You can’t just walk into Billy Martin’s law firm, Martin & Gitner. You have to be buzzed in. It’s a K Street address after all, home to some of the most well-known and well-respected law firms in the country.
Once inside the double glass doors and beyond the L-shaped reception desk with granite countertops, you’ll find Martin, 65, down the hall looking very corporate in a gray suit and red tie.
His eighth-floor office is cluttered: Binders, backpacks and books about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and wrongful executions rest on the windowsill. A putter, chipping cup and ball are propped in a corner. A book about the late Ted Stevens, the former Republican senator from Alaska, sits on an Indonesian-designed coffee table near a seen-better-days mauve love seat.
His walls and desk are crammed with photos: a smiling Martin and his wife, NPR journalist Michel Martin, on their wedding day; the two hiking on their Hawaiian honeymoon; and countless snapshots of their 11-year-old twins, Aminah and William Jr.
There are other photos, including one of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But most are, well, of Martin. Martin with former Washington Wizards player Juwan Howard , whom he represented in a 1998 sexual assault case in Montgomery County. Martin questioning a witness at the Charlotte sentencing of boxer Riddick Bowe, who had kidnapped and stabbed his wife (Martin’s mentor, the late Johnnie Cochran, is looking on). Martin a decade ago after being named one of Washingtonian magazine’s top D.C. lawyers.
“I’m usually in it every year,” he says unapologetically. “I’m one of the most recognized lawyers in America, and I know that I’m one of the most recognized African American lawyers in the country.”
It sounds like unbridled arrogance, but Martin’s client roster would make agents drool: bad boys of the NFL, NBA and NHL. Big-name actors and politicians. Martin is the go-to attorney when you’re in trouble — real trouble. Facing-significant-prison-time trouble. He’s the lawyer people hire to get less time, when the evidence is stacked against them.
According to those who have seen him in action, he’s brilliant at trial, particularly with opening statements and connecting with a jury.
“When I was a clerk and went to the Public Defender’s Services, I wanted to be like Billy,” says Errol R. Arthur, now a D.C. Superior Court magistrate judge. “As a young attorney, you think, ‘Wow, if I could just get to that level.’ ”
Attorney General Eric Holder describes him as “sophisticated” and a “good tactician.”
“He’s the kind of person to present the client with a factual, realistic determination of what the situation looks like, and that takes guts, particularly when they’re paying you,” says Holder, who has worked with Martin on several cases. “He can convince clients that the lawyer knows best.”
Martin is the modern-day Johnnie Cochran, minus the bling and the brashness, but with swag intact.
As he arrived at D.C. Superior Court one day last July, Martin patted two male courthouse workers on their backs while en route to the downstairs lockup to confer with his latest NFL client, Fred Davis, then 28. The former Redskins player was in court to face charges of domestic violence after a girlfriend said he threw dirt and flowers at her during an argument at an Adams Morgan diner that summer.
It was Davis’s third run-in with authorities in four months. (The NFL suspended him last February for violating its substance-abuse policy, and the next day he was charged with driving while intoxicated in Fairfax County. Those charges were dismissed at trial.)
After a 20-minute private briefing with Davis, Martin went upstairs to Courtroom 119 to wait for the case to be called.
“Lockup number 62,” the clerk announced.
Martin took his place as a shackled Davis emerged from a holding cell on the other side of the courtroom door. The charges were one count each of assault and attempted threats. The 6-foot-4-inch Davis let Martin do the talking; it’s what he gets paid $650 an hour to do.
“Not guilty,” Martin said on behalf of his client during the eight-minute arraignment.
The judge ordered Davis to stay away from his ex, Vergie Magbanua Arandid.
“I spoke to Mr. Davis; he has no problem staying away,” Martin told the judge.
Reporters rushed outside to get a sound bite from Martin, who paused to choose his words carefully. Everything Martin does is measured and calculated.
“We’re really disappointed these charges were filed,” he told them. “Fred Davis has not been involved with assaulting or threatening this woman.”
After fielding questions, Martin thanked the journalists, then slipped back into the courthouse to hustle Davis to an SUV waiting out of sight for the drive back to Davis’s house in Leesburg, Va.
The charges were later dropped after Martin asked prosecutors to “reevaluate” the case.
“He’s a top-notch lawyer in demand,” says Inez Smith Reid, a senior judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals. “He’s expensive — very — but he’s worth it.”
