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Tony Ricco Sleeps Very Well, Thank You.

Defending lowlifes hasn't made him Mr. Popularity. But he knows firsthand what his clients are up against -- and where they've come from.

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As the reading of the verdict ends, the sobbing begins. Corey Arthur's girlfriend cries: Arthur is guilty of felony murder in the second degree. Jonathan Levin's mother weeps: Arthur, acquitted of first-degree murder in the death of her beloved son, has dodged a life sentence.

One man heads straight for Anthony Ricco. He is a friend of Levin's, and during the trial he endured a withering cross-examination by Ricco, the defense lawyer, who hammered at the friend's estimates of how often Levin smoked marijuana. The friends and family of the murdered Levin, a high-school teacher who went out of his way to help students, including Arthur, are furious, believing that Ricco's defense tried to tarnish Levin's saintly image for the benefit of his accused killer.

"How," the man demands of Ricco, "can you sleep at night?"

One week after the verdict, the defense lawyer is still seething over the confrontation. "I was getting ready to punch him in his mouth," Ricco says, his large brown eyes taking on a nasty glint. "I told him, 'You don't back up, I'm gonna put you to sleep.' "

Tony Ricco sleeps very well, thank you. But not because he lacks a conscience. In fact, the Levin case troubles Ricco deeply, and for reasons that might surprise Levin's loved ones.

In 1966, a runty 9-year-old boy from a destitute block in Harlem, taking advantage of New York's first experiment in open public-school enrollment, was bused from his home on the corner of West 122nd Street to an elementary school on East 57th Street. He was fascinated and bewildered. Not only was he surrounded by white faces, but most of his new classmates at P.S. 59 were wealthy beyond his comprehension. Fortunately, the boy's fifth-grade teacher, a white Jewish woman from the West Side, went out of her way to help him and to introduce him to a world he'd never known.

That child, named Anthony Ricco, grew to be a lean six-foot-tall man. "I'm thankful to this day," Ricco says, "that I had a person like Mrs. Pierce as a teacher. When I'm representing Corey, and I'm learning about his relationship with Mr. Levin, I know what that's about, because of her."

Deborah Plotz-Pierce has kept in touch with Ricco, attending his wedding and proudly watching his career. "Believe me -- I'm a teacher, a mother, a Jew," she says. "You don't think my heart goes out to the Levin family? But someone has to do the job Tony is doing, and I respect him for that. I don't think he's attracted to lost causes. I think he goes after lost people, because in his family, he was surrounded by lost people. He couldn't help them, but he can help others now."

The Corey Arthur trial turned Ricco into a tabloid villain. Review some of the other clients Ricco has vigorously defended -- a co-conspirator in the Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman terrorism case, the man who shouted "Let's get a Jew!" to an angry Crown Heights mob minutes before Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed, assorted murderous drug dealers and child abusers -- and you could easily caricature him as a sleaze.

In court, Ricco is a dramatic presence. He is a gifted storyteller, and his summations and cross-examinations mix legal erudition with street slang worthy of a Fila-wearing homeboy. Ricco can also be so cutting that it verges on cruel.

"Tony can try a case just as well as Johnnie Cochran," says his friend Greg Meeks, a Democratic congressman from Queens. "I say Johnnie not because he's black but because Cochran has the same reputation that F. Lee Bailey had twenty years ago: the defense lawyer to handle unpopular cases. That's the level Tony is reaching."

Ricco has few illusions about some of the people he's involved with. "If anything, being Muslim made it more difficult for me in the Sheik case, because other people's concept of what religious principles mean sometimes are in conflict with your own," Ricco says. "Those kinds of crimes have nothing to do with any religious belief. I think some of those men that were convicted in that case were entrapped by the government. Some of those men, our country needed to convict them and send a message. And they were convicted. A couple of people in that room were the real deal. If I saw them getting on a flight overseas, I'd get off."

Some notorious cases come to Ricco because he's part of New York's capital-defender system, which provides lawyers to clients facing the death penalty; he handles plenty of mundane transactions as well. Ricco welcomes defendants facing long odds, as a classic political statement -- that the justice system has to work for everyone. "We don't believe in a system that says, 'Yeah, sure -- wink, wink -- everybody gets a fair trial, and everybody's entitled to a lawyer -- but they're not supposed to be good lawyers,' " Ricco says. "Corey Arthur is entitled to the same fact-finding process as anyone else, and that is difficult for people to accept. If he didn't have people involved to make sure that happened, it would not have happened. I guarantee it. After the way in which I grew up uptown, I feel I'm strong enough to do it."


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