by James Hellegaard
David Roth’s face gives away very little. If he hadn’t spent the last four decades developing a reputation as one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Florida, he likely could have done very well for himself as a professional poker player. The pressure that comes from having a client’s life riding on his legal acumen or the power of his argument is kept well hidden. Like his boyhood idol, New York Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle, Roth doesn’t blink when facing a tough adversary under the bright lights in a tension-packed situation. He thrives.
“It’s a lot more exciting,” Roth says of criminal defense law. “And the stakes are obviously significantly higher than in other areas of the practice.”
To be successful in this line of work, he says, “I think you have to be compassionate, you have to be non-judgmental by nature, recognize human frailty and faults, and deal with them accordingly.” A good defense lawyer must be “a good listener, and instill confidence in the client that you’re going to do your very best for him or her.”
Still, Roth admits, knowing how his success or failure in the courtroom can impact another person’s life is a very grave responsibility, which can result in “a lot of lost sleep, a lot of work, a lot of anxiety, and a substantial amount of second guessing.”
The sky is gray and overcast outside the window of Roth’s law office, which overlooks Palm Beach, the well-heeled enclave where he has spent his entire career. It’s a long way from the rough-and-tumble streets of New York where he first steeled his nerves playing stickball and sneaking into Yankee Stadium to watch his heroes play ball.
Born in the Bronx, Roth moved at a very young age to Brooklyn with his mother after his parents divorced. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, Roth attended Brooklyn College and City University of New York. He first traveled to Florida during winter breaks from school when he worked with some college friends as a waiter and busboy at the Sterling Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami’s South Beach. Attracted to the warm climate, Roth applied to UF Law and was awarded an out-of state scholarship.
Roth quickly discovered that Gainesville was not Miami Beach. There was no ocean breeze to cool things down. “It was culture shock. The first day of law school I was in Buckman Hall. It was in August. It was about 95 degrees and there was no air conditioning.”
Soon he was sweating it out in class with a tough but enlivening young law professor who would reveal to him the magnificent intricacies of the U.S. Constitution.
“The first time I probably thought about [criminal defense law] was in August of 1966 in constitutional law with Professor Fletcher Baldwin,” says Roth, who recalls his professor as “intimidating” and “no nonsense,” but also as someone who awoke a passion for the law in his students.
“He was very inspiring,” Roth says of Baldwin. “Obviously, in constitutional law the primary focus is on criminal defense, at least from what I recall, and I thought it would be very intellectually challenging, interesting and emotionally rewarding to represent people that were accused of crimes, particularly if they weren’t guilty.”
More than 40 years later, criminal defense work has proven to be all that and more, Roth says, before adding this caveat: “Unfortunately, the majority of my clients are not innocent victims of circumstance.”
IN THE LIMELIGHT
Indeed, Roth’s clients have put him front-and-center in some of Palm Beach County’s most notorious cases.
In 1998 Roth and law partner Douglas Duncan negotiated a plea deal that resulted in probation and a fine for Palm Beach socialite Stephen Fagan, who was accused of abducting his two young daughters from Massachusetts during a custody struggle, creating a fictional identity for himself and convincing the girls that their mother was dead (Roth and Duncan handled matters in Florida only).
In 1986 Roth and Duncan took on the case of Robert Spearman, a wealthy boatyard owner who, through an ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine, hired professional hitmen to kill his wife, an assistant city manager in West Palm Beach. Spearman was convicted of first-degree murder, spared the death penalty, and later committed suicide in his cell.
In 2000 Roth and Duncan’s client, jewel dealer Jack Hasson, was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison for defrauding a slew of prominent locals, including pro golfers Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, as well as with laundering more than $80 million in money (Hasson was not their client at the time of his trial or sentencing).
More recently, Roth has represented the Rev. Francis Guinan, 63, who along with the retired Rev. John A. Skehan, 79, is accused of misappropriating $8.7 million in cash from donations to St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church, one of the area’s largest and oldest parishes.
Like any defense attorney, Roth has faced his share of people who can’t understand how he can defend some of the people he has represented.
“That’s probably the easiest question, and the answer to that is that the Constitution provides for everyone having a defense and having their rights protected,” Roth says. “And the system only works when the accused is represented as vigorously as the state or federal government is.”