As FBI agents banged on the door of Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson’s Mitchellville, Md., home in November 2010, Johnson was on the phone with his wife, Leslie, instructing her to tear up a $100,000 check he had received from a developer and to hide nearly $80,000 in cash that he allegedly received in bribes.
“Put it in your bra and walk out or something,” Johnson told her, unaware that federal authorities were listening in.
Within hours, the couple were arrested, he for masterminding a corruption conspiracy that netted him as much as $1 million in bribes and implicated his wife and several county officials and businessmen. The Johnsons were led — handcuffed — from their home.
Facing up to 20 years in prison, Johnson turned to Martin, who rushed to the federal courthouse in Greenbelt to meet with him after getting a call from Johnson’s son, Jack Jr.
“I like Jack,” Martin says.
The two met about 20 years ago when Johnson was the county’s deputy state’s attorney. Martin and Johnson were both Howard University grads, avid golfers and had mutual friends. They clicked.
Martin stood by Johnson throughout the ordeal that ended with Johnson ambling into the courthouse with a cane a few weeks after his arrest. Depression and Parkinson’s disease, he told the judge, who sentenced Johnson to 87 months. He also fined him $100,000 and ordered him to undergo alcohol treatment and forfeit $78,000 and his antique Mercedes.
“It’s very sad to see somebody I thought so much of fall so far,” Martin says.
Johnson is serving his time at Butner, a medium-security federal prison in North Carolina. Martin keeps in touch, though he says he doesn’t like to become emotionally attached to his clients.
“His health is good and he’s doing as well as could be expected for someone confined to federal prison,” Martin says.
NFL quarterback Michael Vick was looking at up to six years in prison for operating a dogfighting ring near Smithfield, Va. If the dogs didn’t perform well, Vick and associates killed them. Vick hired Martin, pleaded guilty in 2007 and received a 23-month sentence.
Former Atlanta mayor William “Bill” Campbell retained Martin after he was indicted in 2004 on racketeering and bribery charges. Campbell was accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars in payoffs in exchange for city contracts.
A jury acquitted him of racketeering but found him guilty of tax fraud after books surfaced showing that Campbell won $80,000 in weekly Friday-night poker games between 1996 and 2000 but failed to report his booty. Campbell received a 30-month prison sentence, far less than the nine years he could have gotten.
“That’s the way it’s done; you try and get your client the best deal,” says Oliver McDaniel, who worked with Martin in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District. “He did his job and he did it well.”
Martin’s clients also have included former U.S. senator Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican who pleaded guilty in 2007 to misdemeanor disorderly conduct after a sex sting in a men’s restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. It was a plea Craig later regretted.
“He pled without counsel,” Martin says. Craig paid a $575 fine.
Actor Wesley Snipes joined an organization that believed its members weren’t subject to income tax, a move that led to his indictment on tax charges in 2006. He hired a team, including Martin, to defend him but abruptly fired the high-profile attorney just before trial, claiming he wasn’t doing his job. Snipes was convicted.
“Maybe if he had kept me, he wouldn’t have gone to prison for three years,” Martin says.
William Robert Martin is the sixth of eight children — six girls and two boys. He grew up in Sewickley, Pa., a borough of 4,000 on the Ohio River 12 miles from Pittsburgh. The tony suburb has been home to actors and athletes, including Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux.
About 90 percent of Sewickley’s residents are white, and many of the blacks who settled there worked for them. Martin’s father, Felton, migrated from Augusta, Ga., and toiled in the steel mills. Martin’s mother, Isabelle, was a Lynchburg, Va., native and second-generation “Sewickleyite” who stayed at home to raise her family, working occasionally as a caterer for the upper crust.
Martin is quick to credit his dad with instilling in him a sense of hard work and punctuality. “My dad worked in that steel mill for close to 40 years, and I don’t know that he ever missed a day and was never late,” he recalls.
He inherited his spirituality, as well as a love of gardening and fresh flowers, from his mother.
The Martins considered themselves middle class, living comfortably in a four-bedroom, three-story frame house in an integrated neighborhood, with an Italian family on one side and an African American family on the other. But Martin wanted more.
“I did not want to be a steelworker,” he says. “I was determined to get out, and growing up in Sewickley showed me what the American dream could be.”
He got a work permit at 12 and began caddying at a country club. On a good day he took home $100 in tips, a tidy sum 50 years ago.
He attended Quaker Valley High School, repeatedly ranked as one of the best schools in the country. He lettered in football, baseball, basketball and track. He played point guard, claiming that “even at 5-10, I was the only one who could dunk.”
