It’s textbook defense-lawyer strategy: dirty up the victim. And, yesterday, during opening arguments at the Sean Bell trial, the tactic was on full display, as the man who died in a hail of 50 NYPD bullets took a few more blows, this time to his reputation and character. Totally predictable, cringe-inducing — and entirely necessary if you’re defending the detectives who killed a seemingly defenseless man hours away from his wedding. What makes the argument far more interesting, and potentially more powerful, is the defense lawyer who’s using it. Anthony Ricco is one of the city’s most gifted defense attorneys. He also happens to be black and Muslim, and he favors fedoras and eyeglasses straight from the Malcolm X catalogue. While Ricco’s race helps mute the blue-versus-black story line and regularly draws him taunts from simplistic racial demagogues like councilman Charles Barron, the attitude Ricco deploys on behalf of his vilified clients is fascinatingly complicated.
Ricco is at heart a moralist, with strict old-world beliefs about the proper behavior of black folks. I wrote about Ricco in the aftermath of the tense, racially polarizing trial of the black man who killed white teacher Jonathan Levin; Ricco’s most agitated moment came not in repeating the arguments for his client, but when he spotted a black woman with dyed-blonde hair walking down the street. He believed the woman was foolishly betraying her proud racial history. So, yesterday, when Ricco described the strip joint where Bell held his bachelor party as a place “where women shake their booty and fulfill a sense of twisted sexual prowess,” and asked, “Who is attracted to such a place?,” he was making a useful argument on behalf of his cop client. But Anthony Ricco was also pressing a point about what he sees as right and wrong on a much larger scale. —Chris Smith