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Taking the Heat

Talkative lawyer Marvyn Kornberg is known for winning acquittals of cops in trouble. Now he's facing the Louima and Diallo trials -- and the public outcry against police brutality.

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The phone in Marvyn Kornberg's dim, cramped law office on Queens Boulevard never stops ringing -- reporters, other lawyers, witnesses, clients, and more reporters. The walls are hung with two plaques from grateful clients, his grandfather's naturalization papers, and a laminated 1995 Daily News story naming him one of the ten best lawyers in the city.

When he sees me eyeing the News piece, he interrupts his phone conversation. "Only lawyer from Queens who made that list," he crows, receiver still clamped to his ear.

The fax machine is spitting out dispatches from federal prosecutors. Kornberg momentarily hangs up and pores over a document as if it were a treasure map. One of the year's most sensational trials -- of the cops accused of sexually torturing Abner Louima in the bathroom of a Brooklyn station house -- is about to begin. Kornberg represents Justin Volpe, the officer accused of actually sodomizing the Haitian immigrant with a wooden handle. Another client, Sean Carroll, is one of the four policemen who fired 41 rounds at an unarmed man in the Bronx, a shooting that has outraged the city, put the mayor on the defensive, and prompted feverish news coverage, indignant editorials, and bitter public protest on a daily basis.

With these cases Kornberg confronts not only an angry populace but a hostile police union: Last month the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association denounced Kornberg and blacklisted him to the rank and file. But officers in trouble have not stopped calling him -- a situation some believe to be the real source of the union's ire. Kornberg is taking business away from the PBA and its lawyers. "Cops are willing to come here -- paying out of their own pocket -- instead of taking a PBA lawyer they get for nothing," says Kornberg, who bid unsuccessfully for the PBA contract himself last year. "What does that tell you?" Indeed, Kornberg points out that it was Volpe's brother -- then a PBA delegate -- who first brought Justin to the Queens Boulevard office.

Marvyn Kornberg has practiced here for 40 years, but he is something different, a tropical fish swimming in the duller hues of a freshwater pond. As he strides down Queens Boulevard, younger colleagues try to meet his eye. Kornberg sucks his thin lips into a facsimile of a smile, silently acknowledging them, but he never stops talking. In his rough, rapid-fire courtroom voice, he is on the cell phone explaining a fine point of criminal law to another reporter. He checks his beeper and dials quickly, appreciative of television deadlines.

Occasionally, he fields calls from prospective clients who have read his name in the newspapers and are hoping that Kornberg might deliver them from their own squalid legal troubles. Most of them he turns down; Kornberg handles only criminal matters. The bigger the crime, the better. He lives for trials, says columnist Jimmy Breslin. "There is no other side of him, really. It's work -- and everything else."

"I'm a hired gun," rasps Kornberg, who is 63 and sounds like Jack Klugman but dresses more elaborately: Joseph Abboud suit; Rolex; a loud I-remember-the-sexual-revolution tie. It's the case, not the client, he cares about: "It could be a cop. Or an organized-crime figure, or a rapist on the street." He drops his voice. "Of course, I have grown to appreciate the plight of a group of defendants." He is speaking, of course, of cops, who make up, he says, 25 percent of his business.

"When cops get in trouble, they are the underdogs," Kornberg says, warming up. With a perfectly straight face, he continues: "Cops are more likely to get charged with a crime than ordinary citizens. It has become politically correct for district attorneys to go out and indict cops. And in this climate, cops are more likely to get convicted." Not a word of this, of course, is true. Cops are rarely charged with crimes, and those who are, are rarely convicted. But Kornberg's oratory is perfectly tailored to the prevailing sentiment at station houses.

Detective Olga Vazquez is a true believer. "I trusted him with my life," she says. Last November, Kornberg got her acquitted of brutality charges. "He has a lot of street smarts and a lot of book smarts," Vazquez says, "and in court, he backs it up."


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