How To Win A High Profile Criminal Trial (Part I)

How do you win a high profile criminal case that the entire world is watching, you ask?  Many of the necessary concepts can be applied to the defense of any criminal trial, whether it be a federal RICO murder case or a state Assault case, but there are some additional challenges – and opportunities – that are particular to cases which have heavy media coverage.  In the end, when looking for the best New York criminal defense lawyer you can hire to defend you in what you believe is an impossible-to-win case, try to find a lawyer who embodies the concepts I will discuss below: complete and total dedication, confidence, creativity, courage, sense of humor, quick-wittedness under pressure, and lastly, ego.  Added all together, these traits in your lawyer will give you your best chance to win a publicly reported trial.  Remember: any trial can be won, no matter how dismal your chances appear at the start – as long as you find the right lawyer to fight for you.

Your Lawyer Needs to Want to Win As Much for Himself As He Does For You

I often tell clients that as much as I enjoy representing them and want to win their case for them – the truth is I want to win just as much for myself.  And why shouldn’t your lawyer feel that way?  If he is not completely emotionally invested in the case, if he does not treat the case as if he is on trial as well, the defendant will have a problem in the end.  In high profile cases most lawyers are simply happy to have the case and the publicity which comes with it; you need a lawyer who recognizes that winning a big case is all that matters.  Who wants to be known as a lawyer who lost a case that’s all over the news?  In order to achieve the desired result, your attorney needs to turn this case into his life, make it his child.  And this will require hard work, to which most lawyers are allergic.  They will tell you that they’re working hard but let’s be honest: which of your lawyers spent last night – New Year’s Eve – working?  (Spoiler alert: I did)  After all, in each and every high profile case the prosecutor’s office will be throwing every available resource into it; as a defendant, do you think you can win such a tough case unless your lawyer is putting in an even bigger effort?

And because your lawyer is completely emotionally dedicated to winning this case, he will not be handing off any significant jury trial work to his associates.  Because why on earth would he let a younger, less experienced lawyer handle anything in the case of his career which matters?  I have been absolutely astounded in reading about high profile trials in which the lead lawyer’s associates have been doing some of the cross-examinations.  Trust me – the examinations are not being done as well as the top dog could do them.  And if your lawyer is spreading the work around he’s not treating your case as if it is life or death.  And if he’s not treating the case as if it’s the last case he’ll ever try, you’re going to lose.  How does that make you feel that your lawyer is not concerned about you going to jail?

Confidence Usually Goes Hand In Hand With Massive Preparation

I tend to work my cross-examinations to death, spending hundreds of hours on them.  Not only preparing the traps for the witnesses but digging up any and all impeachment material of which the government will never be prepared.  If your lawyer is trying the case that the government is handing him, the prosecutors will be ready for everything your lawyer throws at them.  To win a high profile case, a top defense lawyer needs to keep the prosecutors back on his or her heels every trial day.  They should never be allowed to try the case they want to try – instead, the prosecutors should be spending their trial days reacting to what your lawyer is doing.

A lawyer’s confidence should be based on his over-preparation, not the traditional delusional over-confidence most defense lawyers seemingly have.  A real-life example of confidence in a high-profile case: on the morning I was set to cross-examine radio host/Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa in the very emotionally charged and high profile trial of John A. Gotti, I had gone over my notes for the zillionth and final time.  Based on my extensive and very complex outline which was filled with dozens of huge pieces of impeachment evidence, I was certain the examination would end in the destruction of Sliwa as a witness.  While Sliwa was not the most important factual witness in the case against my client, he was the face of the government’s case.  Destroying his credibility meant the destruction of the government’s credibility – and the seeming invincible veneer they enjoyed prior to trial.  When a cross-examination is correctly prepared, the lawyer should know before the examination exactly how well it will go.  That morning in court before the trial day started, I saw my client’s sister speaking to a reporter.  When I approached, I told Mr. Gotti’s sister in front of the reporter the very quote I wanted attributed to her after I started and completed my examination of Sliwa.  The quote I asked her to give to the New York Daily News reporter before the day even began?  “Sliwa got his ass kicked by Lichtman.”  Keeping in mind that had Sliwa kicked my ass during that examination, the reporter surely and deservedly would have made a fool out of me in his story. But as tight as my examination was prepared, Sliwa never had a chance.  The Washington Post described the all-day confrontation as follows:

Sliwa seemed to fib almost nonstop on the stand. Initially, he said his speaking fee was $1,000 to $5,000. A few questions later, that figure stood at $25,000. One of the stories he tells when he gives those speeches sounds suspiciously like a fable. It concerns a dollar coin given to him by the late Hasidic leader Rabbi Schneerson. It was the only thing, Sliwa claims, that wasn’t covered in blood the morning he was shot. What are the odds?

Those bullets, he grudgingly admitted on the stand, had been bad for his gut but pretty good for business, raising his profile and landing him some lucrative speaking gigs.

By the time he left, Sliwa had shed the mantle of victimhood. He just seemed like an opportunist.

Sure enough, the next day’s New York Daily News’ article described the cross-examination of Sliwa as a debacle for the government and Angel Gotti’s quote about my cross-examination of Sliwa?   “The big deal today is he got his a– kicked by Lichtman.”


Jeffrey Lichtman has received the highest rating (AV) from the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory, is recognized in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers and has also been selected as a New York City Super Lawyer for being a leader in his field of criminal defense. Mr. Lichtman has received a rating of 10.0/10 Superb rating from Avvo Lawyer Directory and was profiled in the New York Daily News, The New York Times as part of the “Public Lives” series, New York Magazine and Ozy. He can be reached at (212) 581-1001.