City Paper is not for tourists
It was obvious who the dead man’s family was. Sitting quietly outside Courtroom 319, the brother wore a big, black cowboy hat, and the sister-in-law wore plaid flannel. They had come to D.C. Superior Courthouse from Virginiathat’s Virginia with a capital Vjust across the river, but a world away from the District. When the trial finally startedafter the jury shuffled in and the prosecutor rose to speakthe brother was the only one to cry. Big, fat tears of a man whose baby brother, David Hancasky, had died of a gunshot wound to the face in the middle of the night.
On a warm Friday evening in September 1996, three longtime friendsLori Byars, Michael Corley, and Hancaskywere drinking beer, playing cards, and smoking dime bags of crack at Byars’ house in Alexandria. Byars and Hancasky had spent their childhoods on this block, where Hancasky still lived with his parents. Now in their late 20s and early 30s, all three were adults by default, still just bumping along from day to day. They’d grown up to be regular crack users, frittering away their paychecks on weekend binges.
That Friday was typical, a night spent chasing their highs across the Potomac. Back and forth they drove, all night long, from Virginia to the District, to replenish their crack supply. They drove a half hour each time, to their usual point of purchase in a neighborhood just off Route 295 in Southeast D.C.
On their second trip, they bought $100 worth of crack. Or what they thought was crack. “If you taste it, and it doesn’t numb your mouth, it’s no good,” Byars explained later, on the witness stand. Only this time they didn’t taste it, so what they got was a $100 bag of chalk.
None of them could afford to lose $100. But late-night cravings overwhelmed whatever common sense they had between them. So they went back to D.C. and bought some more crack from one of the other characters lurking on a corner. This time it was good. Before they even made it back to Virginia, they’d smoked it all away.
Later that night, they went back one last time. They only had $20 left, but they had a half-assed plan to rip a dealer off, just as they’d been ripped off. When they got to 4th and Orange Streets SE, they pulled over to the curb and shut off their lights. A young black man walked over to them, and Hancasky rolled down the window. They agreed to pay $100 for 12 dime bags. And the dealer went back to the nearby apartment complex to get the goods.
Suddenly committed, Byars, Corley, and Hancasky got nervous. They’d just promised money they didn’t have to a dealer they didn’t know. But by now the night had acquired its own inertia. And the dealer came back with the bags of crack, ready to trade. Byars tasted this batch and gave a nod. Trying to play it cool, Hancasky slipped the dealer a crumpled-up $20 bill through the window, hoping that by the time he figured out it was $80 short, they’d be long gone.
Then Hancasky reached down and threw the car into drive. It was a fluid motion, one that might have saved them had the transmission not suddenly and inexplicably failed. In that heartbeat of a getaway moment, the car stood still.
The dealer started yelling about how he was not gonna get ripped off. With a quick reach, he grabbed the keys out of the ignition. He was not gonna get ripped off tonight, he told them again, taking the keys with him as he wheeled around and walked back to the apartment.
That’s when Corley and Byars busted out of the car and started to run, the survival instinct finally kicking in. But Hancasky stayed behind. He just stood there, looking around, torn between saving his mom’s car and saving himself. Byars screamed at him to come, run into the woods with them, into the woods where Corley had already disappeared. “But it’s my mom’s car, I can’t leave,” Hancasky said. Byars barely had time to plead with him before the dealer came back out. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, she said. Only Hancasky was trying to talk to the guy, trying to get his keys back, trying to undo the damage.
The conversation ended around 2 a.m., when the man shot Hancasky once in the head. Hancasky crumpled to the sidewalk, and Byars ran. A half a mile away, tripping through the sticker bushes, Corley heard the shot and stopped. Then he broke fast for 295. Later that day, Hancasky was pronounced dead at D.C. General Hospital.
Sitting in court over a year later, David’s brother, Robert Hancasky, covered his face with his hands as a police officer stoically described finding his brother in a bloody mess. Listening to the testimony, he crossed himself now and then, until the judge asked him to stop. Eventually, following the clerk’s advice, he and his wife moved to seats behind the jury box, where the jurors could not see them.
Out in the hallway during breaks in the trial, the Hancasky family passed the time chatting with Corley and Byars. During his brief appearance at court, Corley looked ready to bolt. His posture on the stand was chastened belligerence, the kind of attitude you’d expect from someone who had already been in court for other reasonsa felony burglary charge in Fairfax County, for example. Byars, on the other hand, remained at the trial for the duration. The first day, she sat quietly at the Hancaskys’ side, dressed in pink corduroys and a rose-covered turtleneck. When she finally went on the stand, she was a teary wreck.
The man they all believed had pulled the triggersomeone else’s brothersat up front in a shirt and tie next to Mark Rochon. Generally speaking, that’s a damn good seat for a young man charged with first-degree murder. Rochon, by all accounts, is the hottest criminal defense attorney working in D.C. today and one of the select few who can actually make money, real money, representing clients off the street. And although he’d be the last to admit it, his winning streak is rapidly becoming legend around the hallways of the courthouse and the cellblocks of the jail.
