the appearance that I'm going somewhere."
Where Robinson would like to go is on a pedestal in the pantheon of contemporary trial lawyers whose last names are Bailey, Belli and Williams. Toward that end, he is happier to be moving toward more white-collar defendants. There was a time when he was getting a reputation as a drug lawyer. Professionally, he knew everyone charged with a crime is entitled to a defense. (In the Linwood Gray case, he didn't agree to accept the case until Gray had passed a lie dectector test as to his innocence in drug smuggling and the shooting of the assistant U.S. attorney in the case.) But personally the drug cases bothered him. His first daughter has learning disabilities, and along with his wife, Robinson works to try to help her realize her full potential through a careful diet that does not include drugs. He didn't want to become known as the drug dealers's mouthpiece.
The Jenrette case, then, is his first solo appearance in a national case. The one other time he worked for the defense in a big case came immediately after he left his job as a prosecutor. He was one of a handful of lawyers for the defense, though that didn't keep Robinson from standing out. Near the end of the case, Robinson was escorted from the courtoom by federal marshals because, said the judge, he made too many vociferous objections. But the impression Robinson made on the jury may have won the case for the defendants, in the opinion of some who were there.
The year was 1973, and Robinson left his job as a prosecutor because, he would say later, it was time to get rich and famous.
Another South Carolina Republican lawyer, Harry Dent, referred Robinson to Jerris Leonard, who was beginning in private practice following a stint as head of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. And Leonard had just snared a large, complicated case involving Glenn W. Turner, who stood charged with 28 counts of mail fraud for running two companies, Koscot and Dare to Be Great, that the government alleged were get-rich-quick pyramid schemes that stole from the poor to make Glenn Turner and his associates rich. For good measure, F. Lee Bailey, who had served for a time as Turner's lawyer, was included as a defendant.
Leonard immediately brought Robinson into the case. Robinson wanted to represent the flamboyant Turner. Both men were from the neighboring counties in South Carolina. Robinson was happy to note that when he first met Turner the lawyer had a hole in the sole of his shoe. He figured it was a touch that Turner, son of a sharecropper, would like. But the other lawyers on the defense team smelled a prosecutor who hadn't yet earned a stripe working the other side of the street; Robinson was detailed to defend one of Turner's corporations, Koscot. And it was in this role that Robinson displayed the best and the worst of his style. His wife has an explanation for the bad part.
No one thinks more of Ken Robinson than Jeanne Robinson -- she supports him with a ferocity that impresses the most casual observer. She lectures him on the virtues of dressing right (she buys his clothes), and she says she sometimes even washes his hair. But even Jeanne Robinson admits that her husband gets mean in the presence of overweening authority. He got fired from most of his jobs in college because of clashes with his bosses. In the U.S. attorney's office, Robinson rebelled against attempt to curb his fiery final arguments.
Jeanne Robinson, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology, attributes her husband's rebellious streak to a youthful rage at the way his family was treated as his father slipped into alcoholism and his mother became the butt of whispers in her hometown.
Robinson admits to a hearty dislike for "phonies" and the self-important. In fact, as president of the Tantallon Citizens' Association this year, he caused a brouhaha in the community by ripping into a former circuit court judge who appeared at a meeting to remark on the subject of National Airport-bound airplanes flying over the expensive Prince George's County community. Robinson resented what he took to be a pompous opening statement by the judge, who let his audience know he was taking much of his valuable time to address the citizens' association.
"I didn't like his pretentiousness," says Robinson. "I told him I didn't care if he was a judge." A small scandal erupted, including an underground movement to impeach Robinson. "That probably destroyed my congressional career," he cracks.
At any rate, Robinson's almost visceral mistrust of authority sometimes runs him afoul of judges, and the case involving Glenn Turner et al. offered a classic example. For eight months Robinson and U.S. Ddistrict Court Judge Gerald B. Tjoflat scratched at each other like jealous cats. The strain did not go unnoticed by the jury, who began to root for Robinson. Wheh the spring of 1974 and the conclusion of the trial mercifully arrived, Robinson prepared for what he likes to term his "rip-roaring" final argument.
On the morning before Robinson was scheduled to take the floor, the government had referred to two of Turner's aides, who happened to be dwarfs, as "two court jesters, there to entertain Turner, the king." And a prosecutor promised the members of the jury that soon they'd see Robinson in action: "He's the clown -- he makes you laugh . . . and he'll try to make you cry. It's all an act. Don't be conned by [him]."
In fact, Robinson did make one juror cry that afternoon as, his voice quavering with emotion, he quietly began with the promise that "I'm not going to make you laugh. And I'll try not to bend you with tears." He reprimanded the government for calling Turner's aides "court jesters" as though they were circus freaks.
For hours, Robinson did what he does best: He wooed the jury. To some observers, Judge Tjoflat openly displayed his hostility for Robinson's courtroom style, as he had throughout the long trial. Robinson's former colleague from the U.S. attorney's office, Roger Zuckerman, was there as counsel to another defendant. Zuckerman, Harvard-educated and button-down, is a study in opposites to Robinson, but he recognized the appeal of what Zuckerman calls Robinson's "winsome, ingenuous ways" to the jury.
