Taking the Heat

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.”

To be sure, Kornberg has ridden the crest of tabloid headlines for decades, cultivating journalists while representing the Beast of Bellevue (a homeless man who raped and strangled a pregnant doctor); John Gotti’s son-in-law, Carmine Agnello; and freak-of-the-week cases like Joey Buttafuoco. “Managing the press is a critical component of defending a high-profile client,” said his close associate Barry Schwartz. “Marvyn understood that way back in the early eighties, before any of us.”

But “managing the press” meant something different in the sixties and seventies. As a young lawyer in Queens, Kornberg regularly drank with “the boys” from the courthouse press room, testing defense strategies, planting stories, or simply talking trash. He learned the value of being accessible. “When I was just starting out, I had to always tell reporters how to spell it: Mar-V-Y-N,” says Kornberg, claiming the spelling was his mother’s whimsy, not his own. “Now they pretty much remember it.”

Ironically, it was a battle against cops that first put Kornberg on the map. In February 1985, he was called into Queens County Criminal Court, where 18-year-old Mark Davidson was being arraigned on a minor pot bust. “I saw the kid was crying,” says Kornberg, recalling the day with relish. “I said, ‘What’s a matter, did the cops beat you up?’ The kid nods and says, ‘They did something else too.’ Then he pulls up his shirt, and his whole back and side are covered with burns.” Kornberg demanded Davidson remain in police custody until he could be seen and photographed by the medical examiner. Then he called Breslin, one of his old Queens Boulevard drinking buddies. The story ran on the front page of the Daily News and soon on the front pages of papers around the country. In the end, two policemen were convicted, much of the precinct was transferred, and dozens of others were forced to resign. Kornberg stoked the press coverage by leaking secret details of the investigation.

Telling this story, Kornberg all but glows; you can see flickerings of the eager son of a Bronx dry cleaner who endured Taft High, Long Island University, and Brooklyn Law School so he could finally realize a boyhood dream to practice criminal law. You can see a hint of the relentless energy that exasperates his wife of 25 years, Arlene, and the vaguely anti-authoritarian individualism that causes weary reporters to dryly refer to him as the Last Angry Man. But Kornberg’s face tightens as he is pulled back to the present, and his voice becomes smoother.

“Of course, things are different now.”

Indeed they are. Ahead of him lies the trial of Volpe for an act so repugnant it silenced even die-hard police supporters. The case will be a tough one, and a federal judge has barred Kornberg from talking with the press about it. Still, he’s gotten Volpe’s black girlfriend on the cover of the Daily News to deflect claims of racism and assigned a private investigator to dig up dirt that might help his client. If Volpe is convicted, it will cast an indelible shadow on New York’s police force. If he is acquitted, the racial fissures zigzagging through the city could widen into a chasm. Yet Kornberg seems unfazed. Plenty of surprises will come out at the trial, he suggests darkly.

For once, he has nothing else to say.

Taking the Heat