He also was the quarterback — briefly. “In 1965 in a small town, they weren’t ready for a black quarterback,” Martin says. “I was told I was not going to play.”
He saved his money and enrolled at Howard University, returning home during semester breaks to work in the mills to pay his tuition. He was the only one of the eight siblings to graduate from college, though the others had respected careers: a bank teller, correctional officer, deputy warden, chef, flight attendant, postal worker and homemaker.
During his junior year, Martin married a girl from back home, Toni, an accounting major. A year later, their first child, Nikki, was born. After graduation, the family moved when Martin landed a scholarship to attend law school at the University of Cincinnati. He decided on law school after realizing that he was good at arguing and making his case.
His career began as a prosecutor with the city, where he enjoyed trials so much that if he finished one early, he’d go from courtroom to courtroom persuading other prosecutors to let him try the cases they didn’t want.
By the end of his first year, Martin had tried more than 50 cases, four times the average of his colleagues, he says proudly.
“I had such a thirst for trials,” he says. “I’m very comfortable in the courtroom now.”
After a three-year stint in Cincinnati (where second daughter Erica was born), Martin joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dayton. Officials tapped him to oversee the office two years later. He was 29. Ambitious and eager, Martin says he became the Justice Department’s “rising star,” and soon had his pick of assignments. He chose the Organized Crime Strike Force unit in San Francisco. It was 1980.
Four years later, Martin’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given 18 months to live. Martin requested a transfer back to Washington to be closer to him.
“I went home every Friday and came back on Sunday,” Martin says.
His father died in 1986, exactly 18 months after his diagnosis. He was 72.
Six years later, during a visit to his ailing mother in a Pennsylvania hospital, she told him that she was tired and ready to go home. Isabelle was a spiritual woman who had raised her children in the Baptist church. Martin assured her that she was being released the next day. He hugged her and returned to Washington. By the time his plane landed, she had died. She was 72.
“I was saddened, but I realized she was excited to go home,” he says.
Martin left the Justice Department in 1991 as the No. 3 person in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District, where he “was involved in every major criminal investigation,” including assembling the team that tried then-Mayor Marion Barry Jr. (D) on crack cocaine charges. Barry never forgave him, he says.
Martin and Toni divorced shortly after he retired from the government and went into private practice. They remain friends.
In August 1995, during a layover in New York after arriving from Paris via the Concorde, Martin called his old pal from DOJ, Judy Smith, the muse for the television show “Scandal,” and invited her to dinner. Michel McQueen, a Brooklyn-bred girl who attended boarding school in New Hampshire and Radcliffe College at Harvard University, and was working for ABC News, also was in New York on a layover. She had just returned from a hike in Mexico. She asked her friend Smith to dinner, too.
“Whether intentionally or accidentally, she said yes to both of us,” recalls Michel, who at one point reported for The Washington Post.
The three met at the Shark Bar restaurant on the Upper West Side. Martin and Michel exchanged pleasantries, but nothing came of the encounter. The pair met again seven months later at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington, where Michel received an award. As Martin congratulated her, he noticed her struggling to hold the weighty crystal prize.
“He took my shawl and bag and walked around with me so I could show off my award,” she says.
Martin gave her a lift home, and Michel decided to throw a dinner party to fix him up with a friend. It didn’t work.
“It was kind of like magnets repelling each other,” she says.
Martin and Michel “hung out” for the next couple of months, and Michel realized “I like him.” Their friendship blossomed.
On Christmas Eve in 1999, as Michel cleaned up after a family dinner, Martin showed her two Pittsburgh Steelers ornaments and asked her to pick one.
“Wrong one,” he joked.
Martin dropped to one knee and presented her with the other ornament, which had a custom-made diamond ring attached.
“I cried,” Michel recalls.
They married on June 4, 2000.
The Martins became a power couple — she a journalist for ABC’s “Nightline,” he taking on powerful clients. Their circle of friends include philanthropists Wayne and Catherine Reynolds, former Army secretary Clifford L. Alexander Jr. and his wife, Adele, and Richard Roberts, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Martin has a softer side — another trait he got from his mother — that’s usually reserved for family.
When Erica’s junior high team won a basketball championship one year, the school didn’t have money for trophies. One day, a box of trophies showed up. Years passed before Erica, now 37, learned it was her father who donated them.
