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You may have heard the adage that a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client. That is what one federal judge told Enrico Ponzo before Ponzo was convicted of racketeering and attempted murder last November.
But Ponzo declined the advice, fired his attorney after his trial and insisted he would represent himself. On Monday, the convicted mobster and would-be attorney was sentenced to prison for 28 years.
The House Of Pain
There's a well-grounded reason criminal defense attorneys call federal court "the house of pain."
Arriving for his own sentencing, Enrico Ponzo wore glasses, a broad smile, a hearing aid and a bald spot. He did not look like the Little Rico who was a thug with an Uzi at 20. Now at 45, he was still portrayed as "vicious," "violent" and "cold-blooded." A jury had agreed.
"And when people are found guilty in the federal courts the sentences typically are severe and very painful," said criminal defense attorney Michael Natola.
Natola is not connected to the case since Ponzo, after all, was representing himself. True to pattern, federal prosecutors wanted the judge to send Ponzo away for 40 years.
And for his first case, Ponzo had drawn Judge Nathaniel Gorton, who makes the best defense attorneys cringe.
"There is not a tougher sentencer on the federal bench in Boston than Judge Gorton," Natola said.
Rico Ponzo, Pro Se
Ponzo happened to flee Boston the same year James "Whitey" Bulger did. His Santa Monica was Idaho cowboy country until, just like Bulger, he was given up to the FBI by a phone tip and arrested in the same year.
Following protocol at the start of the hearing, he identified himself to the court along with the other lawyers. "Hi, Your Honor," Ponzo said with a broad smile. "I'm Rico Ponzo, pro se," meaning "on one's own behalf."
After he was convicted Ponzo fired a terrific attorney, but he had wanted to represent himself, as indicated in this exchange with a judge a few years ago.
Judge: Have you attended law school?
Ponzo: No, I haven't, but I've studied law for many years on the Internet and books, and I have like the whole federal United States code annotated at my house.
Judge: Would it be fair to say that you're self-taught?
Ponzo: Yes, Your Honor. Like Abraham Lincoln.
Unlike the young Mr. Lincoln, Ponzo took his small place in history in a ride to Saugus in 1989 with a crew of little league Mafiosi to take out upcoming mob boss Frank Salemme. They shot him as he arrived in front of the International House of Pancakes. Salemme survived. They fled.
Now 25 years after he and his crew botched that takeover bid, Ponzo was taking another high-stakes risk, this time in court.
First came a long and arcane discussion of the federal advisory guidelines that are part of the calculus of formulating a sentence. Conspiracy to murder 12, attempted murder of two, possession of firearms, cocaine distribution. Ponzo was fully engaged in his own defense, polite but persistent to the point of taxing.
Hank Brennan, who defended Bulger, notes that without a lawyer the defendant has no one to act as a buffer.
"When a defendant stands up and has to attempt to advocate for themselves but draw a fine line of trying to protect their interests as well, it's almost, in some cases, an impossible task," Brennan said.
Again and again, Ponzo voiced objections. "Objection overruled," Judge Gorton replied. And then Ponzo would make another.
And he argued the facts after the facts had been decided by a jury last November.
"None of this is new, Mr. Ponzo," interrupted Judge Gorton, whose equanimity was beginning to fray. "Get to the point."
"The judge wants to see that person acknowledging his guilt," Natola said. "And the judge wants to see genuine, heartfelt remorse for that guilt and not just for being caught."
It wasn't going well for Ponzo. As someone close to the case observed, he's pretty smart but he has no judgement, among other things.
The self-taught lawyer promoted himself as a self-rehabilitated man.
"I haven't been convicted of a crime of violence in 20 years," he pleaded. "The man you sentenced today is not the same man. I am Jay Shaw today, an Idaho rancher of over 10 years."
Shaw was the alias Ponzo used in Idaho before the falling out with his wife, throwing her out of the house, and then suing for custody of the children before the call to the FBI that gave him up.
"Oftentimes the court takes offense when someone attacks the facts because it's an attack on the judgement of the jury," Brennan said. "And there's a certain reverence set aside for jury verdicts."
Ponzo was animated, even hyper. He rambled, talking about water rights in Idaho, being called Mr. Mom for being a stay-at-home dad, and he claimed he fled Boston not because of his crimes but because his fellow defendants wanted to kill him. He called the witnesses at trial liars. And not once did he use the phrase "I regret" or "I'm sorry."
"You have two minutes left, Mr. Ponzo, and then I'm going to sentence you," the judge announced.
Then the house of pain and Judge Gorton more than earned their reputation.
"OK, I've had enough, Mr. Ponzo," he said.
Enough, Gorton said, of the excuses, posturing, fabrications and blaming others.
"You and your cohort of thugs" had held a reign of terror, he told Ponzo. "You can run but ultimately you cannot hide from your sordid participation in organized crime."
Three-hundred-and-thirty-six months. Twenty-eight years in prison.
Ponzo perked up to the judge. He had already filed an appeal. Perhaps the only advantage if he continues to represent himself, noted one observer, is that he won't have to worry about his lawyer taking his phone call.
This story aired on April 29, 2014.
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