Over more than 30 years as a criminal defense attorney, Ben Brafman has represented suspected mobsters, rappers and athletes.
One of his greatest challenges may come this week in the form of a skinny, snarky former hedge fund manager with an independent streak, Martin Shkreli.
Prosecutors have spent weeks accusing Shkreli of lying to his investors about how he was using their money, charges that could land the Brooklyn native in prison for 20 years. Already they have solicited testimony from investors who say Shkreli lied to them about the size of his hedge fund and the losses it incurred after a bad stock bet. Last week, a former Shkreli employee testified that the executive threatened to make him and his family, including four children, homeless if he didn’t do as Shkreli told him.
Now, it is Brafman’s turn. Prosecutors are preparing to rest their case soon, handing the reins to the defense.
So far, Shkreli – who is often called “Pharma Bro” on social media – has not been an easy client. He became infamous for increasing the price of a vital drug used by AIDS patients by 5,000 percent and then publicly lamenting that he didn’t raise it more. That made it difficult to find a jury of people who already didn’t like him. Then the judge in his case, U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto, chastised Shkreli for speaking to reporters in the courthouse where jurors might hear him.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Brafman started his career as a Manhattan assistant district attorney before starting his own law firm in 1980 and building a local reputation for defending mobsters like Sammy “the Bull” Gravano and Vincent “The Chin” Gigante. He teamed up with Mark Geragos to defend Michael Jackson against child molestation charges, which Brafman said was like being asked ”to be a quarterback in the Super Bowl.” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin once called him “the single best courtroom attorney I’ve ever seen.”
As an attorney, Brafman is known for being able to appeal to a jury with his humor, including poking fun at his compact stature, about 5 feet 6 inches, to charm juries. During opening statements in the Shkreli trial, he quoted Lady Gaga. It is a skill he honed as a standup comic in the Catskills.
And he appears to have some favorite lines that he likes to use.
In 2001, Brafman defended entertainer Sean Combs against charges of gun possession and bribery charges related to a 1999 nightclub shooting. During opening statements, Brafman told the jury: “You can call him Sean, you can call him Mr. Combs, you can call him Puff Daddy. You can call him just plain Puffy, but the one thing you cannot do in this case is call him guilty.”
In the Shkreli trial, Brafman struck a similar note:”If you want to call him names, call him names – just don’t call him guilty. Because he’s not guilty.”
Combs was acquitted. But the Shkreli case may be an uphill battle. The defense is essentially arguing that Shrekli’s investors are not victims of a fraud because they eventually made a profit. The investors are “high rollers,” Brafman told the jury in opening statements, and used Shkreli’s “genius and made millions.” Prosecutors say this does not make up for lying to investors.
Brafman is a “solid defense attorney,” said James Goodnow, an attorney with Fennemore Craig, a corporate defense firm. “But he has his work cut out for him here.”
Brafman has noted that he has been doubted before. “The cases of Peter Gatien and Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs will always standout in [my] mind, as they both involved very high-profile trials that ended in acquittals, when at the outset, the media and the entire legal community were predicting slam dunk convictions,” Brafman told LawCrossing, an industry job website.
In 1998, nightclub owner Peter Gatien was acquitted by a federal jury of charges that he turned his two Manhattan clubs into virtual drug supermarkets. After Combs Brafman wept at the defense table.
“Both men also became friends who I still see from time to time and each of them credits me with ‘saving’ their lives. Pretty good feeling,” he said.
Shkreli told the court Monday that he would not testify and the case could be in hands of the jury by the end of the week.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Renae Merle