But in this case, defendant Alvoid Hamilton appeared to reside beyond even Rochon’s magic reach. Twelve days after the murder, police had arrested Hamilton after both Corley and Byars identified him in a photo spread and then in a lineup. Hamilton had a record for cocaine possession and had been hanging out drinking on the crime-scene corner the night Hancasky was killed. The same day Hamilton was arrested, he confessed to the police on videotape. “I just turned around and shot one time, and then I ran,” Hamilton said quietly on the tape, which was later played in full for the jury. “I just turned around, and I justbam.”
It was a bad set of facts, even for the best defense attorney. As the trial commenced, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Rowan looked ready and eager to bury Rochon and his silky courtroom demeanor with the kind of raw data that would put Hamilton away for a long, long while.
On the first morning of the trial, Rowan laid out the ugly story, fact after fact. Yes, Hancasky had been there to buy crack. Yes, he had tried to rip off a dealer. But, Rowan told the jury, “Murder is murder….The law protects the sinner as well as the saint.” Rowan had a videotaped confession. He had two positive identifications. He had neighbors who had fingered Hamilton with the murder. He had a conviction waiting to happen.
Hamilton had Mark Rochon. His great uncle, who had arrived at the trial stooped over his cane wearing an “I Love Jesus” baseball cap, had managed to scrape together the money to get the finest defense in town. If Rochon failed, the sad-eyed 20-year-old faced 35 years in prison.
But Rochon is mostly in the winning business. He is, as one of his fellow lawyers puts it, the “Mozart of Superior Court.” Rochon tried 15 cases last year and lost only onean unheard-of track record. Word gets around, and now his phone won’t stop ringing.
Ask most any lawyer, any judge, any homicide cophell, any convictin D.C., and he’ll know the name Rochon. And he’ll likely tell you that Rochon is the best money can buy.
Murders and drug cases are Rochon’s specialty. Murders represent about a fourth of all his cases, drugs and guns about half. The rest are white-collar and civil cases. He tries cases in the District, Virginia, and Maryland, but he tries his best to stay out of Virginia, where the juries love to convict. District juries are historically more suspicious of authority and more amenable to the concept of reasonable doubt.
Last year, Rochon tried four murders. By any standard, four is a lot. “The stuff that gets your name running around town, for me at least, are probably murder cases, because there’s nothing more dramatic than a murder case,” Rochon says.
One year, Rochon tried 10 murders. Compared with his other cases, he says, “Everything is kind of heightened in a murder case…because the consequences of losing are so high.” But Rochon rarely loses.
“Mark has won more trials than any lawyer in this city, and that includes any of those stiffs on Connecticut Avenue,” says fellow attorney Bernie Grimm. “You can put that in ink,” he adds, “and if you’re sued for libel, I’ll pay the settlement. I’m that certain.”
Grimm is a good friend of Rochon’s and one of his few rivals in D.C. criminal defense. Both went through the D.C. public defender service (PDS) together, and both now make a good living out of getting criminals, both alleged and avowed, back on the street. Neither can imagine doing anything else. “Mark and people like me are sort of unknowns to the legal world that matters in this city,” Grimm says, referring to what he calls the “blue-chip” corporate attorneys counting their money over near the K Street corridor. “But we’re known to the people who are in real trouble.”
Their reps are impressive, but unlikely to bring them much regard beyond the drug corners and the courthouse. When the newspaper reports on a guy who skates on a murder charge even though the evidence is overwhelming, somebody like Rochon or Grimm is usually pulling the levers behind the verdict. To some, they are pariahs by virtue of their proximity to evil, protecting men who have helped turned D.C. into an annual contender for murder capital of the nation.
But Grimm takes serious professional pride in the dirty work they do. “These folks downtown are all good,” Grimm says. “But they’re not real lawyers. Trying cases is what being a lawyer is all about. And Mark does that as good as or better than anybody.”
Rochon has even made believers out of the people who work just as hard to put his clients away. Before he was forced out of the police department over a political clash with then-Chief Larry Soulsby, Lou Hennessy headed up the homicide division. Now he’s a practicing attorney, one of Rochon’s competitors and admirers.
As a cop, Hennessy sat in court many times watching Rochon work to free guys his officers had put behind bars. “There’s a handful of attorneys in town that you know, when they get a case, you got a war on your hands,” Hennessy says. “And [Rochon] falls into that category….Everything that you did, you knew it was going to be challenged and scrutinized and dragged out into the open.”
From the late ’70s until the mid-’80s, it was Kenneth M. Robinson whose phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Robinson, who takes mostly civil cases now, willingly acknowledges that Rochon wears the crown these days.
“Without question, Mark is the king of the street criminals in the metropolitan area,” says Robinson. “On any major arrest,” he says, “one of the top two people arrested is gonna contact Mark Rochon. That’s a given.”
Rochon’s a natural, Robinson says. “You have to have a certain personality that the ‘bandits,’ as we like to call them, find entertaining,” he says. “The successful criminals are great at recognizing who can talk and who can’t.”
The prerequisites to the throne are really rather simple: First, you have to be absolutely prepared, every time; you had better have a damn good investigator working the streets for you, and you had better put in long hours learning the facts of the case and the laws of the city. Second, you have to know how to work a juryto “be able to dance in the courtroom,” as Robinson puts it. Rochon does all those things, says Robinson. And, perhaps most important, “He’s a great bullshitter.”
