Three Pittsburgh attorneys prove that they are in it for more than just the money.
Geoffrey W. Melada
Elliot Howsie, criminal defense attorney
"Our Own Johnnie Cochran"
Elliot Howsie is late for his own profile.
When the dapper criminal-defense attorney—the one inmates at the Allegheny County Jail call “the Johnnie Cochran of Pittsburgh” —finally appears at his downtown office, he is hardly contrite. He’s not even diplomatic.
Quickly surveying this reporter in his waiting room, he offers the following greeting: “You’d look like a million bucks if it weren’t for those shoes. Loafers aren’t a good look for you. You look like somebody’s father.” He pauses to correct himself: “Somebody’s grandfather.”
Howsie’s unusual approach to public relations serves him well as he makes his way through the county courthouse. “It’s all about relationships in this building,” he explains.
Howsie, who left the county prosecutor’s office in 2005, has a full roster of clients, some of whom have made headlines. He defended Jerrell R. Brown, the Allderdice High School wrestler accused in January 2006 of raping his female classmate (the case was later dismissed), as well as James Pinkston, the Pittsburgh man charged with homicide against an unborn child after he punched his pregnant girlfriend. Pinkston was found not guilty of homicide, but guilty of simple assault and reckless endangerment.
Today, Howsie, 41, is set to do sentencing hearings for two clients who have been found guilty in the past. The first client is a 45-year-old African-American woman who looks 60 and shivers in a light pink cardigan. She is desperate for news of her case.
Howsie, with the cooperation of the assistant district attorney and judge on the case, has worked out a generous deal for her: drug treatment with time served. Leaning in, Howsie, a former supervisor of in-home family therapy, tells his client, “You’re getting too old for this. You can’t be doing this anymore. Promise me?” She nods her head in silent agreement and signs the forms.
Not every criminal defense lawyer takes the time to connect with a client on a human level. Explains Howsie: “You’re doing a disservice if you don’t help people understand the consequences of continuing their behavior. I care. I want my clients to make better choices, to see that there are options. You can do things differently. I’d be negligent if I didn’t offer advice.”
It may be too late for Howsie’s other client, a 26-year-old African-American man who was convicted of attempted homicide with a gun. If he’s lucky, the client, known by the unfortunate initials O.J., will get a lenient sentence from Judge Lawrence J. O’Toole. The guidelines call for 10 to 20 years; Howsie seeks five to 10.
O’Toole says he is constrained to give O.J. the long sentence. Howsie is disappointed, but the judge, who presided over the Pinkston trial, Howsie’s biggest victory as a defense attorney, is impressed with the way he handles case and client.
Success hasn’t come quickly or easily to Howsie. The son of a janitor, Howsie recalls “humble beginnings” in Wilkinsburg. “Statistically, I shouldn’t be a lawyer. As an urban black male, I should have wound up incarcerated or dead.” That he didn’t is probably due to a choice his mother, Gracie, made to send him to Central Catholic High School for 11th and 12th grades. “Central Catholic gave me a chance to see another side of life and convinced me of the importance of getting an education.”
From there, Howsie went on to earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He later applied to the law school at Duquesne University and was accepted. To make ends meet, Howie worked two jobs while taking classes in the evenings. He slept three hours a night.
“It wasn’t easy,” he recalls. “No one walked up, handed me a J.D. degree. Anything worth having, you have to fight for.” His advice, especially for young African-Americans like O.J., is simple. “There are opportunities out there. Don’t listen to people who tell you [that you] don’t have it. You can make it. I’m proof.”
Winning the Border Wars
Today, two members of the Yax family of Guatemala are sitting in a small courtroom in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security building in Pittsburgh, waiting to appear before a federal immigration judge.
Jacqueline Martinez is the lawyer representing Mr. Yax, his nephew and a host of other immigrants from several Latin American countries at these hearings. There is one slight problem: The nearest federal immigration judge is located some 300 miles away in Philadelphia.
The feds have obviously spared no expense in finding a solution to this problem; there’s a small television hooked up for video conferencing. Not only is the sound choppy on this thing, but the picture is black-and-white, and the video camera running in Philadelphia is pointed at the trial counsel for the government, not the judge. The immigrants can’t see the judge deciding their fate. Oh, and the judge doesn’t speak Spanish.
On top of all of that, the interpreter who’s arrived here from Philadelphia doesn’t communicate with the informal, regional dialect that people like the Yaxes are accustomed to speaking and hearing. His Spanish is classroom Spanish—stately and formal. There are moments when key questions from the judge are lost in translation. Martinez, 44, a fluent Spanish speaker, tries to help but is admonished by the judge for interfering.
“This is a really bad scenario,” she says later. The Yaxes are seeking voluntary departure from this country, a relatively simple procedure by federal trial-practice standards. Deportation hearings, by contrast, “are horrible.” Martinez believes such trials, conducted via conference, violate due-process rights. In the past, she has appealed immigration-court processes at the board-of-immigration appeals, but for now, this is the system, and Martinez, a former chair of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, is doing her best as a lawyer to work with it.
After testifying that neither of them has a spouse in the United States, the Yaxes, uncle and nephew, gain the right to leave this country without penalty despite having entered here illegally. They came here to work construction, and with the onset of winter, construction jobs are halted. Now they’ve asked permission to leave.