"The trial became, in the eyes of bored jurors, an interesting contest of wills between the judge and Ken," recalls Zuckerman. "It's the last thing either the judge or Ken wanted, I'm sure, because it doesn't serve the interests of justice. But it refocused the attention of the jury and could only hurt the government. Some jurors sided with Ken -- most people are natural rooters, and that tends to work against the government in a protracted trial. And one thing you can't say about Ken is that he doesn't have personality."
But Tjoflat had little use for the defense's Mr. Personality. A couple of days later, as Robinson objected to a number of points in the government's closing arguments, the judge angrily ordered federal marshals to excort Robinson out of the courtroom until the conclusion of the trial.
F. Lee Bailey, the famous defense lawyer who was himself a defendant in that trial (charges against him were later dismissed), notes that Robinson's "quick temper and offbeat sense of humor marked him from the beginning as the Peck's bad boy of the defense team." But no one expected the judge to boot Robinson out of the trial. Did Robinson learn anything from the experience?
"I may have learned something about maturing since the Turner case -- don't go so far that the judge locks your ass up," says Robinson, not sounding the least recalcitrant. "But as far as my trial style, it's still the same."
And why shouldn't it be? It worked in the Turner case. Robinson's absence was noticed by the jury. And some observers, including this reporter, theorized that when the jury could not reach a decision after seven days of deliberation, it was partly because several jurors remembered the exit line of Robinson's closing argument: "Remember me," he pleaded, looking slowly at each juror. "Someone argue for me back there in deliberation, for I shall be gone. Please argue for me."
And then he walked out of the courtroom with tears in his eyes.
When Robinson decided to go into practice by himself in 1975, he took a second mortgage on his home for $10,000. He received a $10,000 advance for a book about the Glenn Turner trial. The Great American Mail-Fraud Trial was published in 1976 to mediocre reviews and worse sales. Robinson has several thousand extra copies of the book available for visitors.) With a $20,000 "stash," as he calls it, he went looking for business. For the first few months he accepted court-appointed cases. He was so nervous that he lost the first retainer he had a chance to earn.
"I had this gambler charged with murder," he remembers. "He came to me through a referral, and I didn't get the case because I set the fee too low. It was tough for me to say '$2,000' because I was starving. But I said $2,000, and I watched his eyes when I said it. It was written all over him that I had to be a bum to charge a fee like that. He said he'd get back to me, but he never did."
Robinson says he grossed about $50,000 his first year in private practice, then doubled that amount the next year. He could have made more in 1978 if he had accepted stock instead of cash for a retainer. His client in a New York securities fraud case was a member of a family that has a large interest in Resorts International, the company that opened the first casino in Atlantic City.
"I could have taken $10,000 in cash or in stock," says Robinson. "Resorts stock at the time was 33. Not being a stock market man, and needing the money, I took the 10 grand. Three months later the stock had gone to $180 a share and split three ways. That was a mistake."
Robinson has recovered. Today he lives in a grand house that overlooks Swan Creek just off the Potomac River. In his driveway are a Mercedes-Benz and a Cadillac. His future will be even brighter if he succeeds in convincing a Washington jury that Jenrette never, in fact, received any money from any undercover agents. Or that any guilty-sounding phrases they might hear on the tapes can be at least partly attributed to his client's (now) self-admitted alcoholism. Or that the government illegally entrapped his client.
Robinson says he'll work in the Jenrette case the way he's worked in the past: He'll tell a story. Robinson maintains that some defense lawyers who have no prosecutorial experience are content to merely find flaws in the prosecution's case. A prosecutor, on the other hand, must construct a story, a scenario, that will explain to a jury the crime and why the defendant committed it. Likewise, says Robinson, he feels the defense must do the same, give the jury a reason for believing the defendant is innocent.
In the Burkhardt case, Robinson established this story line: Burkhardt was not a criminal lawyer and so in giving advice to his client he had relied on rulings in other cases. Perhaps the advice wasn't sound, argued Robinson, but that wasn't sufficient to convict Burkhardt.
While the jury was out, Robinson played the guitar for his client. Burkhardt didn't think Robinson's choice of "Folsom Prison Blues" was appropriate, but Robinson told him, "I've never lost a verdict when I've played the guitar."
In the case of Linwood Gray, Robinson had to explain his client's apparent wealth. The prosecution maintained the money came from drug tafficking, but Robinson wove his own story. It seems, Robinson explained, that the money came from Gray's earlier career as a very successful bank robber.
"You've got to tell a story; you can't win a case if you don't have any defense, unless the government has a real lousy case," says Robinson.
Next month, on behalf of Jenrette, Robinson says he will portray his client as a political target of the Justice Department, which "pecked and pecked away at him knowing of his problems with booze until, in a weak moment, they got him to talk about things he wouldn't ordinarily talk about."
On the 14th hole, as the sun makes its presence felt, Robinson gets a sweet hit with a nine-iron on the approach to the green. Hoping for a birdie now, brimming with good cheer, he charges up a small hill, the accelerator of the golf cart all the way to the floor as he steers the vehicle like some kind of amphibious landing craft making a beach assault.
"Now, boy," he shouts, "it's time to go put on a defense."