Except for his puffy eyes, the 40-year-old Rochon looks about three-quarters his age. He has Warren Beatty’s gray charm and the kind of just-between-me-and-you smile that makes politicians’ careers. Mostly, he has all-American grace, easing his way around the courtroom with so much self-awareness that he appears to have none at all.
Before, during, and after the government’s opening statement in the Hamilton trial, Rochon was all honeythe good-looking guy smiling knowingly up front, making pithy remarks to the clerks: the person everyone wants to be near.
You’d never know he felt like throwing up the morning of opening arguments. “I thought it was a great opening statement,” he later says of the opposition’s performance. “It had me upset. It had me very upset….It was thorough, it presented everything, it included an emotional
content…and did it in a way that was convincing and sincere.”
After the prosecution’s last, damning words, Rochon paused a couple of beats, taking it all in before sliding out of his chair. There was real admiration in his voice when his turn finally came to speak. “Wow,” Rochon said, walking over to the jury. “I tell you, if Mr. Rowan had been one of the people there, there’d be no doubt about the truth. He tells it to you so well, so credibly, so sincerely.”
After that single disarming concession, Rochon never looked back. He went rapid-fire through the points of the case, discrediting the drug-addled witnesses, pointing out glaring inconsistencies, and noting that his client had been handcuffed to a chair for eight hours before he confessed. “Alvoid Hamilton didn’t shoot anybody,” Rochon said, a flash of anger rising in his voice.
Like any decent defense attorney, Rochon can conjure indignation at will, almost yelling at the jury at times. But he’s never too indignant. Throughout the trial, Rochon would lean against the well of the court and cock his head to the side, oozing candor and reason. He would slide his hand into the pocket of his dark-blue suit and ask the jury to talk some sense for just a moment. Whenever he called attention to a reasonable doubt, he said, “Understand, that’s not me making that up.”
Before wrapping up his opening statement, Rochon revved up the drama just a notch. “This is the most weighty case that anyone can sit onfirst-degree murder,” he said, standing close to the jurors. “Quite a case, ladies and gentlemen. When we picked you last week, I bet you never imagined it would be a case like this.” And then, brow furrowed, he turned and walked silently back to his seat.
To win a case, Rochon says it’s crucial that the jurors really believe the lawyer cares deeply about the client at his side. “To jurors, there are no small cases,” Rochon says. “You sometimes will hear…someone say, ‘This is a small case; this is an easy case.’ That’s bullshit. They’re all big, important cases to the person on trial and to the jurors.”
Says one Superior Court judge who has watched Rochon finesse many a jury, “He talks to them, not down to them. That’s what the good lawyers do.” And he usually stays just inside the lines of what constitutes appropriate lawyering. Most if not all of the judges in the courthouse think very highly of Rochon, the judge says. And that’s a rare distinction for a criminal defense attorney.
Rochon knows better than to insult the intelligence of the jurors. Which is not to say he isn’t manipulating them, from voir dire to verdict. “He conveys this sense that he’s going to be a straight shooter…even though, like any good lawyer, he can take a minor fact and exploit it to his advantage,” says Jon W. Norris, a PDS lawyer who used to be an investigator for Rochon.
Two kinds of criminal defense attorneys work the halls of D.C.’s Superior and federal courthouses: the ones who are fighting for a causesocial, political, whateverand the ones who aren’t. Rochon has no interest in overt causes. He says he’s driven by the relationship he has with the client. “I think that’s probably what makes good defense attorneys good,” he says. “Of the lawyers that I respect, they’re the ones that are really client-centered.” Lawyers with an agenda don’t serve their clients as well, he says, “because ultimately you’re not representing an issue. You got a client, and he wants to go home….Whatever it is, it’s got nothing to do with your issue.”
Rochon, a married white guy who drives a Lexus and lives in upper Northwest, insists that he identifies with his overwhelmingly black clientele. He has wanted to be a defense attorney ever since he was a scrawny kid getting in trouble in Michigan. “I grew up in a racist suburb of Detroit called Dearborn that was just completely white and completely racist,” Rochon says. “I don’t mean nuanced, New Age racism; I don’t mean that there was a glass ceiling or whatever kind of floor. I’m talking about fire bombs.”
It’s a persistent irony that many of the young black men who believe they are being railroaded by a racist judicial system put their faith in Rochon to make it right. “It’s uncanny watching some of these young people who you would think would have no interest in this white guy from Michigan,” says Rochon’s law partner Michele Roberts, who’s black. Roberts (by all accounts the other blazing star at Rochon, Roberts & Stern) marvels at Rochon’s chameleonlike ease around his client base. His clients, Roberts says, laughing, “are typically more comfortable with him than most clients are with me. Clients call me Miss Roberts. They call him Mark.”
Rochon does share at least one important philosophical tenet with his clients. “I’ve always been distrustful,” he says. “I don’t know of any authority that shouldn’t be questioned.”
He got kicked out of high school “multiple times,” he says, for skipping out (he claims he cut class to go to Detroit and watch trials) and for “corrupting tenth-graders.” He got kicked out, he says, “for everything.”
