June 24, 2006

It would be hard to imagine a day in court more bizarre than yesterday’s postscript to the so-called Mafia Cops corruption trial.

Everything was upside down and backward.

The two former detectives convicted of being killers for the mob openly attacked their former lawyers — men whom they had paid good money to defend them at the trial. The prosecutors then defended the defense lawyers — men whom they had spent a month attacking.

A convicted murderer declared himself an “animal lover” who would knock on doors to find the owner of an injured cat. A few hours earlier, he had sworn — under oath and on penalty of prosecution — that he would have no trouble lying, if indeed it helped his case.

So it went in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, at a hearing that sounded as if had been penned by Lewis Carroll. With references to “fragrant lies” and “racial epitaphs,” it was down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass and beyond.

Some background is required. The subject of the hearing was a request for a new trial by the former detectives, Louis J. Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, who blame their former lawyers for their guilty verdicts on April 6. Two months later, they were sentenced to life in prison, although the imposition of that sentence was suspended pending appeal. Now they argue that their lawyers, Bruce Cutler and Edward Hayes, bungled the defense.

Mr. Hayes and Mr. Cutler are two of New York’s most prominent lawyers, though arguments were made that they dropped the legal ball. Mr. Cutler, for example, spent more time in court discussing his Brooklyn heritage than his own client. One afternoon, Mr. Hayes fell asleep on a park bench during the lunch break.

The day began — as one might expect — oddly, as Joseph Bondy, Mr. Eppolito’s new lawyer, rose to announce his first, and most important, witness.

“Louis Eppolito calls Louis Eppolito,” Mr. Bondy said.

With that, Mr. Eppolito, in a pewter-colored suit and sneakers, took the stand. He promptly assaulted Mr. Cutler’s reputation, saying that although he had paid the lawyer a $250,000 retainer, Mr. Cutler had never fully explained to him the charges in the case and had refused to work through lunch.

In fact, he said, Mr. Cutler not only refused four times to let him take the stand, he refused to speak with him at all. “Tell him he’s annoying me,” Mr. Eppolito quoted Mr. Cutler as having told a colleague one day. This was within earshot of the client, who said he answered, “I’m not deaf.”

There was no time yesterday for Mr. Cutler to defend himself against these charges, though he was amply defended by the prosecution. In fact, the lead prosecutor, Robert Henoch, praised his old opponent — and suggested that Mr. Eppolito’s charges were untrue.

He said, for instance, that Mr. Cutler had won bail for Mr. Eppolito — bail to which Mr. Henoch, at one point, had himself objected. He also reminded Mr. Eppolito that he had once said on television: “Bruce Cutler is not a good lawyer. Bruce Cutler is a great lawyer.”

Mr. Henoch did object to Mr. Eppolito’s excuse for why, his lawyer’s order notwithstanding, he had told no one else about his wish to take the stand.

It was this: On the first day of jury selection, he was late for court. (There had been a crash on the Long Island Expressway and he had been caught in traffic.) His tardiness had angered Judge Jack B. Weinstein, and Mr. Eppolito said that ever since that day he feared the judge’s wrath.

Mr. Henoch said, “You’re fighting for your life, but you didn’t want to raise your hand and tell the judge you want to testify?”

“My heart was in my mouth,” Mr. Eppolito said.

Mr. Eppolito never did testify at the trial, though when he testified at yesterday’s hearing, it became evident why Mr. Cutler had kept him off the stand. He revealed himself to be a man with a tangential relation to reality — who, in one breath, said he wanted to attack a man with a hatchet and in the next proclaimed, “I’m not a violent guy.”

He was also revealed as a connoisseur of what he called “racial epitaphs” — though, he said, that did not make him racist. The government says it has tapes of Mr. Eppolito disparaging blacks with a particularly nasty term. “I don’t use it to hurt their feelings,” Mr. Eppolito explained. “I just use it for slang.”

Mr. Eppolito had a strange take, too, on Burton Kaplan, a government witness who testified at the trial that he was Mr. Eppolito’s liaison to the mob. Mr. Kaplan, a wholesale clothier, was simply the man from whom he bought his suits, Mr. Eppolito said.

Astonished, Mr. Henoch asked if it was more than a coincidence that the man he bought these suits from happened to be an associate of the Luchese crime family. Not at all, Mr. Eppolito said: Mr. Kaplan was the only man he knew who could find a good fit for his large chest and small waist.

And on and on it went — until finally, Mr. Henoch was reduced to saying: “What is the basis for that statement? Why are you saying it, other than it’s your perception of reality?”

It was perfectly in keeping with the hearing that the chief investigator for the case came around to his adversary’s point of view.

“I hate to agree with Cutler,” the investigator said, “but this guy should be nowhere near the stand.”.