Final Say: Joe Tacopina
Joe Tacopina, 45, is a leading criminal defense attorney (past clients include Joran van der Sloot, Hiram Monserrate and Foxy Brown) and an expert legal analyst for multiple national media outlets. He lives in Westport with his wife and five children.
You set a record for penalty minutes while playing hockey for Skidmore College—a sign of things to come?
No, I think it was just a sign of the issues I had. [laughs] I liken it to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak—I don’t really see how it’s going to be broken. It was one particularly aggressive year. We had a lot of small players on our team, and we played in a rough-and-tumble division, so as one of the captains, I figured I was charged with making sure they survived. I guess it does sort of translate into what I do now.
What was your experience like at University of Bridgeport Law School?
For me, it was the turning point of it all. There were so many reasons why I picked Bridgeport. One, obviously, was its close proximity to New York City—I wanted to work at the law firms during the summer as an intern, and I actually wound up working at various law firms throughout the year. I was able to take classes then go back for a few hours. I was able to jockey my schedule so I would have a lot of time to work. My parents are Italian immigrants, so I had to student loan my way through all my education. Bridgeport turned out to be the perfect choice because it was just exactly what I wanted. It was so practical. It was so good for what I wanted to do—trial work, and especially focus on criminal defense. It’s a great school. I got to compete in the moot court competitions—they were always ranked very highly. I had one professor—and he’s still there—Martin Margulies, who was the guy who really shaped me to go in this direction. He was more than a professor—he was sort of a guidance counselor, a philosopher and someone who really made this such an intriguing area of the law that I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.
It was a great experience. I really think that school is one of the most unheralded and terrific law schools in the country. I do some teaching at Yale and Fordham law schools. At Fordham, I teach the advance trial advocacy program, I’m one of the judges at Yale’s nationally recognized moot court program, and I have to tell you, I put Quinnipiac up with any law school from a practical standpoint. In other words, when you leave there, you really are as equipped to go to practice law as much as from any other law school. I have a lot of good things to say about it.
Did your time at the University of Bridgeport Law School lead you to buy a home in Westport?
I fell in love with the area when I was there, but there was another little X-factor: My wife’s family is from Westport. I met her while I was in law school. She worked as a catering manager at UB. I remember first seeing her and saying, “Okay, I’m going to marry her.” That’s literally what I told my friend. I approached her in the most blunt, direct way I know how and said, “Hey, you want to go on a date?” and we went out, and an hour in I said, “I’m in love with you—do you want to get married yet?” She’s looking to call security at this point . . . long story short, that’s how we met. So I’m glad I like the area because I really didn’t have a choice.
Apparently, it’s worked out for you, though.
Five kids, twentysomething years later—yes.
You’ve been incredibly successful, but of course, you haven’t won every time—how do you deal with losing a case?
By virtue of being a criminal defense attorneys, where you don’t win most of the time, we’re usually the underdogs and I’ve had many cases where people couldn’t believe I had a shot in that I won—most recently, I had the “Rape Cops” case where we weren’t supposed to win—but losing is hard. For me, the reason I’m successful is because I work as hard as anybody and as long as anyone. I really care, but then more than that, I take the whole thing very personally. I feel as though when I’m representing someone in a matter of such importance as their liberty, I feel like I’m representing my brother or my son or my child or whatever, and it wears on you. So yeah, losing a case when you’re fighting for someone and you believe in them is something that’s very, very difficult. It really is. It is, I think, what gives me the drive and desire to make sure I do anything I can to win a case, of course, within the boundaries of the rules of ethics. I certainly fight as hard as I know how, you know, wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and write it down and pursue it, make sure I don’t leave any stone unturned. The reason I do this is because the horrifying nature of what I do for a living is that it’s such a high-stakes game.
I’ve tried some big civil cases—my firm does about 40 percent civil work. I’m known for my criminal defense work and I’m a former prosecutor, but three of my four last cases have been major civil cases where I’ve had a $9 million verdict in one . . . the reason that’s important is you take these big civil cases, and no matter what, at the end of the day, everybody goes home, win lose or draw. In a criminal case, you lose, someone is going away for a long time, and is being taken out of the courtroom in handcuffs. That’s the thing that keeps me awake at night. That’s what keeps me going and going and going.