After barely graduating, Rochon joined the Navy and hated it. He worked on submarines, once playing lawyer to a group of sailors nailed in a drug bust. The low point of his Naval career came in South Carolina, when he got arrested for disorderly conduct. “I got the shit kicked out of me by some sheriffs,” he says.
After the Navy, Rochon’s future brightened. He went to Western Michigan University on the GI Bill, took academics seriously for the first time in his life, and then landed a spot at Stanford Law School.
In his evidence class at Stanford, Professor Miguel Mendez says, he sees two versions of students: “very bright students who have to work very hard to try to find their trial advocate shoes…and then a very small group of students whom I have to do very little for.” Those are the students born with a silver tongue, Mendez explains. Rochon was one of them. “I predicted that he would be a star trial lawyer, and he has become that,” Mendez says.
Straight out of law school, Rochon came to D.C. to work at PDS in 1983. He says he owes most of his success to that office. And the rest to luck. Bernie Grimm, his cohort from Day One, says it’s more than that. Rochon is the anti-lawyer, Grimm says, and that’s why he’s done so well. Back then, Grimm says, “He had John Lennon glasses on and long hair. He was crazy. That’s why I liked him….He didn’t act like a traditional lawyer. He didn’t take himself too seriously. All the things people hate lawyers for, he didn’t do.”
And Rochon’s other signature trait was his tactical and personal recklessness. At the fancy dinner held to mark the end of the training period at PDS, Rochon wore a T-shirt that read, “Too Drunk to Fuck.” In the courtroom, Grimm remembers, Rochon once vaulted over the well of the court upon hearing his case called. When the judge demanded to know what the hell he thought he was doing, Rochon explained that he was just getting ready to play some hockey. Once, after a prosecutor in one of Rochon’s cases gave a particularly dramatic opening statement, Rochon sat back in his chair and started clapping. When the judge objected, Rochon said, “‘Oh, no, judge. I’ve never seen a performance like that,’” Grimm remembers.
Rochon has cut down on the antics since then, but he can still remind you that not all lawyers are consumed by their tee times. In the Hamilton case, Rochon engaged the entire room when he spoke, pacing back and forth, arguing in a voice hoarse with contained aggravation. He was the only speaker who held the attention of every juror, spectator, and bailiff.
A successful criminal defense attorney learns risk management early on. “Taking risks with someone’s life, literally, is a very dangerous, precarious thing to do,” Grimm says. “But if you have Mark’s ability and experience, you know when to take those risks.”
Hamilton’s trial was riddled with risks, beginning with the decision to plead not guilty. After all, the cops had Hamilton’s confession in hand. In that confession, Hamilton had opened the door to a perfectly legitimate self-defense claim, saying that Hancasky had looked as if he were going to pull a gun from his pants right before the murder. But Rochon and his client chose to essentially ignore the self-defense route and go for broke, directly countering the taped confession. It was ballsy, for sure, but it seemed outright stupid when the prosecution rolled the damning video.
“That was a depressing day,” Rochon says. It was a clear and concise confession, as even Rochon admits. “You hear your client on a videotape saying he did the shootingand to a detective who’s not exactly beating him over the head with a rubber hose,” Rochon says. “That was the low point. No question.”
That same day, Rochon put Hamilton’s former girlfriend, Erica “Cooter” Nelson, on the stand. Nelson represented another substantial riska loose cannon from the moment she walked into court and then threatened to leave during a break. Once on the stand, she was visibly annoyed that she was going to be late to work for a piddly trial like this.
But Nelson had to be there to boost Hamilton’s alibi. All along, Rochon had invoked a time-tested defense known to courthouse cynics as the “Tyrone defense””I didn’t do it. Tyrone did it.” It’s a common strategy in Superior Court, and one Rochon knows well. In this case, “Tyrone” was a guy named Tutua friend of Hamilton’s whom Rochon had fingered for the shooting. But Tutu was missing. He had shown up at court on the first day of the trial, but hadn’t been called to the stand and hadn’t been back since.
What the jury didn’t know was that Rochon’s investigator had visited Tutu months before and left with a 10-page confession. Tutu had signed every page, Rochon says. But the judge refused to admit the confession as evidence because it wasn’t taken by the police. So despite a lot of pleading from Rochon, the confession might as well not have existed.
Like several others in the trial’s parade of witnesses, Nelson kept swiveling back and forth in the witness chair, a fuck-you-all expression on her face. Rochon looked cool and easy, though, seemingly amused by Nelson’s adolescent display. “I was terrified,” he admits later.
At the time of the murder, Nelson lived in the apartment building across the street. At around 2:20 a.m., she said, she heard a single shot. And she did what she always did when shots rang out in her neighborhood: “We pulled the shades down, closed the windows, and counted the kids.”
But Nelson also said that she remembered hearing Tutunot Hamiltonarguing with someone outside just before the shooting. She said she knew it was Tutu, “because he’s got a big mouth. I know his voice.”
The very next day, Rochon put his client on the standa move that is usually seen as a last resort. For one thing, letting Hamilton talk meant that Rochon had to tell the jury that his client had a rap sheetmore specifically, that Hamilton had pled guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
But Hamilton wanted to testify, Rochon says. And as his lawyer, Rochon supported his decision to assert his innocence. “Many an innocent man has been convicted because they think that simply because they are innocent they will win. And that’s the frightening thing, right? Because they think their innocence is all they need,” Rochon says.
