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Spector's N.Y. lawyer softens tone for L.A.

Bold and brash in defending John Gotti, attorney Cutler may not leave witnesses 'Brucified,' but he won't tiptoe either.

May 06, 2007|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

As a New York lawyer best known for defending the boss of the Gambino crime family, Bruce Cutler is used to brash clients and bold words. So it was really no surprise that he opened Phil Spector's local murder trial alternately bellowing against police officers with "murder on their mind" and offering a polite thanks to the jury for making him "feel at home in a strange, new and different place."

"I make rhetorical flourishes, I know," he said almost apologetically over pizza in Manhattan a few weeks before coming to Los Angeles. "I want to be judicious in my courtroom style. It doesn't mean you have to be stilted, but you can be controlled."

The first week of Spector's trial provided a glimpse of how that style will play in Los Angeles.

Although the loquacious Cutler is well known in New York, catapulting to fame 20 years ago when he won the first of three acquittals for mob boss John Gotti, the 59-year-old defense lawyer has rarely ventured west of Chicago for cases. His only other local client was John Wayne's son-in-law, convicted 15 years ago of plotting to assault his wife and her boyfriend.

"This is a good case for him," said Ed Hayes, Cutler's longtime friend.

To begin with, Hayes said, the defense has a "nice, simple theory" about how actress Lana Clarkson was shot four years ago in Spector's Alhambra mansion. "They were fooling around with a gun and it goes off."

Perhaps most important, Hayes said, Cutler is energized by the challenge of overcoming years of bad publicity for Spector and predictions that the wispy 67-year-old will be convicted.

Cutler and Hayes met as young prosecutors, and Hayes still regards his friend as fearless, a quality he has shown for decades.

In 1979, Hayes said, Cutler was assigned the racially charged prosecution of two Hasidic Jews accused of beating a black teenager into a coma in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn.

Day after day, Cutler, who is Jewish, decried vigilantism and was taunted by the defendants' friends and family.

"They would yell at him, 'You're not a Jew. You're prosecuting your own people,' " Hayes said. "They were really nasty to him."

Finally, one afternoon, Cutler had enough.

"He stood outside the courtroom and told them, 'OK, line up. I can't fight you all at once. But I'll fight you one at a time. Two at a time. Just line up. I'll take you all on,' " Hayes said.

No one stepped forward.

Cutler, a standout athlete in college who still has the look of a linebacker, chuckled recently at the memory of that courthouse confrontation. "They were egging me on," he said in his raspy Brooklyn accent, "and I stupidly got angry."

As a deputy district attorney, Cutler was known as a workhorse.

"When he was a prosecutor, there was no one better liked by the cops in Brooklyn than Bruce," said Mark Feldman, who worked with Cutler in Brooklyn and later became chief of the organized crime and racketeering section for the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of New York.

"When he would try a case, we would go to court to watch," Feldman said.

In those days, Feldman and others recall, it was not unusual for a prosecutor to handle eight to 10 murder cases a year. By Cutler's own estimate, he took about 50 murder cases to verdict in six years as a prosecutor -- far more than he has handled in 25 years as a defense lawyer.

Though proud of his work as a prosecutor, Cutler said he did not grasp the challenges facing his adversaries until he left the government. "When you become a defense attorney, you realize how difficult it is ... defending a client whose life is on the line."

Born in Brooklyn, Cutler is the oldest of three children and the son and brother of lawyers. His younger brother, Rich, is a federal prosecutor in San Francisco.

From childhood, Rich Cutler said, their father instilled the notion that there were few things more noble than defending people against the vast resources of the government. It was a lesson that had been particularly poignant for his father, Murray Cutler, a longtime criminal defense attorney who, as a New York police officer, had been tried and acquitted on charges that he took a bribe.

That event, Bruce Cutler said in his autobiography, taught him "that just because the government says it doesn't make it so."

Over the years, Rich Cutler said, his brother also has demonstrated an ability to "identify with the positive attributes of people he was defending."

So, in Bruce Cutler's world, the notorious Gotti was not an alleged murderer or mob boss. "He saw him as a good family man who the government was after," Rich Cutler said. "While that is not something I would do or others might do, it is something Bruce does."

Bruce Cutler explained it differently.

"I have been fortunate to represent people who had a cachet about them, whether it be underworld figures or a musical genius," Cutler said. "I am better off representing people who are different than the rest.

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