Having argued before scores of juries, however, Roth understands many people have a difficult time avoiding judgments and make up their minds about a person’s guilt or innocence in a fairly quick and hasty manner. Roth again placed himself in the line of fire last year when an old friend was caught in the media’s crosshairs. On Sept. 29, 2006,
Roth received a call from Mark Foley, who an hour earlier had resigned his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after admitting he wrote lurid and explicit messages and e-mails to young male pages. Foley’s legal troubles would put Roth’s face on televisions, newspapers and magazines all over the world.
“I had known Mark Foley for almost 40 years,” Roth says. “He owned a little salad bar in Lake Worth long before he became involved in politics, and throughout the years I had an excellent relationship with him as a friend, and he referred many cases to me before and during the time he was in Congress.”
In the days following the Foley’s resignation, former federal prosecutor Mark Schnapp, who has known Roth as both a colleague and an adversary, told the Miami Herald: “David knows how to work his way through a difficult position. He’s incredibly savvy. But he’s got his hands full here.”
Foley sought Roth’s advice and assistance, and Roth says he tried to give him the best counsel he could. Over the next several weeks, Roth acted as spokesman for his client, holding press conferences during which he informed the world that Foley was an alcoholic, had entered rehab, was molested as a teenager by a clergyman, was gay, and that he never had sex with any underage congressional pages.
Roth says the work he did on Foley’s behalf exacted an emotional toll.
“It’s always difficult to see a friend or someone you care about in trouble, whether it’s criminal trouble or medical trouble or marital trouble,” he explains. “It’s just more difficult.”
Of course, those kinds of difficulties are part of the bargain Roth struck when he chose to practice criminal defense law. After being drafted into the U.S. military on the day he graduated from law school in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Roth enlisted in the National Guard. He completed his obligation in 1975 and began his law career by finishing a clerkship for the 4th District Court of Appeal in Vero Beach, which had been temporarily interrupted by his military service.
That’s when Roth found his place in the law. He landed a position with one of the largest and most successful plaintiff’s personal injury firms in West Palm Beach, Cone Wagner Nugent & Johnson. There he handled a variety of cases, including plaintiff’s personal injury cases, commercial litigation, family law and criminal defense law.
It was under the tutelage of firm partner Chuck Nugent, who had been county solicitor (the equivalent now of state attorney) in Palm Beach County, that Roth’s interest in criminal defense blossomed. Nugent asked Roth to assist him with some of his cases. At the time there had been a deluge of drug cases in West Palm Beach, including many stemming from arrests made by undercover officers at a local rock music festival.
“Hundreds of young people had been arrested, so my first exposure to the criminal defense practice was representing mostly college students and high school students in drug cases in Palm Beach County,” Roth says.
Roth was selected as the youngest United States Magistrate Judge at the age of 26, and was elected president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association in 1981.
Since that time, Roth has handled thousands of cases. And while many people know his name for his connection to clients whose crimes have achieved a level of notoriety in the public eye, it’s the people who Roth has helped to get their lives back on track that stand out most in his mind. There was the young man who got into serious trouble for burglary, and who is now one of the top research oncologists in the world and has developed very hopeful therapy for cancer treatment.
STIMULATING CRIMINAL CASES
Particularly satisfying to Roth has been the work he and Duncan have done representing victims in criminal cases. One of those cases was his representation of Patricia Bowman, who in 1991 accused William Kennedy Smith of raping her at the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach. Smith, who was defended by Roth’s friend Roy Black, was eventually acquitted, but the result didn’t diminish Roth’s gratification with the case.
“Even though the verdict was not guilty, there was a tremendous amount of vindication for her and healing as a result of Mr. Smith being prosecuted,” Roth says. “So that was rewarding.”
Black told the Miami Herald last October: “David is an excellent lawyer with a well-deserved reputation in Palm Beach for helping people out of perilous positions.”
In addition to his legal practice, Roth devotes time to a number of organizations, including the Narcotic Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) Task Force, formed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush five years ago in the wake of an alarming rise in drug overdoses and drug-related deaths among youths in Palm Beach County.
“It’s been very rewarding because it seems to have had a very positive effect,” Roth says of his involvement.
By his own estimation, Roth, 62, has mellowed somewhat since his younger days. Roth has two daughters and three step-daughters. In December, he and his second wife, Paula, will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. Roth, who typically spends seven days a week at work, says he plans to continue practicing law “probably until they cart me out.”
“I enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work, and I still find it rewarding. So as long as that continues, I’ll be coming into the office.”