On the stand, Hamilton told the jury he was just 20 years old, and that his friends called him Man or Cowboy. He said he had grown up in Southeast D.C., and he still had a mother, sister, uncle, and little brother in town. “And cousins all over the city,” he said.
Sometimes Rochon lends his clients suits for the stand, but Hamilton’s family had brought him a respectable bone-colored blazer and dark tie for the occasion. But the more Hamilton talked, the more street leaked into his testimony, diluting his cuddly reinvention. Recounting his story, Hamilton was expressionless, declaring his innocence without a shred of emotional conviction. He repeatedly referred to women as “females,” as in, “I told the female to keep walking.” He talked about hanging on the corner drinking Raynal, a cheap brandy that stumped the court reporter completely. The reporter asked Hamilton to repeat the name twice, but he still couldn’t figure out how to spell it. Neither could the prosecutor, making Hamilton seem even more foreign. Finally Rochon chimed in. “How about R-a-y-n-a-l,” he said.
“If the kid’s an unsophisticated kid from 4th and Orange Streets, he’s not going to turn into Oliver North on the stand,” Rochon says later. “You try to work on them so that there’s not too much street slang, but that’s gonna creep in anyway.”
Throughout his testimony, the court reporter repeatedly tripped up over Hamilton’s word choices, amping up the tension in an already loaded moment of the trial. Hamilton played the game, suppressing his frustration with the clueless reporter. But his alibi was weak to the core. He claimed he had been off with a girlwho never materialized in courttrying to hail a cab a few blocks away when the shooting occurred. He said Tutu had told him he did the shooting. And he said he had only confessed because the cops made him feel as if he had no other choice. “For real, I’m thinking about the quickest way to get out of jail,” Hamilton said.
For all his oily charms, Rochon seemed to be getting his ass kicked across Courtroom 319. Neither he nor the U.S. marshals could find Tutu anywhere. And the judge’s patience was waning. Meanwhile, his dubious witnesses were doing his client about as much harm as good. And the jurors looked tired and bored as the testimony started to run into its second week.
Plenty of people wanted to see Rochon whiff on this trial. The more wins you tally, after all, the more enemies you makeattorneys, cops, and criminals who want you out of business.
“You would be hard pressed to find a prosecutor with anything good to say about Rochon. He’s snaky,” says one attorney who has come up against Rochon in the past. “Nobody trusted him. Everybody who dealt with Rochon had a story.”
Certain cops call Rochon “that thug lawyer.” Clients who lose in court sometimes go after Rochon on appeal, bitterly disappointed that the Superior Court Superman has let them down.
The inevitable envy and enmity that follow success are what ultimately drove Kenneth Robinson out of the business of defending drug dealers. In 1987, a man opened the door to his Maryland office and shot him point-blank in the chest. Robinson won’t talk much about the shooting these days, except to say it had to do with a “running feud” he had with some people related to one of his cases. As he was being wheeled into surgery, his wife made him promise to stop taking the big drug cases.
So Robinson doesn’t envy Rochon. He does defend him, however. “A lot of people say a lot of bad things about Mark,” Robinson says. “But when you balance it all against the good things, it’s not even a close call.” Like many of his peers, Robinson believes in Rochon’s essential goodness. “He really has a good heart, and the clients get their money’s worth from Mark.”
An inescapable paradox, that: a swell guy who devotes his life to freeing men charged with murder, assault, malicious disfigurement, drug dealing, and arson. In the past decade, Rochon has defended an Oxon Hill teenager charged with murdering another teenager, stripping the body of a pair of sneakers, and dumping the victim in a trash bin; an enforcer in the P Street Crew, charged with murder and accused in court of raping the friend of a witness who testified against him; a man charged with killing a halfway-house counselor on the day he was to testify against the suspect’s “associate”; a notorious drug kingpin eventually charged with seven murders; and a man convicted of killing a boy on the grounds of Dunbar High School with six shots from a 9 mm automatic after a dispute over a girl. The list goes on, encompassing every sort of predator that D.C. produces.
“For the privilege of getting to do the job I get to do, I sometimes have to represent extremely distasteful people,” Rochon concedes. “I think it would be Pollyanna-ish if I were to pretend that there aren’t clients like that. But I have to try and get them off just as hard, or else I’ve broken every ideal of the Constitution.”
Ah, yes, there it is, that tattered piece of parchment that every criminal attorney uses to both cover his ass and cradle his head so he can sleep nights. Rochon isn’t defending thugs; he’s defending the rights that keep us all free. And if a murderous prick happens to live to kill another day, well, that’s justice.
Guilty or not, Rochon defends every client who can afford him. He says he draws the line at child-sex cases, though, because he has kids. But even in the horrific cases he does take, Rochon convinces juries that he cares deeply about his clients. And he insists that he actually does.
Rochon likes to tell a story about one of his closing arguments that ended with both him and two of the jurors in tears. “The older I get, the more I value freedom. The older I getthis sounds crazybut I see my clients now as the young kids they are,” Rochon says. “I’ve seen people go to prison for long periods of time and what that does to them….I’ve had clients who’ve done time for murder and come home by now.”