But you can’t be afraid to lose. Facts are stubborn things. Sometimes, the lawyer will make all the difference in the world but there are some cases that it doesn’t matter who the lawyer is, the facts will prevail. Sometimes your job as a lawyer is to mitigate the damage and to make sure that justice is tempered with mercy. You might have a great human being who just had the ten worst minutes of their life captured, either on tape or by law enforcement or whatever, and then you’re in a situation where you try to put who they are in perspective with their conduct. So there have been some very good people who made one mistake, but that doesn’t mean their lives should be ruined forever or that they’re not deserving of a second chance. So your job as a lawyer at that point is to pursue justice in the sense that you give a complete picture of the human being. That’s part of what I do, too, in addition to going in to a courtroom battling and cross-examing witnesses.
What do you say to those who are critical of what you do and the kinds of clients that you sometimes defend?
Anyone who says that is either not thinking it through or just doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, “How can you represent that person?” To me, it displays such ignorance of what our justice system is about. I say, “Listen, there’s the evidence, and I will challenge it—the Constitution demands that I challenge it.” If there’s a conviction based on the evidence and the jury finds “Guilty,” I can live with that. That means the system is working. But if there’s an acquittal because the evidence isn’t there, or a juror had a reasonable doubt, or if we start cutting corners for those that we “think” are guilty, then the system starts to bend. Then what happens is that innocent people start to get hurt. Anyone can be critical of what I do—until they’re falsely accused. Then they want the most vigorous, best defense that they can find.
How do you respond when someone says [as with the Joran van der Sloot case], “You helped free a murderer who went on to kill again?”
Well, first of all, I didn’t help free him—the evidence freed him, not me. I didn’t go into the jail and unlock the cell. Three judges on three separate occasions released him because the evidence wasn’t there. It was after the fact that Joran Van der Sloot turned into a classic sociopath. I believe that the evidence screamed out loud that he had nothing to do with the disappearance of Natalee Holloway. What happened to this kid afterward is that everything he did, everywhere he went, he was linked to this case. He was vilified and didn’t have the internal strength to pick himself up and move on. He became a degenerate gambler and substance abuser. Then to feed his addictions, he sold his story and would say whatever people wanted him to say. He became someone who he wasn’t before, and subsequently did what he did. So it’s not so much that I got him out—the evidence got him out. Yeah, I represented him, I’m a diligent attorney, I work hard, but everyone who gets out from under charges or wins a case, it doesn’t mean that I’m responsible for them for the rest of their lives.
How do you balance what happens in a court of law vs. the court of public opinion?
When I’m on TV, I try—in a sound bite or less—to balance a case and put it in perspective, but the court of public is something you really can’t be too focused on when you’re in the middle of the courtroom. You just can’t be because unfortunately we live in a society that’s like “1-800-Give-Me-Justice.” Everything is so immediate. People have a natural tendency to jump to conclusions and form opinions right away without knowing everything. With the advent of the internet and social media, the second that someone who is a high profile individual is charged with something, you’ll read about it, read opinions, read conclusions and hear ridiculous statements of “fact” that aren’t true. The problem I have with that is that makes it hard to get a jury that’s not been so tainted and so overwhelmed with negative exposure that they’re going to give you a fair trial.
That was my biggest challenge in my last case with the cops. They had been called “rape cops,” literally a year and half before their day in court. To me, that was unfair because they had been given a name that indicated they were guilty, like it was just a matter of getting through the trial. What I did in that case, there was that big elephant in the courtroom, but instead of ignoring it, I embraced it. I told the jury, “Look, these guys have been vilified. They’ve been called ‘rape cops’ before they’ve been found guilty.” But what you have to get through that jury’s head is that they are the only people in the world who are going to hear all the evidence—every minute of it, every second of it—and the fact that some media or some tabloids have jumped to conclusions without knowing anything about the facts of the case, and certainly nothing about the defense, should offend anyone who is going to give so much of their precious time to serve as members of a jury, one of the most important civic services that anyone can do. Then to be told by some tabloid rather that hasn’t seen the evidence how to vote or what the right verdict would be? You have to rally that jury around that notion that it’s offensive that people who don’t know anything about this case are going to prejudge. That’s your job. And that’s what I did in this case. I took that bull by the horns and wrestled with it right in front of the jury.
