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10 times bigger than life

Attorney Jeff Rawitz faced his death the way he did everything else: over-the-top and fully prepared.

September 10, 2010|By Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times

At first, it hurt too much to look at his girls. Isabelle had just turned 3, and Emma was 1. He thought of them growing into teenagers and then women, their memories of their father evaporating in the fog of early childhood. He'd survive as a disembodied name on their mother's lips, a wheelchair-bound stranger in family photos, a fable.

Jeff Rawitz, top-flight criminal defense attorney, partner in one of the world's largest law firms, weighed his options. He could make a video memorial. He'd look into the camera and tell stories and offer advice. But his voice was mostly gone, and he was sure he'd be crying the whole time. He didn't want his daughters to remember him that way.

No, he decided, he'd do what he always did. He'd go big. He'd confront his extinction as he would any impossible case, with bared teeth and bluster and meticulous preparation.

He asked his nurse to go to the computer. Then he asked her to type out the names and e-mail addresses of 10 men.

"Bigger-than-life characters," he called them, by which he meant he thought they resembled him. They were friends from childhood in Roslyn, N.Y. They were buddies from college in Albany and law school at Boston University. They were colleagues from his 10 years at the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles and from his subsequent years in private practice. They were confidants from all points in between.

Now, he intended to bind them all inextricably for life. Some of the West Coast guys didn't know some of the East Coast guys, and he wanted to see them all in the same room at least once. He began making plans for a black-tie gathering at the Soho Grand, a boutique Manhattan hotel.

In his mind, he had it carefully scripted: a dying man in a wheelchair surrounded by friends who would swear the equivalent of a blood oath. He set a date. He extracted promises of attendance. He booked tickets.

::

Most days, he was the first attorney to arrive, pulling his rolling litigation bag unsteadily across the marble floor of the federal courthouse in Santa Ana. He'd been rising at 5:30 a.m. because it took him two hours to get into his suits. The walk from his BMW to court, which should have taken two minutes, took 20.

When people asked about the terrible limp he'd developed and why he couldn't hold a pen with his left hand, he explained what he knew: that he had jumped off a friend's yacht and landed awkwardly in the water, injuring his back. But he didn't dwell on it, because he knew most lawyers never got a case as big as U.S.A. vs. Carona, and the trial had already been delayed once by his spinal surgery.

Friends called him JR. He loved fine cigars, expensive port and the decorum of federal courtrooms, where his brashness stood out.

He'd wanted to be a lawyer since he was 5, and the decades had unfolded according to plan. At 45, he was a partner at Jones Day. He'd married relatively late, at nearly 40, after a bachelorhood of Mardi Gras and rooftop bars and Vegas vacations. His bride was a friend's au pair — blond, French, a decade and a half younger than him.

Now he was representing former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona at his corruption trial. "We're gonna shock the world on this," he'd been telling friends, and they smiled, sure the case was a loser.

As always, he was prepared. It fell to him to destroy the prosecution's star witness. The weapons he needed, his mind and his voice, were still serviceable, and though he had to strain to project his voice, 20-hour days were making everyone else hoarse too. The judge allowed him to sit at the defense table as he fired questions hour after hour, his tone ranging from battering sarcasm to full-throated incredulity.

His manner was so relentless, his bluster so unflappable, that people forgot he was not 100%. Deep into the trial, huddled with other lawyers at a strategy session, his legs buckled and he fell to the floor.

"He's not supposed to be someone you have to help off the ground," said colleague Kiki Coates. "He was ordering us around like he had no disability at all. And then all of a sudden, we all thought, 'Wow, he's really dealing with something.'"

Only after it was over in January 2009 — after four months of trial, 58 witnesses and acquittal on most counts — did he ask for some time off, to figure out what was wrong with him.

When he turned 46 that September, the numbness in his limbs was accompanied by another ominous symptom. His speech was slurred so badly it couldn't be attributed to courtroom overuse. The instrument he used to persuade and cajole and win was dying in his throat. It was harder and harder to make himself understood. Maybe it's the muscle relaxants, he thought.

He was too weak to return to his 47th-floor office with its master-of-the-universe view. He felt so little like his image of himself — raucous, life-of-the-room Rawitz — that he stopped returning friends' calls.

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