Some of the people Rochon leaves on the street find the wherewithal to straighten out their lives with the second chance Rochon delivers. Others just as surely get back to the business of ruining the lives of the poor suckers who happen to be in their way.
Out here among the free and righteous, Rochon is a necessary evil, a cog labeled “defense attorney” that allows the system to continue to function. But inside, in the jails and courtrooms, the name Rochon conjures the promise of a life at large.
At bottom, all Rochon needed was his first well-connected client to be released into the streets to tell all his friends about the great lawyer he had met. One guy accused of dealing leads to another guy accused of murder.
After Rochon fired off a particularly impressive cross-examination in the Hamilton case, a friend of the defendant’s sitting in the spectator rows stopped Rochon on his way out of the courtroom. “Hey man, do you have a card or something?” the guy wanted to know. Ever so discreetly, Rochon asked him to wait until the trial was over.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are,” says one prosecutor, who requested anonymity. “It matters what the guys at the jail think of you. And [Rochon] has a fantastic reputation among his client base. They think he’s the best.”
But that’s the kind of networking that can box you in real fast. Rochon estimates that he’s been dismissed from cases due to alleged conflicts of interest maybe 10 or 15 times. In 1992, Rochon was representing James Ruffin, the alleged leader of the P Street Crewa violent gang accused of using murder, rape, and arson to control crack sales in the unit block of P Street NW. A judge dismissed Rochon from the case after a witness claimed he had seen Rochon taking a bag of cash from Ruffin on a corner of P Street in 1991. The money was allegedly a payment on behalf of another P Street enforcer, whom Rochon had also represented. That’s what’s known as a “benefactor payment,” a big baddie sponsoring a smaller one. Rochon denied the accusation, but did not show up to testify in his own defense. The judge found that Rochon could eventually be a witness in the case and thus had a conflict of interest.
Rochon calls the accusation “ridiculous” and points out that the witness was later found to be untrustworthy. Gary Kohlman, Rochon’s law partner at the time, who was also dismissed from the case, says he was furious about the “completely baseless allegations.” He claims the incident was a prime example of the kind of retaliation criminal lawyers face when they get too successful. It was a “ruse,” Kohlman says, in retaliation for their success in moving the P Street case out of Virginia into the District.
The incident reflects two larger truths: Prosecutors work hard to cripple defense attorneys who have a reputation for winning; and private attorneys cost defendants a lot of moneysome of which may be picked up in bags on corners, and all of which simply cannot be clean.
Rochon says one of the main reasons he is so dependent on his cell phone is that you never know when your clients are going to call to say they’ve got your money. “It’s burning a hole in their pocket,” Rochon jokes.
But Rochon gets very coy when talking about his fees. One established defense attorney says murder cases can cost anywhere from $5,500 to $100,000. Roberts, Rochon’s partner, says she won’t do a homicide case for less than $15,000, and she’s done some for twice that.
Rochon says he does not take dirty money. Of course, you can’t find a defense attorney who would say otherwise. Two to three times a year, Rochon says, he turns money away for ethical reasons. One woman tried to pay him with her welfare check, he says. Others try to pay with the proceeds of a crime. “I’ve had cases where I’ve said, ‘I don’t want this case because…you don’t have $50,000 of money that I want to take,’” Rochon says.
Again, getting paid comes down to reputation. Rochon says he gets paid in full “quite often.” He pursues his fees personally. “I can be a real jerk about that,” he says. “You have to have a reputation with the people that are hiring you that [payment] matters….They’re taking money out of my kids’ mouths.”
One customer who still hasn’t paid most of his fee is Keith Gaffney, perhaps Rochon’s most notorious client. Prosecutors described Gaffney as the leader of the largest drug ring ever uncovered at Lorton prison. He was accused of smuggling several kilos of heroin into the prison through an elaborate network of visitors and employees and then selling $250,000 to $750,000 worth of drugs annually to prisoners. After a long, dramatic trial in 1995, Gaffney was convicted on five felony counts, including conspiracy to distribute heroin and operating a continuing criminal enterprise, a charge in the “kingpin” statute used for organized crime leaders.
Imprisoned for life in a Colorado maximum-security penitentiary, Gaffney has plenty of time to rue Rochon’s representation. Prosecutors say Rochon put up the best defense he possibly could, but that he could only do so much in the face of overwhelming evidence. Gaffney says he was “sold out” by Rochon. In a 1996 letter to an appeals court judge, Gaffney complained that Rochon had failed to subpoena vital witnesses for his case. “I feel that I should get a new trial based on the fact that Mark Rochon withheld pertinent information from you and the jury,” Gaffney wrote.
Coming from one of the most manipulative human beings in the city, the allegation is hardly worth a mention. It’s part of the job to get hassled by former clients. “The first thing people consider when they get a bad result is whether they can attack the lawyer,” Rochon says.
But there was something else noteworthy in Gaffney’s complaint. He recalled an incident when one of his girlfriends, Patrice “Peaches” Oden, had come to visit him at Lorton. According to Peaches’ testimony in Gaffney’s case, he passed her $225 in cash that day in rolled bills. But a guard confiscated the money on the way out, Peaches said. Angry that she’d lost her money, Peaches called Rochon for help, following Gaffney’s recommendation.