So the court of public opinion is certainly something you have to deal with, but I don’t think you have to concern yourself with it. I don’t really care at the end of the day as long as justice prevails, so I don’t care what the court of public opinion says. I’m not running for office, I’m not doing this to make friends, I don’t need to be invited to social dinners. I’m doing it because it’s a very important job that means a lot to me, and a lot to the people I’m representing and their families.
How do you respond to those who brand you as an attention monger?
Honestly, I’m not afraid of being in the media. I embrace it because sometimes that’s the nature of the beast and what I do, but an attention monger I’m not. I couldn’t care less what people think. There are so many people out there that are just haters. I realize that the higher profile you get the more those people come out of the woodwork and say things that are based on nothing other than pure venom.
There’s a particular matrimonial attorney on the West Coast who seems to be standing next to everybody who claims to be a victim, and that’s someone where there’s no case, no cause of action, yet that individual is out there pronouncing herself the attorney for this person and holding press conferences. That’s somebody who I think can be fairly accused of being an attention monger because there’s not really anything to represent at that point.
Every time I’m in the media, it’s one of two things: It’s either the “Today” show or FOX has asked me to come on because they think I have the ability to provide insight to their viewers in a concise way, which is something I enjoy doing and think I’m capable of doing; or one of the cases is in the press. You will never find a case that’s a media case that I created the attention for. I have many, many clients—95 percent of my cases, nobody’s ever heard about, and I ferociously try to protect the identity of those clients, and try to keep those cases out of the media. Now people will come to me because their case has garnered media attention. People come to me because they think I know how to handle it, and they know I’m not going wilt under the pressure of that, or be afraid of it. I also know how to neutralize it. I’m not afraid of the media. Many lawyers don’t know how to handle the media; I do. Media is just part of our culture and our society now, more so than ever, and many attorneys will shun the media, they won’t talk to them—I think that’s ridiculous. I think you have to acknowledge them for what they are—they are people doing their jobs, and doing it well, and if you shut them out, they’re not going to stop doing their jobs. They’re going to do it in a way that will not provide your side of the story. I think that’s the mistake a lot of lawyers make.
I don’t go out there and garner my own press attention. I don’t have a PR agent. I never have. I turn down, every day, at least two television appearances. I’ve had book offers, all of these things, and I don’t do any of that. And I really don’t subject myself to interview like we’re doing now in the past five years because I’ve been overwhelmingly busy. So although I’m in the press a lot, I think it’s more of a by-product of what I do and the sort of cases that come to me.
What’s tougher: Defending a high-profile client or finding time for five kids?
Boy, they’re equally challenging. They’re both very important, and I think juggling that stuff is something I’ve grappled with for years. I live in Westport, I work in the City—even if I were to leave my office by 5:30 at night, which is almost an impossibility, it’s already evening by the time I get home, the kids are getting ready for bed in a few hours, so it’s not like I have the ability to spend as much time as I want with them.
But it is certainly much more challenging to find time to spend with five kids. My daughter is in college, the other ones are in three different schools in Westport, so it’s tough. One thing I can assure you is that I will never miss an event—I’m at every concert, every game, every recital, every reading. That stuff to me is important. If you take your eye off the ball, it’s very easy to get into the situation where you’re just never around for these kids, and I think that now more than ever, parental guidance is important, and I love it. I have a lot of work to do on that front because I just need to constantly be there, but fortunately, my wife Tish is like the mother of the year. She’s a pretty amazing lady when it comes to having to juggle and handle them and really put into perspective what’s important.
There are so many kids in our system in Fairfield County that just have this sense of entitlement because the parents have the wherewithal. They’re driving to school in nicer cars than I have—that’ll never happen at my house. My kids, if they want a used car, they’re saving up their money for it. They’ll drive a banged-up Jeep to school—that’s what I did. It’s never going to be that they don’t understand the value of a dollar, or how hard you have to work to achieve. I spoke at the baccalaureate at Staples last year, and I had so many people respond in a positive way, I had so many parents come up to me, because my lecture was about passion and hard work, and how if you have passion for something and work hard for it, you will be successful, but also, don’t expect anything in life, you’re not entitled to anything. I think it was particularly poignant for that class.
How do you explain to your children when they see stories where you are called things like “the most hated lawyer in New York City”?