Martinez says these two immigrants are similar to many clients she has represented since founding JBM Immigration Group, a full-service immigration-law firm in downtown Pittsburgh, in 2002. Conscious of the growing debate about border security, Martinez stresses that her clients “want to work, make some money for their families and go back home.” They’re not coming here with bombs, she says, but with hammers, chisels and trowels. “When is the last time you talked to your friends and they wanted to be bricklayers?” This is a supply-and-demand economy, and there’s a need for these immigrant workers, Martinez adds. “Let’s deal with that need.”
Martinez can empathize with her clients. She came to this country in 1972 as a 6-year-old émigré from El Salvador. Growing up in California, she found plenty of opportunity, gaining an Ivy League undergraduate degree from Cornell University and later a law degree from Arizona State University. Marriage to a military officer brought her to Pittsburgh in 1992; when she graduated with her law degree, she intended to become a labor lawyer. Of course, life sometimes works out differently than we plan.
After Martinez’s admission to the state bar, a friend referred her a few immigration cases. She worked from her kitchen table and held client meetings at Burger King. That same friend left town two years later, and Martinez became inundated. “People would call at home and at all hours of the day,” she remembers. Now her downtown office has a staff of lawyers and assistants who, among them, speak English, Russian, Italian, Spanish, German, Polish and Hindi. Not only has the Latino immigrant community grown in recent years, says Martinez, but the rise of UPMC and Carnegie Mellon as major research centers has “translated into tons of foreign students and other people wanting to stay here in Pittsburgh and live.”
Some clients who come to her don’t pay handsomely, but Martinez says she and her colleagues wake up every day and want to go to work. “We’re advocates,” she says, and “that makes us rich in spirit.”
Have you ever wondered why you don’t see plants or flowers in a courtroom?
Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning knows the answer. As he tells Duquesne University Law School students on the first day of his popular trial-advocacy class, “Nothing grows in a courtroom. A courtroom is where things go to die,” an idea first expressed by Wyoming lawyer Gerry Spence.
Presided over by judges wearing executioner-black robes, courts of law are places where lives are inexorably altered and sometimes—as in capital-punishment cases—ended. There are occasional moments, though, when courtrooms can be both venue and vehicle for positive change. Those are the moments Jill Beck lives for.
Beck, 30, is an attorney at KidsVoice, the nonprofit organization begun in 1908 as Legal Aid Society of Pittsburgh, which provides legal representation to area children who are abused, neglected or are overcoming physical or mental disabilities. KidsVoice was, more recently, an inspiration for “The Guardian,” a CBS television drama that premiered in 2001 and ran for three seasons.
Beck, who received her law license in 2006, currently has a whopping 180 active court cases on her roster. Why so many? There are 5,000 troubled children in court in a given year in Allegheny County, according to KidsVoice executive director Scott Hollander, and they all need to be represented.
Pennsylvania law requires the court to appoint a guardian ad litem, that is, a volunteer who advocates for the best interests of troubled kids in court, even when their parents have their own lawyers. Unlike criminal- or civil-court cases, which are almost always open to the public, Juvenile Court matters are usually confidential. As a result, Hollander says, the world of child advocacy remains largely shrouded from public view.
On this December morning, Pittsburgh magazine has received permission from attorney Beck, the county solicitor opposing her, the judge hearing the case, the child herself and her parent to sit in on a Juvenile Court hearing. In the interest of privacy, we’ll call the girl “J.”
Before heading to court, Beck reviews the details of the case with her “teammate,” a KidsVoice employee who handles the social-work aspect of the case. On every case, KidsVoice assigns both a lawyer and a specialist to work together. “Our model is not an easy model, and it’s not for everybody,” Hollander concedes. Beck says collaborating with a child-advocacy specialist creates a blend of skills that can be used to help a child more effectively. “We’re taking a multidimensional approach to helping kids,” she explains.
In this case, 17-year-old J’s problem is that she’s been placed into an area youth home after a long spell of school truancy and defiance. Since being placed into a group home, however, she demonstrated what Beck describes as incredible progress (including making honor-roll grades).
It’s a high-wire act she and the other KidsVoice attorneys must do, balancing professionalism with basic humanity. “You have to have thickness of skin but also compassion,” says Beck, who has been learning how to do this since long before she joined KidsVoice in 2006. Before that, the Point Breeze native, with degrees from Duquesne Law School and George Washington University, worked as an intern for the Child Advocacy Center through Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where she performed forensic interviews of alleged victims of abuse and neglect and worked with juveniles on probation through Maryland’s Choice Program.
After finishing in the top 10 percent of her law-school class, Beck could have joined any of the big corporate-law firms in town. She went into law school knowing that child advocacy—“giving children hope that their lives may get better”—was her calling as a lawyer, even if it meant working for a fraction of what she could earn elsewhere.
On this morning, she has half a dozen cases, including the matter of J’s placement. After eliciting testimony from witnesses, Beck convinces the judge to send her home. “Keep it up,” her attorney encourages.
Not all of Beck’s cases today will end well. Some, she says, are heartbreaking. But for one moment this morning, a courtroom in Pittsburgh is a place where things grow.
Geoffrey W. Melada is a trial lawyer and frequent contributor to Pittsburgh Magazine. He lives in Shadyside.