Rochon readily admits that Peaches came to him for help. He says he told her that it wasn’t worth his time to pursue such a small amount of money in court. But she wouldn’t go away. So finally he just took out his checkbook and paid her out of his own pocket. He remembers paying about $150. “I wrote her the check…to make her go away,” Rochon says. “She was wasting my time.”
In retrospect, Rochon sees nothing unethical about the payment. Just a business decision. Gaffney sees it as evidence that his money was not drug money. “Surely you know if this was alleged drug money given to her by me, an attorney wouldn’t give his personal money,” Gaffney wrote to the judge.
Rochon is much too smart to do anything overtly improper. The payoff of Peaches is just another example of the gray place defense attorneys wander in and out of in the course of their daily business.
But you never can tell when clients who put their absolute trust in you one day will turn on you the next. On March 20, Rochon had to go to court for a hearing in which one of his former clients accused him of sending him to jail. Devone “Man” Hunt claims that Rochon made inappropriate promises to him about what kind of sentence he would get if he pled guilty in a drug case. He says Rochon pressured him into pleading guilty against his will. In the end, Hunt got slapped with a heavy sentence of 4 to 30 years in prison. So, just like Gaffney, Hunt’s trying to get a new trial by blaming his lawyer.
Only Hunt is different. Hunt has evidence. Without Rochon’s knowledge, Hunt tape-recorded one of his last conversations with Rochon before he was sentenced. The case will not be decided until May at the earliest, and chances are slim that Rochon did anything technically wrong. But the tape recording is an embarrassing glimpse into Rochon’s client relations. The charming esquire bantering in front of a jury is nowhere to be found when it comes to what he thought was private business with one of his clients.
In the phone conversation, Rochon tries to assuage Hunt’s worries about the upcoming appearance before the judge. “You can’t take your plea back, because she won’t let you,” he says. “And then you’ll fuck yourself on the sentencing by trying to do it….This lady’s going to say no. Then she’s going to whack your ass.”
Then Rochon tells Hunt that he won’t get more than 4 to 12 years in jail time. And he makes a confident assertion about the judge in question. “This lady is not even thinking about giving you time,” he says. “She doesn’t have the heart to look me in the eye and say, 4 to 12. Let alone 10 to 30, OK?”
He was wrong, of course. But Rochon blithely denies that he misled his client about his relationship with the judge or about his likely sentence. “People rely on your judgments a lot when they make decisions,” Rochon says. Hunt “probably put too much weight on my opinion,” he adds. “Ten times out of 10, in the future I’d make the same decision….I predict what judges are going to do for a living.”
He concedes that his language on the tape is a bit embarrassing. But that’s just how he communicates “with some young guys without a lot of education,” Rochon says.
Hunt’s sister, Shone Hunt, says that Rochon is a household name over in Potomac Gardens, a cluster of public-housing buildings on Capitol Hill. “Of course everybody knows the name Mark Rochon. Very well,” she says.
In his testimony at the recent hearing, Devone Hunt said that heand his grandmother and his sisters and his kidshad a “close friendship” with Rochon. He’d known Rochon for over eight years, ever since Rochon helped win him a sweet probation deal on a charge of assault against a police officer. Hunt said he used to meet with Rochon regularly, driving around in the attorney’s car, even when he had no pending case. And Hunt would show his appreciation by referring clients to Rochon.
It was only when Hunt noticed Rochon talking to some cops in the hallway during his trial that his trust started to falter. Rochon was joking and laughing with the very same cops who were trying to put him in jail, Hunt says. Turns out the cops were former clients of Rochon’s. “I felt very uncomfortable about him representing me in the trial because he represented two officers on my case. And this is my life we were talking about,” Hunt said on the stand.
“Any time that someone’s unhappy, it’s troubling,” Rochon says. “I wish you didn’t have to write about this.”
But Rochon says he has no trouble navigating between the blurry roles he plays. And the questions about the moral underpinnings of his craft don’t keep him awake at night. “I have to be hated to do my job,” he says.
Rochon finds a comfortable place to stand by looking at the judicial system as a fragile ecosystem in which everyone has a role to play. “As long as we all agree someone should do it, it might as well be me, ’cause I like it. And everyone else can worry about my motivations and how I sleep at night,” Rochon says. “There may be some people in this country who think criminal defense lawyers just as a whole shouldn’t exist. But there’s not very many. And they’re idiots.”
In a lecture at American University a couple of years ago, Rochon answered one young woman’s question about his moral standing this way: “I said, ‘Well, look, when they search your dorm room and find a little cocaine in your purse, do you want Daddy to get you the kind of lawyer that is gonna say you’re guilty and therefore you should go to jail? Or one that’s gonna get you off?’”
By constantly returning to pragmatic hypotheticals, Rochon simply refuses to acknowledge any moral fuzziness in his means-to-an-end pursuit of fair representation. But, as defense attorney Chris Warnock puts it, “If he’s a great defense attorney, there’s got to be a sleazy side to him….That’s just how it works. Nobody’s lily-white.”
