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Shapiro Now Faces His Defining Moment : Courts: After years of helping celebrities, the discreet attorney leads Simpson defense team.

June 26, 1994|RICHARD LEE COLVIN and TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the case of Simpson, Shapiro has talked about the football injuries that keep his client from sleeping unless he has a special pillow, and described him as lonely for his children on Father's Day.

In 1980, Shapiro defended Jerry Blackmon, who was neither famous nor rich. He had admitted shooting his estranged wife twice in the chest with a .357-caliber magnum revolver a year earlier while standing over her at the side of the Foothill Freeway in Pasadena. According to court records, witnesses testified that Blackmon said if he could not have his wife, no one else would.

Two psychiatrists hired as witnesses concluded that Blackmon was "so mentally impaired that he lacked the capacity to form 'malice' as the law defines it" and the charges in the case were reduced to manslaughter. Blackmon served five years and four months of an eight-year sentence.

"I know how Mr. Shapiro . . . orchestrates things," said Blackmon, who now lives outside Oklahoma City. "He was like Liberace playing the court system. If it weren't for him, I would have served 27 years to life."

Now Shapiro is handling a case with eerie parallels, one that will forever mark his career for good or for ill. And his transformation from hard-working celebrity attorney to the celebrity attorney of the hour is all happening within a few miles of the neighborhood where Shapiro grew up.

He was born Sept. 2, 1942, in Plainfield, N.J., to a father who was working in a shirt factory and a mother who was employed as a department store clerk. He was 5 when he moved with his parents, an aunt and a grandfather to a four-unit apartment building at Pico and La Cienega boulevards.

After graduating from Hamilton High School, Shapiro went to UCLA, where he earned a bachelor's degree in finance in 1965. Studies came easily for him and his fraternity brothers recall him spending as much time at parties at the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity--called the campus "Animal House" by members--as in the library.

Thirty years later, fraternity brothers still remember the dapper suits and big hair that earned him the nickname "Trini," after folk singer Trini Lopez.

"We used to tease him about being flashy," said Jeffrey Allan Cohen, a Beverly Hills civil attorney and one of Shapiro's fraternity brothers, recalling in particular a powder blue polyester suit with "zero lapels."

They also remember his ability to negotiate settlements to frat house disputes. "He was always there to set matters right," said Richard Levin, another fraternity brother who is now an executive with major league baseball in New York.

At Loyola Law School, Shapiro struggled at first. He once told an interviewer that he failed his first class but that the shock was enough to make him study harder. Always a skillful communicator who was able to ad lib as if he was reading from a script, Shapiro won a moot court presentation before a U.S. District Court judge.

While studying for the Bar, however, he became so nervous that he plucked out his eyebrows. Even so, he passed the test on his first try and began working as a deputy district attorney in Torrance.

He had married while in law school but the marriage fell apart a year later and was annulled in 1969. In 1972, he joined Weiss' high-volume practice, where the young attorneys worked late many nights on everything from drunk-driving to child molestation cases. It was during that time he married his second wife, Linell, and the couple later had two sons, whom Shapiro now coaches in soccer or Little League baseball.

The Shapiros live in a 3,600-square-foot, four-bedroom Cape Cod-style home in Benedict Canyon that they bought in 1991.

The 1975 victory in the Lovelace case "made me feel good," he told an interviewer several years ago, "but it also showed me the political pressures that come with publicity" and that it is "scary when somebody sticks a microphone in your face."

Although Shapiro has declined to give interviews in the wake of the Simpson case, he has held several impromptu news conferences attended by scores of reporters and photographers.

In dealing with the press, Shapiro advises his colleagues, avoid cliches when describing a homicide. Do not, for example, call it a "tragedy." Rather, use the term "horrible human event" or some other phrase that an attorney finds appropriate, he wrote.

Repeat such phrases continuously, he wrote, and "they will be repeated by the media. After a while, the repetition almost becomes a fact. That is the lawyer's ultimate goal."

The best initial response in a high-profile case, he wrote, was almost exactly what he employed in the Simpson case. He suggested telling reporters that "the best experts in the field are reconstructing the crime scene" and informing "the public that the client has support from his family and friends."

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