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Little Big Man

A self-described “short Jewish guy” who slept through yeshiva and did stand-up in the Catskills, Ben Brafman has become one of New York’s toughest defense attorneys, winning surprising acquittals for rather long-shot clients. Can he do the same for Daphne Abdela and Peter Gatien?

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As the bailiff unlocked her handcuffs, Daphne Abdela twisted in her seat to look around the courtroom. Seeing her parents, the 15-year-old brightened and, with a wistful I-hope-you’re-not-really-mad-at-me smile, mouthed, “I love you.”

Charged with the savage stabbing murder of Realtor Michael McMorrow in Central Park, Daphne and teen pal Christopher Vasquez, labeled the baby-faced butchers by the tabloids, have been jailed at the Spofford Juvenile Center since June. Curiosity about this unlikely pair of defendants, the rich wild child and the nerdy altar boy, remains so strong that even their most minor court proceedings provoke attention.

Daphne’s lawyer rose to speak, and a middle-aged woman in the back turned to her more knowledgeable companion and asked in a stage whisper, “Who’s that?” -- surprised she didn’t recognize the man defending such a notorious client. “Oh, that’s Ben Brafman,” came the reply. “He’s handled a lot of big-time mob cases. He’s one of the best lawyers in the city.”

Few criminal-defense lawyers have the kind of media-superstar status of a Johnnie Cochran or a Barry Scheck, who log endless airtime on Court TV. But while Brafman, a former Manhattan Assistant D.A., isn’t yet a household name, he’s developed a reputation as the man to have on speed-dial when you’re in really big trouble.

Small wonder that Angelo and Catherine Abdela pray he can save their troubled daughter from a long jail term. Brafman has won acquittals for people whom no one expected to walk. Take James Patino, cleared in 1990 of another murder that shook New York, the slaying of black teenager Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst. Or Vincent Basciano, one of ten men charged in the 1994 Blue Thunder heroin-distribution trial, who got off after Brafman persuaded a jury that his client had actually been bragging about illegal gambling, not drugs, in wiretapped conversations. “I thought we had Ben’s client cold,” admits Roland Riopelle, the assistant U.S. Attorney who tried and lost the case.

“What Ben manages to do is wrap his clients in his own credibility,” says Paul Shechtman, a veteran federal and state prosecutor who recently entered private practice. “Jurors wind up saying that the defendant couldn’t be that bad if Ben’s speaking for him.”

It’s not surprising that Brafman, 49, a man who played bar mitzvahs and the Catskills as a youthful stand-up comic, knows how to charm juries. He’s worked his way into the defense elite through sheer whatever-it-takes drive and relentless self-marketing, using humor as a weapon. The son of Holocaust survivors, Brafman grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and went to Brooklyn College night school and Ohio Northern University Law School. Okay, so it’s not Harvard, but Brafman uses his down-to-earth pedigree to put people at ease. He’ll even joke about his equally down-to-earth stature (he boldly claims five feet six) to score points with juries. “He’s short, and he uses it well,” says criminal-defense lawyer Fred Hafetz, recalling a multi-defendant bid-rigging case he tried with Brafman. “Ben told the jury: ‘The prosecutor wants you to believe this story. I want to be six inches taller. But neither one of us is going to get our wish.’”

His detractors see a darker side, accusing Brafman of using underhanded, albeit legal, courtroom tactics to win, and cynically manipulating the press with carefully orchestrated leaks. It’s fair to say that Perry Mason had a gentler style. But Brafman is effective, even if he doesn’t always play by Marquess of Queensbury rules. So fearsome is his reputation that critics, talking on the phone, sound a lot like Brafman’s Mafia clients fearing a wiretap. “I could trash him,” sniffs one antagonist, “but I’d rather take the high road.”


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