Length of trial, threat of death add to pressure
January 6-7, 2001 | Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Stacey Shackford, Staff Writer
Northampton -- Harry Miles has trouble returning his brother's phone calls. Thanksgiving was the first time he'd spoken to his adult daughter in months, and he has a granddaughter in California, born in April, whom he's seen once. It's not that the 56-year-old Williamsburg resident is neglectful. He has spent nearly every day of the past four months focused on defending -- and perhaps saving the life of -- Kristen H. Gilbert.
The former nurse is charged with four murders and three attempted murders of patients at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northampton. Now on trial in U.S. District Court in Springfield, Gilbert could face the death penalty if convicted. The trial began with jury selection in October and is expected to last until February or March.
Gilbert's three defense lawyers -- Miles, David Hoose and Paul Weinberg -- talked in recent interviews with the Gazette about the personal and professional toll the case has taken. They did not discuss specifics of the case. U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor has issued a so-called gag order that prevents both sides from speaking to the press about the case.
Though any murder trial involves intimidating pressure, this case, by virtue of its sheer length of four to five months in court, is in a league of its own. Defense lawyers say the federal government's pursuit of the death penalty only intensifies the pressure. "I never expected this case to be as consuming as it has been," Miles said. "I had no sense of the drain it would have on me."
Miles estimated that with court time, preparation and debriefings with other attorneys at the end of the day, he spends eight to 12 hours every weekday on the case, as well as time on the weekend.
"I would doubt that I've put in significant time on anything else" since the trial began," Miles said.
The time in court alone "is extraordinarily draining," said Miles. "It's hard to focus on anything substantive afterward." Alan Katz, a partner in Hoose's law firm, said the case affects everyone in the practice. "We have never had any one case that consumed such a long amount of a lawyer's time, for such a long period of time," said Katz. "It's a totally new experience for us."
Previous high-profile cases
None of the lawyers is new to high-profile cases. Miles, who first took Gilbert's case in November 1998, defending her when she was convicted of charges she made telephone bomb threats to the VA Hospital, also argued a notorious case in Greenfield.
He represented Richard Perry, one of three brothers accused of the torture death of a mildly retarded Greenfield man in 1995. Perry pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.
Hoose, 48, of Northampton is known for his work on death-penalty appeals in other states. He also defended Alex Rankin, who was convicted in 1997 of killing dentist Robert D'Amour in South Hadley in 1993. Hoose was appointed to represent Gilbert during her arraignment in 1998.
Weinberg, 53, who also lives in Northampton, joined the Gilbert defense team in 1999. Weinberg is not primarily a defense lawyer. He said he started as a consultant but was fully involved when pre-trials hearings began in March 2000.
Both Weinberg and Hoose said they have much invested in the case, not only because they are zealously defending their client, but also because of their anti-death penalty convictions.
"It's something I felt I should do. I came into it because of the death penalty," said Weinberg.
He usually handles civil cases, such as one Weinberg and other members of his firm settled in September involving a client who sued United Airlines for not carrying a defibrillator on board a plane. The suit is believed to have forced carriers and public places to supply external defibrillators in case of medical emergencies.
But none of those cases consumed as much time as the Gilbert case has, the lawyers said. Miles' previous longest case was nine weeks, he said. Although he sensed what the Gilbert trial would entail from following other high-profile cases, he said nothing could have completely prepared him, personally or professionally.
Miles said he has tried to go to the gym every day, per judge's orders, to relieve stress and stay healthy during the trial. Hoose said exercise is also his great escape -- he runs almost daily.
The trial is "stressful, but when you do this sort of work you're used to stress," Hoose said.
The three defense lawyers have also made professional sacrifices, clearing their schedules for the length commitment.
Weinberg said he has turned over most of his cases to the 28 other lawyers at his firm, Robinson, Donovan, Madden & Barry, P.C. of Springfield.
For Miles and Hoose, diverting their caseload has been even more challenging. Both are partners in relatively small firms -- Miles and one of eight lawyers in the firm of Green, Miles, Lipton, White & Fitz-Gibbon of Northampton, and Hoose is one of five lawyers at Katz, Sasson, Hoose and Turnbull of Springfield and Northampton.
In Hoose's firm, the lawyers specialize and Hoose generally is the one who handles criminal cases. He said he usually works on 20 to 40 criminal cases at any given time. "This has changed everything," Hoose said.
Hoose said he had to wind down most of his practice. Because of his absence, the firm has not taken any new criminal cases.
It's not fair, Hoose said, to take a case if you can't follow through in a timely fashion. He said the biggest challenge will be rebuilding the firm's criminal caseload when the trial concludes.
Miles, who had to make similar arrangements, said he worried about the financial effect on his firm. He and Weinberg said they are making less than they normally charge as public defenders, though they declined to be specific.
Court-appointed lawyers on federal death penalty cases receive $125 per hour, which Hoose said is only 60 percent of his normal fee.
"But I think it all evens out; although you bill less than the normal rate, you bill for a lot of hours because this is so time-consuming," Hoose said.
Katz, Hoose's legal partner, said the entire firm has been involved since the day Hoose accepted the appointment. Hoose has done whatever was needed to represent his client and the firm has had to adapt, Katz said.
"In terms of actual business, the most significant impact is that we don't have the ability to take on new criminal cases," Katz said. "The only way we are suffering (as a firm) is that we miss David and are going to have to rebuild (his caseload) at the end of the trial.
"I though that this was a great opportunity for David and for our law firm. We are all opposed to the death penalty, and David has been a leader on the issue. This is a rare opportunity to actually be able to fight it in Massachusetts. I was excited that David had the opportunity," Katz said.