WHILE THE JURY WAS OUT deciding the fate of Alexandria attorney James Burkhardt last Friday, he was entertained by his defense attorney's limited repertoire of country music.
Picking a battered Gibson guitar in Burkhardt's fancy Alexandria town house office was Kenneth Michael Robinson. Burkhardt didn't mind Robinson's rendition of Willie Nelson's "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," nor did he protest when Robinson sang a cute John Denver tune.
But when Robinson began singing Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," Burkhardt said he didn't think that was very funny.
"Hell," Robinson replied. "I've-never lost a verdict when I played guitar."
Robinson's string of victories continued Friday. In less than two hours, the jury came back with the verdict that Brukhardt was innocent of the federal charges filed against him.
If a defense attorney in the Washington area is on a hot streak, it is Kenny Robinson, the self-described poor boy from South Carolina who is drawling his way to courtroom stardom at the age of 36.
When he was a prosecutor here, he won 100 major jury trials -- but he also spawned many appellate decisions when seven major first-degree murder cases were reversed. It seemed Robinson got a little carried away and kept irrelevantly bringing up the Kennedy and King assassinations in his closing arguments to make sure juries got his point.
Robinson (no relation to this columist) has the reputation among some more established courtroom lawyers of being 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. He represents drug dealers, murderers and robbers, doesn't waste a lot of time filing pretrial motions that he said do nothing but rip off clients' limited funds, and works out of a 6th Street NW office he owns, rather than renting plushly carpeted offices overlooking K Street or Connecticut Avenue NW.
In many ways, Robinson hopes the Burkhardt trial will help him improve that image, or at least convince a better brand of accused criminals that he can do for them what he has done for 32 of his 38 clients ("Hell, of course I keep score; don't believe lawyers who tell you they don't") -- keep them from being convicted of major criminal charges.
Robinson says most attorneys who specialize in white-collar crime create a mystique about what it takes to handle such cases.
"The cases are not more difficult," Robinson said. A lot of the pretrial work done by attorneys in such cases, he said, is merely "window-dressing for the client." Instead, he said, attorneys should spend their time, and the client's fee, investigating the cases and getting prepared for trial.
He said more white-collar defendants should ask their attorneys the last time they won a jury trial, a question he said persons accused of so-called "street crimes" are more likely to ask when they pick a lawyer.
Robinson said attorneys also have to learn to concede that the government has some thread of a case when it brings an indictment, and focus instead on "the heart of the case" -- the weaknesses in the government's case as well as its strengths.
Some defense attorneys in white-collar cases spend tens of thousands of dollars on experts to help them select a jury that is sociologically right for their clients. Robinson said he picks a jury by seeing which prospective jurors laugh when something funny occurs in the courtroom during the jury selection process -- "It shows they're real people."
It's been a long trip from Horry County, S.C., to a riverside home in Tantallon, Md. When Robinson came to Washington in 1968 with his University of South Carolina law credentials, he was nearly laughed out of town.
The public defender service wouldn't hire him because its then-director -- later an assistant attorney general -- Barbara Babcock said he was "too meek" to be a trial lawyer. The U.S. attorney's office wouldn't hire him, he said, because they were only interested in Ivy Leaguers. He finally got a job at the Interstate Commerce Commission, but he was still eager to develop his trial skills.
With some political help from his homestate senator, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Robinson finally became a prosecutor here. His peers thought he was too flamboyant -- he would, for example, show the path a bullet made through a murder victim by using a mannequin and a shish kebab skewer. But he felt he was beinc creative and imaginative.
He left the prosecutor's office to represent two of entrepreneur Glenn Turner's companies in the nine-month-long "Dare to Be Great" mail fraud trial in Florida in 1973, and then came back to Washington to enter private criminal practice at the bottom of the ladder, taking many court-appointed cases.
Before the Burkhardt trial, Robinson's most publicized case was his defense of Linwood Gray, accused of being a major drug dealer. Robinson convinced a jury that the government had framed Gray on the drug charges. However, in the process, Gray had to admit that he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars -- stashed from bank robberies in the mid-1960s, he said -- at a time when he wasn't paying taxes. So he got convicted of tax evasion instead.
But that was a victory for Robinson, since the drug charges were far more serious. In some ways, Robinson's "successful" defense of Gray wasn't a blessing, he said, since "some people come to me now with outlandish cases and think I can win anything."
As corny as it sounds, Robinson said he became a lawyer because his mother used to brag about her young son's ability to talk his way out of anything, telling her friends he was going to be a lawyer someday. She was killed in a car wreck later on, and Robinson decided not to try to become a catcher for the New York Yankees but go on to college (where he was a first baseman) and to law school instead. "For her . . .," he said, "I did it for her."
Some lawyers say Robinson's bubble will burst, that the odds are against his style. If he fails, Robinson said, it won't be because of his flamboyance or his theatrics: "It'll be because the facts aren't there."
"Prosecutors and judges said I'd never be a successful lawyer because I was too much like the lawyers of yesteryear and that those times are past. They said people want sophistication now. I refused to change."
Robinson is always ready for the next challenge, since he likes the competition involved in lawyering.
He may have found it. His next well-known client is Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.), who got caught up in the Abscam investigation.
Robinson's first legal step in that case was to file a motion waiving the indictment process. He's ready to go to trial.
Charles W. Halleck, formerly with the firm of Lamb, Halleck, and Keats and before that a D.C. Superior Court judge, has opened his own offices. . . . The still-new firm of Califano, Ross and Heineman has relocated its offices to 1575 I St. N.W. . . . Former law clerks of U.S. District Chief Judge William B. Bryant will present a portrait of the judge to the federal court here. The ceremony will be in the ceremonial courtroom on April 18 at 4 p.m. . . . Arthur B. Spitzer has been selected as legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union Fund of the National Capital Area. He was an associate at Wilmer and Pickering, and is a Yale Law School graduate. He replaces Ralph J. Temple as ACLU legal director here.