The e-mail that arrived in the inbox of Fairfax attorney Sean Hanover said simply: “We need help with the D.C. mansion murders.”
Hanover dashed off to court, asking one of his assistants to follow up. When he returned, his assistant told him that the note was from family members of Daron Wint, the man charged with first-degree murder in the May killings of three members of the Savopoulos family and their housekeeper, whose burned bodies were found in the Savopoulos’s Northwest Washington home.
“Oh, that case,” he remembered thinking.
The next day, Hanover met with Wint’s mother, two sisters and brother for more than two hours — and they hired him. It was an unexpected choice. Hanover has built his practice primarily on immigration cases and has handled only one other murder case. The former jeweler has been practicing law since 2008, the year he graduated from law school at the University of the District of Columbia.
The May 14 quadruple slayings of Savvas Savopoulos, 46; his wife, Amy, 47; their 10-year-old son Philip; and their housekeeper, Veralicia Figueroa, 57, have garnered international attention, and taking the case has thrust Hanover into a spotlight.
Hanover has been courted for interviews by CNN and held an impromptu news conference outside court. He said he’d never heard of Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren prior to receiving an invitation to be on her show. When he was told that Van Susteren is a former Washington defense attorney, Hanover quipped that he’d reconsider his decision to appear. “Oh [expletive], that means she’s going to ask me tough legal questions,” he said.
Hanover, 41, jokes often, sometimes using self-deprecating humor to overcome a speech impediment that can result in a stutter whenever Hanover has to pronounce the letter S or the number seven.
But putting the humor aside, he said he works hard for his clients, and his experience with other cases has prepared him well.
“We are confident we have the capabilities, the staff and the resources to handle this case,” Hanover said recently over a lunch at the McDonald’s just blocks from D.C. Superior Court.
In addition to handling civil and criminal cases in the District and Virginia, Hanover has focused on representing people who are at risk of being deported. “Many of my clients are people who are in extreme conditions. If you lose an immigration case, people are exiled from the U.S. We have to fight hard, and that’s attractive to our clients,” he said.
Wint was arrested May 21 after a manhunt that stretched to New York. Authorities said they identified him as a suspect after finding his DNA on a piece of pizza crust that was in the Savopoulos home. Police have said they think that the victims were held overnight and that the killer or killers left after a $40,000 ransom was dropped off by Savvas Savopoulos’s assistant.
Initially, Wint was represented by the D.C. Public Defender Service, but Hanover said that the family preferred to hire a lawyer. He thinks they found his contact information on an Internet legal referral service such as Avvo.com.
Hanover said that Wint’s family wanted someone who specialized in immigration issues, fearing that this case could trigger Wint’s deportation. Wint, who was born in Guyana in South America, moved to the United States with his family in 2000 and became a permanent resident after obtaining his green card.
Since taking over the case, Hanover has become sort of a mysterious celebrity within D.C. Superior Court. At a hearing for Wint’s case last week, several lawyers showed up to see Hanover at work. “I just want to see for myself what type of lawyer he is,” said one public defender who attended.
Defense attorney Betty Ballester, who has practiced law in the District for 30 years and who is the head of Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, said she had “never seen him in court” and was “unaware of any of his experience.”
Ballester said most lawyers never handle murder cases unless they’ve been practicing for at least 10 years — if at all.
“A case with four bodies that is high profile makes it more challenging, even for the most experienced attorney,” she said. “You know that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is using their best people, their best scientists and best investigators. Everything he does is going to be under a microscope.”
Hanover said the fact that few people know him will work as an advantage in the courtroom.
“A victory in the courtroom is not based on what I have done in the past; it’s based on what is done in the courtroom now,” he said.
The son of a fighter pilot with the Marines, Hanover grew up as a military kid and moved often, including with a stint in Germany. As an adult, he has held several jobs, including working in human resources and information technology for a magazine and newspaper distribution company in Southwest Washington. Hanover also opened a jewelry repair shop before enrolling in law school.
Hanover prides himself on being what he calls a street attorney. One of his favorite books is John Grisham’s “The Street Lawyer” the 1998 legal thriller about a Washington attorney who investigates his own prestigious law firm after it caused a man and his family to become homeless.
Hanover sees his firm as one that represents clients who can’t afford to pay six figures to investigate a case, but whose cases, he said, “have merit.”
The lawyers in the firm work primarily out of an office in a Fairfax business development on Prosperity Avenue. He founded the firm, which has five employees, in 2011, the year he became licensed to practice in the District. Hanover also rents office space on 16th Street NW.
Hanover took on his first murder case last August when 34-year-old Michael Gayle of Southeast Washington fired his public defenders and hired Hanover. Gayle was arrested last summer and accused of fatally stabbing his wife Eboni Domally. Prosecutors say the attack happened in front of Domally’s 9-year-old son.
The Gayle trial is scheduled to begin in September.
In a hearing last week, Hanover argued that the defense had a right to interview the victim’s son to determine whether the boy’s testimony had been influenced. Judge Lynn Leibovitz ruled against Hanover’s request saying that although such a demand would be permitted in Maryland, it was not permitted in the District.
During the hearing, Gayle, charged with second-degree murder, also rejected the plea deal.
But the prosecutor then announced something that she said she alerted Hanover to in an e-mail in May: that Gayle’s DNA was found on the knife used in the attack as well as on a doorknob. Gayle and Hanover appeared stunned. Hanover then asked Leibovitz for more time to discuss the new DNA information with his client and to consider the plea deal.
After the hearing, Hanover referred to the DNA disclosure as a “hand grenade.” He said the prosecutor had not sent such an e-mail. “That is not what she told me,” he said.
Following the Gayle hearing, Hanover headed to another courtroom to represent a woman who was charged with driving while under the influence. Much to the surprise of the judge, Hanover immediately requested a trial date and no more additional hearings. “Multiple hearings . . . just delay the case,” he said as he rushed out.
Hanover already has met with Wint several times, trying to get Wint to trust him and to open up to him so that Hanover can “get to the bottom of what really happened,” he said.
Hanover said he was still “developing” his theory about the case, but he says, as authorities also have said, there are probably multiple perpetrators. “Yet no one else has been arrested,” Hanover mused.
“I don’t look at this as four murders. It’s a case. And I look at the facts of a case,” Hanover said. “We will win or go down based on the facts of the case — nothing else.”