I’ve always told them, “Look, you’re going to read a lot of things about me. Some of them are going to be great, and then you’re going to have people who are just haters and don’t like people who are successful.” But that [“most hated”] line was in a New York Post profile, and [it] was a very big compliment because it was talking about the prosecutors, not so much the general public, and I don’t want to be loved by the prosecutors! If I’m loved by the prosecutors, I’m not really doing my job.
In the courtroom, you’ve been described as “fearless”—what do you fear outside of the courtroom?
I don’t fear anything, anywhere. I just don’t. Okay, I am afraid of raccoons and stuff like that. Look, I’m a city kid. When I first moved to Connecticut, my wife will tell you about the time when we opened the garage and some raccoon came running out and I almost bowled her over to get the hell out of there! [laughs] Even now, when I have to go outside and get the dog at night, I’m horrified that some creature is going to roll out of the woods or something. Other than that, I don’t have a lot of fears.
Favorite fictional attorney?
CBS did a show based on me called “The Guardian,” and I never watched one episode because I was afraid to see how they portrayed me! Plus, I really don’t watch TV. So my favorite fictional attorney was the one who was supposed to be based on me, I guess. [laughs] My other favorite fictional attorney would be Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Some of the greatest courtroom scenes ever, when he’s up against it all. It’s a great movie, and it would sometimes give me courage. I used to watch it before many of my trials. That’s the guy who I look up to from a fictional standpoint because it’s a lot of what I do.
Favorite real attorney?
My gosh, there are so out there. So many great, great lawyers who helped mold me. Edward Bennett Williams . . . There’s a Fairfield County resident, Ron Fischetti, who, when I was at the D.A.’s office, sort of took me under his wing and helped me to understand what criminal defense representation was. Gerry Shargel is another attorney who really helped me understand it. So there are many, many great lawyers out there—I can’t even name them all. A lot of the stuff I learned on my own. Like I said, my parents were immigrants, so when I came out of law school, it wasn’t like I had a law firm my father owned that I could work at. I had to scrape and claw on my own to try and figure it out, and I did.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by courtroom drama, both fictional and real?
It’s like going to Las Vegas and playing high-stakes roulette, but people’s lives are on the line. I think that anything that creates such conflict and has character, the American viewers will gravitate toward. Conflict and character. That’s why people unfortunately fascinated with train wrecks and plane crashes. There’s always something that pulls people to it. In a courtroom scene, you have conflict, you have two sides going at it, with vastly different opinions on what happened, and then ultimately, you’re going to have some character in there. In every case, it has a high-profile individual on trial or someone who was not high-profile, like a Joran Van der Sloot or a Casey Anthony, who become the focal point of viewers’ attention because they’re thrust into the spotlight the first time based on an allegation. I think it’s just conflict and character that draws American viewers to watch certain things, and I think people are fascinated by that.
Think about how many novels have been written about it. Joe McGinness is my favorite author. He’s the guy who wrote true crime books, as well as other books. He wrote a book called Fatal Vision, which is about a Green Beret captain from North Carolina in the 1970s, Jeffrey MacDonald, who is alleged to have killed his wife and children; he claimed it was intruders. To me, that was a fascinating story, and the way that McGinness captured the courtroom drama in that book, really solidified the deal for me. I read it when I was in college, and when I read that book, I said, “This is what I need to do.” For me, I need to be interested in something and be passionate about it to be very good at it, otherwise I’m very pedestrian. If I’m not passionate about it . . . that’s why I didn’t choose the major law firm route, and I had been recruited by almost every big firm in the City to go work there, but I didn’t want to get bogged down in stuff that I wasn’t passionate about or excited about. Corporate transactions and all the research that goes with it—that’s something where my mind would wander quickly. I need to be passionate about what I’m doing, and I need to feel that sense of adrenaline and excitement. When I do, I will work around the clock, and hopefully produce the results that are necessary.
So I guess people watch the stuff because it’s an unbelievable drama. It really is. There’s a crime, a whodunit, and then who’s right—is the prosecution right, is the defense right? We all have our opinions. In high-profile cases sometimes those opinions will polarize people, “Oh you’re crazy, how can you say that?” There’s real-life debates about cases. My last case, when I was on the soccer field in Westport on the weekends, so many people wanted to talk about the trial. “Well, what happened? Did they tape record your client? Did your client admit it on tape?” People want to be involved in that sort of debate. It’s just naturally attractive.