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A 'Zealous' Attorney Gets His Own Day In Court07:04
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Attorney Barry Wilson (Courtesy of Randy Fenstermacher)
Attorney Barry Wilson (Courtesy of Randy Fenstermacher)

In the heat of courtroom battles, how slow to anger should judges be before declaring attorneys to be in contempt of court? It's a big question for local firebrand Barry Wilson, a well-known criminal defense attorney who recently represented now-convicted Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner in his federal corruption trial.

Wilson has a lot in common with his clients these days — they're all trying to stay out of jail. He's fighting a jail sentence after a state judge declared Wilson in contempt during a murder trial in May of this year. The Suffolk Superior Court judge held Wilson in contempt of court for being "loud, abusive, insulting and disruptive."

"All I'm trying to do is stand up for my clients' rights. ... You're standing between your client and a jail cell. And you have an ethical, professional obligation to be a zealous advocate."

Defense attorney Barry Wilson

"He gave me 90 days. Ninety days. Not 30, not 60, 90!" Wilson said.

Ninety days in the county jail. The max, when the customary penalty is a small fine. It's a sentence that Wilson and his lawyers are hoping to avoid by coming here to the State Court of Appeals last week to get it overturned.

A lot of people, especially prosecutors and judges, think Wilson got what he's had coming to him for a long time.

"He screamed at the judge," said Associate Appeals Court Justice David Mills. In reviewing Wilson's alleged misconduct in May, Mills considered it a clear breach of decorum. "He screamed at the judge and made a scene," Mills said.

Wilson is hell on judges and prosecutors, too. He's pugnacious, a brawler who doesn't stop when the bell rings. He's as relentless as storm surf crashing on a gravel beach, which is just how he sounds.

"All I'm trying to do is stand up for my clients' rights," Wilson said. "You got to be in those pits to understand what you have to do. You're standing between your client and a jail cell. And you have an ethical, professional obligation to be a zealous advocate."

Wilson is nothing short of zealous. He started as a defense attorney in the 1970s, but he's straight out of the '60s. He wears Jerry Garcia ties, looks like a cross between Garcia and Danny DeVito, and calls judges "man."

His idol and mentor is the late and legendary radical lawyer William Kunstler. For Wilson, as for Kunstler, the world has two tones: the oppressed and their oppressors, especially the government. It's his frame of reference when defending his clients, many of them young black men charged with murder. He wins more than his share of acquittals.

Here he is in court back in May after his client — a black man — was convicted of murder:

Man it's clear that they didn't prove their case. Well, unfortunately, racism is alive and well in America. And somehow people with no evidence, none, convict the young man.

Wilson is a polarizing figure. Prosecutors hate him. He calls them "Nazis," or racists. Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley calls Wilson's behavior "repulsive."

"He has utter disregard and contempt for this institution that so many of us hold dear. When one person acts in a way that's uncivil, that strikes at the fiber of decency and fairness. I think it hurts all of us," Conley said.

Wilson reacts after a client is convicted on first-degree murder charges in May, the same trial in which Wilson was found in contempt of court. The client comforted Wilson, though he'd just been convicted. (Obtained by WBUR)
Wilson reacts after a client is convicted on first-degree murder charges in May, the same trial in which Wilson was found in contempt of court. The client comforted Wilson, though he'd just been convicted. (Obtained by WBUR)

It all came to a head at that murder trial in May. During jury selection, Wilson was fighting to seat some black jurors — a jury of his client's peers, Wilson said. The judge had dismissed a black woman whose two sons had minor criminal records, saying said she wouldn't be able to render an impartial verdict. When the judge, Patrick Brady, then sat a juror who had worked in law enforcement, Wilson went wild.

"Oh no, oh no. ... No!" Wilson exclaimed in the courtroom.

The judge tried to interrupt Wilson.

"No, we're not going to say wait," Wilson said.

Wilson's pyrotechnics went on for six minutes.

"You're going to sit him. Lock me up now. Just lock me up, lock me up and declare a mistrial," he continued. "That's ridiculous. Fifteen years a federal agent and he's going to be unbiased — are you kidding me?"

Two weeks after that trial, during the sentencing hearing for Wilson, the same judge accused Wilson of trying to have that juror disqualified.

"Mr. Wilson said to me, 'And by the way, you got to interview that guy because he's probably standing right out there and he probably heard me and he knows,' and then he screams at the top of his lungs that I don't like him. Listen to the disk."

Here is that disk, with Wilson doing Wilson:

Wilson: I think you gotta excuse him because I think he knows I don't like him.

Brady: Mr. Wilson, is there some reason I should not hold you in contempt?

That's just what Brady did. But he delayed sentencing until after the murder case was over.

So Wilson said he was under the sword during the whole trial and therefore distracted from defending his client fully.

Then, when the time came for Wilson's hearing, Brady found his behavior "atrocious," "the worst I've seen in 22 years of presiding over trials," and sentenced him to the county jail for 90 days. This brought Wilson to the Court of Appeals and a panel of three justices last week with his attorney, Peter Parker.

"The Superior Court, this court and the [Supreme Judicial Court] caution over and over and over again (he) has to show restraint."

"Losing your temper and having a brief outburst happens to everyone, the court has to recognize that."

According to Parker, the trial judge had dropped "a nuclear bomb" without warning, and the danger of doing that is "chilling the advocacy" of defense attorneys.

But one of the Appeals Court justices didn't seem to be having any of it.

"What if he pulled a pistol out of his briefcase and put it on the table, and he says, 'I need this gun next to me to protect my client's interest'?" Mills said.

The court has not yet reached a decision, but after the hearing, Wilson was shaking his head. "I'm screwed," he said, in more graphic terms. But then he turned characteristically defiant.

"I believe this is an attempt to chill defense lawyers. If they can get Barry Wilson, then they'll get anybody," he said.

He's gone to jail before, in 1985, after refusing to testify against a client.

Wilson said if he ends up in jail this time too, he'll consider it a badge of honor. Others see his behavior as a badge of dishonor.

This program aired on September 21, 2011.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.

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