Archive for March, 2009

St. Petersburg Times – St. Petersburg, Fla.


Date: Apr 26, 2008

Linda Moreno, a lawyer for Wesley Snipes, knows how to pick jurors.

In 2003, Linda Moreno assisted another lawyer at a bond hearing for a USF professor accused of helping Palestinian terrorists. She didn’t persuade the judge to release the defendant, a man named Sami Al-Arian, but Al-Arian liked her so much he asked her to represent him.

“It changed my life,” says Moreno. 2006-linda-outsidecourt

She had never handled a terrorism case. But in December 2005, Moreno and her co-counsel pulled off a major victory: Al-Arian was acquitted on eight counts and the jury deadlocked on nine others.

Since then, juries in two other high-profile federal cases have acquitted Moreno’s clients on all major charges or deadlocked, establishing Moreno as one of the pre-eminent defense attorneys in the country.

She faced a rare setback when client Wesley Snipes was sentenced Thursday to the maximum three years in prison after his conviction on misdemeanor charges of not filing tax returns. He will appeal.

Already, Moreno, 56, is focused on her next challenge.

This summer, she will stand up in a federal courtroom in Tampa to address a group of strangers. The questions she asks them and the answers she gets may well decide whether Ahmed Mohamed, a former University of South Florida student arrested on explosives charges, will go to prison, possibly for life, or go free.

“It’s all about picking a jury,” Moreno said.

– – –

Before the Al-Arian trial, Attorney General John Ashcroft bragged that the outcome would show the “success of the Patriot Act.” Instead, the outcome showed Moreno’s talent at jury selection and, along with co-counsel Bill Moffitt, her ability to get a jury to question the evidence.

During jury selection, a prospective juror named JoAnn Thanh told Moreno how proud she was of her brother who was a U.S. soldier in Iraq. Thanh also mentioned her childhood in war-torn Vietnam.

Other defense attorneys wanted to keep Thanh off the jury, fearing she might be anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian because of her brother, but Moreno argued for her.

“She had a clear, strong voice, suggesting she thought a lot about things,” Moreno said, “and something she said really impressed me.”

It was: “You would have to live through the war in Vietnam to understand why people did what they did.” Moreno believed that “Thanh had the sensitivity to put herself in other people’s shoes.”

Six months later, Moreno learned Thanh was one of five jurors leading the charge for acquittal. She also discovered that Thanh lived in an Orthodox Jewish home and was encouraged by her rabbi “to be fair and courageous over all other considerations.”

“It just goes to show that individual life experience and courage go deeper than politics or religion,” Moreno said.

After the Al-Arian win, which resulted in a plea deal to lesser charges for Al-Arian, Moreno was hired to represent another terrorism suspect: Ghassan Elashi, chairman of the Holy Land Foundation in Dallas. Elashi was indicted with five other defendants in a case the government billed as “the largest terrorism case in the country.”

Again, Moreno played a major role in jury selection, and again, according to her co-counsel, John Cline, her “gentle persistence” made a huge difference.

When other defense attorneys wanted to reject a potential juror named William Neal, because of his law-enforcement connections and his self-described “flag-waving patriotism,” Moreno argued for him.

Neal said he watched Bill O’Reilly, but he also said he listened to National Public Radio and BBC radio.

“He was a mixed bag, intent on gathering information,” Moreno said. “I felt strongly he would examine the evidence with a critical eye.” It was Neal who led the charge for acquittal that resulted in a mistrial.After weeks of deliberations, the jury deadlocked.

Moreno landed her next job when movie star Wesley Snipes, who was indicted on federal tax fraud charges in Ocala, called prominent New York lawyer Josh Dratel, an attorney in the Holy Land case, and asked for a recommendation for a lawyer to help pick a jury.

Without skipping a beat he said: “Linda Moreno.”

“When Wesley and I watched Linda work on our jury selection, we wanted her on the team for the trial,” said Dan Meachum, Snipes’ attorney. “Her instincts and ability to read people had a lot to do with the great outcome we had.”

The jury acquitted Snipes on all felony counts.

At Snipes’ sentencing Thursday, Moreno’s focus was on the federal judge who would sentence him. While other lawyers annoyed the judge by telling him what he “should” do, Moreno, with typical laid-back politeness, asked witnesses: “Is there any information you’d like his honor to know to make this very difficult decision?”

“That attorney has finesse,” whispered the courtroom artist.

– – –

Her ability to read people started as a child in the South Bronx in the 1950s. Her Cuban mother and grandmother, who hadn’t learned English, used her as a translator and negotiator. “I had to be polite but not shy to get things done,” Moreno said. “I also had to pay close attention to what people said.” Her mother, Josie Hunt, now fluent in English, said Moreno got so good at communicating that she negotiated punishment when being disciplined.

“She was born a lawyer,” said Hunt, who lives in New Port Richey with husband Donald, a retired union steward for American Airlines who frequently talked about rights for workers. “Ours was a house sympathetic to underdogs,” he said.

For Moreno’s 12th birthday, her parents gave her what would be the first of several books about lawyers. Her favorite book was To Kill a Mockingbird, about a lawyer fighting racial injustice in the South. Her favorite movie was Twelve Angry Men, about jury deliberations in a murder case.

She went to the University of Southern California on a full scholarship and majored in English.

To pay for tuition at Southwestern Law School, she took out loans and worked as a witness coordinator for the Los Angeles city attorney.

After graduating, she worked for the renowned civil rights attorney Leonard Weinglass, who was the Pentagon Papers and Chicago Seven lawyer.

“What struck me about Linda,” said Weinglass, “was her complete dedication to her clients, which continues to this day.”

Moreno never has more than one client at a time in order to totally focus on a single case. She keeps her expenses down by working out of her South Tampa home, which is decorated in sumptuous textures and colors, even though she is color-blind. She drives a 12-year-old beat-up car to the jail to visit clients.

In 1995, she moved to St. Petersburg with her daughter, Bianca, who was 11, to be near her parents. She and Bianca’s architect father had divorced in the late 1980s. A few years later she broke off an engagement to Elizabeth Taylor’s son Christopher Wilding and went from Hollywood glamor to working as a clerk at a liquor store in St. Petersburg, while studying for the Florida Bar.

“It’s hard to be arrogant with a life like mine,” she said.

As an assistant public defender in Tampa, she met former prosecutor Lyann Goudie, who worked in the same office and is now Moreno’s co-counsel in the Mohamed case.

Recently, the judge ruled that the defense attorneys cannot use a jury questionnaire. Unless the judge changes his mind, Moreno will be dependent on only a few oral questions to detect the opinions of potential jurors.

“If anyone can figure them out, it’s Linda,” Goudie said.

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