New York Attorney Steve Pokart​​​​​​​: Unsung Heroes Of The Criminal-Defense Bar

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Okay - good guy attorney is Steve Pokart of New York. Considering the million attorney across this country, there had to be at least one good one if you searched hard enough.

New York Attorney Steve Pokart: Unsung Heroes Of The Criminal-Defense Bar

Meet Steve Pokart, a criminal-defense lawyer who deserves recognition for slugging it out in the trenches each and every day for his clients.

Steve Pokart

While only a few criminal defense attorneys are known by the general public as “great,” in reality, there are thousands of fabulously talented attorneys in this field who fight every day to defend the presumption of innocence and other standard protections the constitution guarantees.

Those attorneys — in the trenches and slugging it out every day — often get little recognition and are paid less than first-year associates at Skadden Arps.  Yet they may be some of the best litigators in the country.

I’d like to start featuring some in this column.

This first piece is about someone I know personally and used to work with when I was a line-attorney at the Legal Aid Society (LAS) in Manhattan. When you work in a big outfit like LAS, you don’t always get to know all your colleagues well, and while I’d never worked a case with Steve Pokart, I’d seen him around, scurrying between office and court, files tucked under his arm, fast-talking, quick-witted, happy to mentor a junior colleague, unabashed about his opinions.

There was little doubt he was one of the most experienced attorneys in the office — and that was 20 years ago!  He’s still there now, fighting the good fight and winning some incredible cases.

But even for a guy who’s tried so many cases, one can stand out due to its perfect storm of factors — high stakes, serious crime, lots of media attention, tough opposition, and ethical dilemmas that extend beyond the legal world.

For him that was Naeem Davis.   A quick google search of the defendant’s name brings up the following headline from the New York Post in 2012: “Subway shove monster — I couldn’t stop the voices in my head.”  The case made headlines around the world — Israel, France, Korea.  England’s Daily Mail wrote: “Homeless man who pushed father in front of New York subway train.”

This was a scenario everyone feared, residents and visitors to New York alike — the “crazy” guy on the subway platform who throws someone onto the tracks for no apparent reason.

But that’s not really what happened.  In fact, the case was far more nuanced, the complainant drunk and potentially racist (he was Korean, while the defendant was African-American).  It was the complainant who was the aggressor, following the defendant along the platform (on video) and saying just inches from his face for no apparent reason, “I’m going to kill you.” (The two were strangers.)

At trial, Pokart admitted his client pushed the decedent and pushed him hard.  “It happened to be a push in the wrong direction,” Pokart said.  The man, Ki-Suk Han, tumbled off the platform and couldn’t climb up.

Then, the next dramatic thing happened.  As Han stood in the tracks, a subway car approached.  People on the platform did not offer a hand.  Not only did no one help, but New York Post freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi took photos of the gruesome scene as it unfurled.  (Abbasi happened to be a commuter on the same platform at the same moment.) The next day, the Post ran the photo with the headline: “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die. DOOMED.” You can imagine the media firestorm that caused.

Pokart ended up winning the trial by not only convincing the jury that the prosecution had not proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt but, as he proudly told me, showing his client was actually innocent.  He spoke to the jury foreperson after the case and learned they believed Davis had acted in self-defense.

Pokart’s background wasn’t always in law.  A former director of summer stock who worked for the U.S. Army in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War doing what he called “soldier shows,” Pokart waited after graduating Harvard Law School in 1965 to work as an attorney.  First, he did a year at Yale drama, then got his MFA in directing at Carnegie Melon in 1968.  From 1972 to 1974, he worked for part-time judge and champion of the mentally ill, Dr. Morton Birnbaum, ultimately joining the ranks of Legal Aid in 1974.  He’s been there ever since.  Here are some excerpts from our recent conversation:

Toni Messina (TM):  Why did you choose this type of work?

Steve Pokart (SP): [laughs] I couldn’t just sit around an office and make money for rich people doing contracts.  I found that boring.  At first I thought about doing theatrical law work but realized most of that was contract law, something I didn’t want to do.  I wanted to help people.

TM:  After all these years, how much do you earn?

SP:  Between $112,000 and $115,000.

TM:  What compromises did you have to make to do your job?

SP:  Well, I knew I was never going to be rich.  It’s rough work.  You have to deal with monsters and evil people, and by that I’m referring to prosecutors and judges.

TM:  So what makes you keep going?

SP:  I was just thinking about this.  It’s three things — love, hate, and rage for all the reasons I just mentioned.  In this case, Naeem spent four-and-a-half years in jail for a crime he was acquitted of.  Now he’s free.

Pokart’s theater background may help explain how he comes to cases not only with dramatic flair, but with a sense of creativity. He’s still thinking of Davis and how he could help him win a civil suit again the Han estate.

The decedent’s family is suing the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) for $30 million, claiming the conductor could have stopped the train in time.  They argue he should have seen commuters on the platform waving to him to slow down and the flash of the photographer’s camera.  (The conductor said he believed the people waving were tourists saying hello and taking pictures.  He never saw the man in the tracks.)  Should the Han family recover, Pokart reasons that Davis should recover some of the money.  After all, had Davis not been followed and threatened by Han, he wouldn’t have had to push him away. Had Davis not pushed, Han wouldn’t have died, causing Davis’s arrest and subsequent years in jail prior to acquittal.  Interesting idea.

Any civil lawyers out there ready to think out of the box?

Source: Above the Law