Closing time. The jurors were looking weary, having suspended their lives for seven days and counting. On Hamilton’s side of the court, there was a feeling of mild desperation. Tutu was still AWOL, and the judge had ruled for the last time that Tutu’s confession to Rochon’s investigator was inadmissible.
With his best evidence shelved, Rochon gathered together the fraying threads of his defense for the closing argument. After the prosecutor’s competent but bland finale, Rochon stood and walked over to the jury box. Looking down at the floor, he muttered something under his breath. He said it so quietly that it was almost impossible to hearunless you were in the jury box. “I shouldn’t be this nervous,” said the lawyer who’s tried over 100 cases.
Then Rochon recapped the facts of his defense in blistering detail: Remember that Byars and Corley never even bothered to call the police after Hancasky got shot. Remember that Byars hitchhiked home from the crime scene and took time to stop with her ride for another hit. Remember that before he confessed, Hamilton told the police that Tutu did it. Only they didn’t videotape that, did they? “This is an innocent kid right here,” he said, pointing at Hamilton. “He’s not going to be a sacrificial lamb for these people.”
“I want you to go back to the jury room and put a handcuff around your wrist,” Rochon said to the jury, his voice pitched. “I want you to be 19 years old and accused of a crime you didn’t commit….I want you to sit there while a grown man comes in and tells you your only way out is to confess. I want you to sit there with that handcuff on your arm while that man tells you to take the one way out he’s offering you. I want you to do that for the next eight hours.”
Before he’d finished, Rochon had repeated the words “beyond a reasonable doubt” so many times it sounded like an echo. He’d gotten the spectators nodding and chuckling as he talked about the ludicrous witnesses and the simpleton cops. Then he got serious, deputizing the jurors to face the grave task ahead. “What you’re gonna do next cannot be more important,” he said. “On behalf of Mr. Hamilton, we thank you.”
After the end of the first day of deliberations, the jury sent the judge a pessimistic note. “After more than one day of careful deliberation, the jury remains unable to reach a unanimous verdict, with no hope of achieving one,” the note read. But the judge sent them home and told them to try again the next day. The very next morning, to everyone’s surprise, the jurors rambled back in, verdict in hand.
The prosecutor sent a 911 page to Robert and Michele Hancasky, who jumped in their truck and raced toward the courthouse. Twenty minutes later, the court had reassembled, but the Hancaskys were still en route.
Up front in his usual spot, Hamilton sat in a dark suit, looking sullenabout the same as he had always looked. Rochon looked as if he could be on a bus, smiling at passers-by, waiting for his stop.
Juror number 594053 read the verdict aloud. It was startling to hear a juror actually speak. “Not guilty,” the foreman said, to each and every charge. Not guilty to first-degree murder, not guilty to second-degree murder, not even guilty to manslaughter or possession of a firearm. In the back, Hamilton’s great uncle broke down in tears, leaning heavily on his cane. Hamilton himself flashed his first smile of the trial. Rochon nodded in relief. “I can’t stand losing,” he says later. When he wins, he doesn’t feel happy. He just feels “the absence of pain.”
Outside of the courthouse, two jurors explained what had made them acquit a man who had confessed to the crime. Over and over again, they returned to Rochon’s sincerity. “I think he cares a great deal about the defendant,” said one. They were particularly moved by Rochon’s admission of nervousness right before his closing argument. “He didn’t fake any of his emotions,” said the other. Both of them looked relieved to be putting the trial behind them. “I haven’t slept right in two nights. There was nothing easy about what we’ve done,” said one.
Moments after the jurors had disappeared into the Metro, David Hancasky’s brother burst out of the courthouse, his face red, his hands clenched in fists. He walked quickly across the street and then sat down on the steps of a law firm across the way. From there he could see the expanse of Superior Court, squatting like a low-budget prison behind all the illegally parked squad cars. It was a beautiful spring day, the flags waving in the sunshine as the cops and lawyers went to and fro. Inside, Rochon and Hamilton were celebrating. And Hamilton’s great uncle was talking about how he was going to get his nephew out of this town.
Robert’s wife, Michele, was waiting in their truck, unable to find a parking space. As soon as she saw her husband, she knew the verdict. “By the look on his face, I knew it was ‘not guilty,’” she says.
Michele had known David for 16 years. The trial did not bring any hoped-for closure or solace to the family. “We thought that if the guy went to jail, he’d be in there 15 to 20 years. At least some justice would be served,” she says. Given all of the evidence, Michele was surprised by the verdict. And she does not hesitate to blame Rochon. “He makes the jury feel pity,” she says. “Pity for Alvoid, this poor black man who never had a shot in life.”
Even Michele admits Rochon is good at his job. “Of course, he’s good at what he does. Look at Johnnie Cochran, who got O.J. off. He’s good at what he does.” But she doesn’t respect the job Rochon does or the tactics he employs to win.
Rochon sent his investigators to her house three times and called her twice, Michele says. But she says she never gave them any information because she wasn’t impressed by Rochonan opinion that didn’t change after the trial. “I got sick of his smirks,” she says.
“I think he’s doing it for the money,” Michele says of Rochon’s career. “I don’t think he has
a conscience. That’s why he can sleep at night.