He’d rise at 6 a.m. every weekday, work out in his home gym, then twice a week drop the twins at school. When the kids attended Lowell, the $30,000-a-year private school, he’d walk them from their 4,100-square-foot home in Northwest Washington.
“I would see him every morning,” says neighbor Denise Gibson Bailey. “He’d hold their hands. It was very sweet.”
Afterward, he’d start returning some of the 100 or so e-mails he gets daily before arriving at the office by 9. He was a loyal Metro rider until a homeless man “thought it was his mission” to announce that Martin was on the train.
“Does everybody know who this man is?” Martin says, imitating the well-intentioned homeless man. “He’s one of the best lawyers in D.C.”
“Everyone turned and looked at me,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I need more privacy.’ ”
Ask Martin about his favorite client and he doesn’t hesitate: Jayson Williams, the former NBA power forward.
“Jayson really has a good heart,” he says. “He’s very thoughtful of others. People might find that hard to believe considering he was involved in a homicide.”
Williams was charged in 2002 with the Valentine’s Day shooting of a limousine driver, whom Williams had hired to drive his friends from an event in Pennsylvania to Williams’s estate in New Jersey. At the mansion, Williams was handling a shotgun when it went off, hitting the driver. Williams pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and received a five-year sentence. He served 18 months.
“It really was an accident,” Martin says.
His favorite case? Representing Monica Lewinsky’s mother, Marcia Lewis Straus , in 1998. And yes, he saw the blue dress.
“How many times in a lifetime are you involved with a key witness in a case that involves the impeachment of the president of the United States?” Martin asks.
Straus needed an attorney because independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s prosecutors had subpoenaed her to testify against her daughter before the Whitewater grand jury looking into Lewinsky’s alleged sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton. She hired Martin after walking into his office.
“The first thing I saw when I sat down was a painting — a portrait of Martin Luther King,” Straus remembers. “I was a student in the late ’60s, and this was a profoundly iconic image to me. And I knew I was in good hands.”
Straus says Martin has a “brilliant legal mind” but says it’s his “extraordinary kindness and compassion for his clients” that sets him apart. “Billy didn’t just care about the law, he also cared about how his clients were affected by the law,” she adds.
Straus recalls how Martin offered to drive to Pittsburgh to meet with her son, Michael, who was away at college and was unable to talk to his mother or sister for fear of being subpoenaed.
“Michael ... has told me since that day how much that meant to him,” she says. “I will never forget that.”
Martin fought to keep Straus from testifying, but failed.
“It was a shock to both of us when I was ultimately forced to testify,” she says. “After I broke down on the second day, he eloquently defended me outside on the courthouse steps.”
After Washington intern Chandra Levy , who had been romantically linked to Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Calif.), went missing in 2001, her parents needed an East Coast lawyer. A family friend recommended Martin.
“If we didn’t have him, we couldn’t get through what we did,” says Levy’s mom, Susan. Chandra Levy was found murdered a year later in Rock Creek Park.
At his age, when many lawyers are cutting back or giving up their practice, Martin seems to thrive on the long hours. He recently wrapped up a two-year stint as president of the Washington Bar Association. At a black-tie gala last spring, Martin worked the room like a young politician campaigning for office. He greeted a prosecutor with a slap on the back, hugged old friends he hadn’t seen in a while and gladly posed for pictures with anyone who asked.
“I’ll know when it’s time,” Martin says about retirement. “But I’m not there yet.”
Martin pulls his Cadillac into the garage, having just picked up Aminah from gymnastics. As she scurries upstairs to her room, Martin throws a log on the fire in the family room, decorated with mementos from his wedding. In one corner is the broom that he and Michel jumped — an African custom that represents a new beginning. The pillow carried by their ring bearer is nearby. On a wall is their framed wedding invitation.
Within minutes, Martin’s house is filled with family: Michel enters with their son; Martin’s two eldest daughters come in with their four young children in tow. Their husbands aren’t far behind.
Martin doesn’t mind. He plays with his youngest grandson, Max, an energetic 18-month-old, tossing him around. It’s unclear who’s having more fun.
Michel interrupts. Time to draw for the Secret Santa exchange, she announces.
She retrieves a chocolate brown derby, tosses in pieces of paper and passes it around for the adults to pull names. Erica and Nikki draw. The sons-in-law draw. Finally, it’s Martin’s turn. He pulls his own name and laughs.
Cheryl W. Thompson is an associate professor of journalism at George Washington University, and an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Post researcher Alice Crites contributed to this story. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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