Some lawyers might be bummed to have their first trial, a murder trial, tossed out because of incompetence. Joseph Rakofsky isn’t that kind of lawyer. He bragged about it on his Facebook page. “1st-Degree Murder…MISTRIAL!” he typed in his status update. Seven of his friends clicked “like.”
Rakofsky came to the District from a “Rakofsky Law” in Freehold, N.J., to defend Dontrell Deaner, who is accused of participating in the murder of District resident Frank James Elliot in 2008. A Friday hearing fell apart when Judge William Jackson declared a mistrial, partially because Rakofsky’s investigator filed a motion accusing the lawyer of encouraging him to “trick” a witness. The judge said Rakofsky lacked the knowledge and experience to continue.
On his Facebook page, one of Rakofsky’s friends seems stoked about the event. “[W]ow!! I’m very proud of you. yaya. hugs. Keep it up. love you. “Thanks, bro! How’s life?” Rakofsky responds.
On the phone later, Rakofsky is a little less upbeat, saying a Washington Post article about the mistrial “humiliated” him. “People put lies on the record and people are reading about these lies,” he says. The mistrial means Deaner will need both a new trial and a new lawyer.
The attorney, 33, a 2009 graduate of Touro Law School, admitted to the judge that Deaner’s case was his first trial ever in a “rambling” opening statement, according to the Post. That revelation seemed to directly contradict the bio on his website, which claimed that he’d worked on murder, embezzlement, and conspiracy cases.
Rakofsky says both are true. Deaner is the first client he’s ever gone to trial for, but he’s got plenty of experience. “When I say I’ve worked on those cases, that doesn’t mean I’ve worked on those cases on my own,” he says. “I was working with other lawyers, interning and stuff.” The Post points out that though the website says the cases were filed in New York, Rakofsky isn’t licensed there.
In court records, Rakofsy’s former investigator Adrian K. Bean accused Rakofsky of making some rookie mistakes, like asking Bean to canvass the neighborhood the alleged murder took place in for witnesses and also asking him to inquire about the efficiency of a closed-circuit police camera that picked up the crime. A message left at Bean’s office wasn’t returned.
Bean explained to Rakofsky in a letter that canvassing rarely yields much for investigators, and that questioning MPD’s camera wasn’t the best course of action. The video showed that, although present during the killing, Deaner wasn’t the shooter, and seemed genuinely surprised and afraid when it went down—which meant the video might have helped the defense.
Bean also lambasted Rakofsky for requesting that he “trick” a witness into saying she didn’t see the shooting. “I respectfully decline to perform the assignment for several reasons,” Bean wrote. “(1) I do not know what the term ‘trick’ means in this context. (2) I am in the investigative business, not the trickery business.”
“It hurts my client and it embarrasses the hell out of me,” Rakofsky says of the controversy. “All I tried to do was help my client, and I made a lot of sacrifices.” But Rakofsky also says he doesn’t “care that much what the people of Washington, D.C. think of me.” Rakofsky, who has a D.C. number and website attached to his firm, even though he’s not based here, was retained by Deaner’s family.
Rakofsky hinted that a mistrial was good for his client. Purposefully tanking a case can lead to legal consequences, though, like obstruction of justice charges.
Saul Jay Singer, senior legal ethics counsel for the D.C. bar, says going for a mistrial doesn’t automatically equal an ethics violation. “Lawyers have tremendous leeway ethically in criminal cases,” he says, because there’s so much at stake. But he also sites D.C. Rule 8.4 c of professional conduct, which says lawyers aren’t to engage in “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery