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Waiting For Ted Koskoff

When I returned to Connecticut to accept a position as an Assistant United States Attorney I knew of course of the great Ted Koskoff, the famous Bridgeport lawyer who had served as president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and the Roscoe Pound Foundation, had countless million dollar verdicts and lectured throughout the country on the nobility of trial lawyers. He was renowned for his eloquence and brilliance, his genius of trial tactics and above all his supreme mastery of the powers of persuasion.

Ted Koskoff was a lawyer’s lawyer with a deserved nationwide reputation for his consummate trial skills. In later years when F. Lee Bailey was indicted for his alleged involvement in a pyramid scheme, he would choose Ted Koskoff as his lawyer. Countless victims of medical malpractice and other torts would line up outside his doors for the honor of being represented by Ted Koskoff. He was a lawyer other lawyers would pay money to see in a courtroom. I was one of them.

I did not meet Ted Koskoff until I had been prosecuting in Connecticut for about a year. On March 1, 1975 the Sponge Rubber Company in Shelton, the area’s biggest employer, was blown to smithereens in the middle of the night. Fifty-gallon drums of gasoline had been placed throughout the plant, linked together with primacord and detonated. This was preceded by the altruistic kidnapping of three security guards by masked men who kindly deposited their victims deep in the woods of a neighboring town before the fuse was lit. The kidnappers’ cohorts had unloaded the gasoline from a U-Haul truck, deposited the drums around the plant and laid the primacord. The plant, a full city block in size, exploded and was decimated by fire. The explosion put hundreds out of work and gutted the core of Shelton’s economy.

The FBI was on the case in a heartbeat. This was at the time the largest arson investigation the Bureau had ever conducted. They set up a command center on the site, established contacts with state and local authorities and flew in arson experts to the scene. Within hours agents had combed the area’s motels and hotels, interviewed hundreds of people and analyzed telephone and financial records. Suspicion quickly focused on the plant’s new owner, Charles Moeller of Lima, Ohio. The suspected motive was insurance which, when paid, would unburden Moeller of a financial albatross.

The investigation led to a collection of misfits from Pennsylvania who, records revealed, had traveled to the plant before the explosion and were linked together by long-distance telephones. The wild card was the Reverend David Bubar, a professed psychic, upon whom Moeller had relied for financial advice. Bubar had predicted the plant would be destroyed by fire.

Moeller was indicted along with Bubar and the eight Pennsylvania arsonists. The case was brought to trial in the United States District Court. I was second chair to United States Attorney Peter Dorsey, our present Chief Judge. Judge Jon Newman, who would later become Chief Judge of the Second Circuit, was to preside over the trial.

I met Ted Koskoff because he was going to represent Moeller, the lead defendant. I was looking forward to this experience. As a young AUSA I was going to be in the catbird seat of one of the biggest trials ever in Connecticut, before the smartest judge I’d ever seen in a courtroom, against a bevy of hotshot defense attorneys. And the lead defendant was represented by a legend, Ted Koskoff. There could not be a better learning opportunity for any lawyer.

I was to conduct the pretrial hearings, most of which were routine and didn’t present a problem for the prosecution. Ted Koskoff and the others advanced legal propositions, I responded for the Government, and Judge Newman easily penetrated the legal smog and ruled quickly. Ted, or his partner, now-judge Tom Nadeau, advanced the legal issues for Moeller. At this stage, as I anticipated, the other defense lawyers consulted with Ted and deferred to him when the arguments were presented. Fairly ordinary stuff.

The majority of my work was protecting the eyewitness identifications, litigating the Government’s defense of motions to suppress. Most of these motions didn’t apply to Moeller. He was the owner of the plant and though he was not there on the day of the explosion, everyone knew him. Identification was not Ted’s issue, so I didn’t see much of him during the early going.

The case would be based on eye witnesses, physical evidence, and the insurance motive, not legal niceties. I would have to wait for the trial to begin to see the master at work. He was representing the lead defendant in a huge case. I couldn’t wait to watch him dominate the courtroom, to turn certainty into gnawing doubt with the skillful scalpel of cross examination. That was really going to be something.

Ted Koskoff looked like the legend he was. There was a lot of him. He could, as they say, fill a room. You could see, just by watching him in even casual conversation, his persuasive powers. He was not so tall as he was big, heavy really, but well dressed and graceful. He was bald, with a fringe of white hair, and he wore big dark-framed glasses which took up much of his face. And what a voice. When he spoke it rumbled around the entire courtroom. He spoke smoothly and slowly with an understanding, fatherly tone that was explanatory rather than demeaning or accusatory.

I was going to be disappointed. Once the jury was in the box, Ted Koskoff was not the center of attention I expected. He didn’t display the dazzling questioning techniques I anticipated. He sat back and let the younger tyros rush around flailing at witnesses whose testimony had stung their clients. I watched the other lawyers as they tried to strip away the many layers of the Government’s evidence.

I watched and waited for more than three months, day after day. And on each of those days I waited to see the great Ted Koskoff show those skills that I knew he had. It was only when the jury was excused that I saw flashes of what I was looking for, but those times were few and far between. I waited.

The trial dragged on, long day after even longer day. Weeks became months until the evidence concluded. I was still waiting. Where was he. Where was this giant of the trial bar about whom I had heard so much. Why is he not running this show, tying the Government up in knots, outshining us with his trial wizardry. I waited but I never saw it.

The closing arguments came and Ted didn’t even go first. He did a respectable job, reminding the jurors of their responsibilities, speaking in his James Earl Jones voice of the difficult hurdle of reasonable doubt which the prosecution must overcome in criminal cases, and observing that if the motive for this crime was recovering insurance proceeds why did his client not have an actual insurance policy instead of an uncertain oral binder, and concluding by reviewing the foundations of our democracy. The arguments on both sides concluded. Apparently I had waited for nothing.

The jury deliberated, seemingly forever, and convicted the Pennsylvania arsonists. Moeller, Koskoff’s client, and one minor defendant were found not guilty. A good result, yes, but not, I thought, because of Ted Koskoff’s leger de main.

That was my Sponge Rubber trial experience. I learned a good bit. There were some extremely humorous moments, especially those involving the psychic reverend and his equally bizarre counsel. We prosecutors had convicted most of the people we had set out to convict.

What I had waited for, though, never happened. I had never gotten to see Ted Koskoff’s real genius. His client was acquitted, sure, but that was mostly because our case against him wasn’t as strong as it was against the others. I concluded that although the jury had let his client off, it was not because Ted Koskoff had done anything that brilliant. I was wrong.

Sometimes it takes a while for things to sink in. A long while. About three years after the Sponge Rubber trial I was mindlessly mowing my front lawn. I had left the US Attorneys Office two years before and was now in private practice. I never really thought much about the case other than to share occasional memories with the defense attorneys whose camp I had now rejoined. Sponge Rubber was just an occasional three-year old memory.

As I crossed my lawn that day my mind wandered back to the trial and suddenly it hit me. Finally, I understood Ted Koskoff’s brilliance. What he had done was breathtaking. He had represented the lead defendant in a monster case and had gotten lost in the courtroom. He hid so well that the jury effectively forgot he was there. Rather than become the focal point of the trial, he had deflected all the attention to others. He had managed to make his client incidental to the prosecution. He understood that a trial was not a lawyer’s opportunity to stroke his ego by showing others he was a great lawyer. He was secure enough to stay out of the way of the evidence–or lack of evidence—and know it would take his client out of the case.

Ted Koskoff’s brilliance in this case was not in dazzling questions or stentorian beratings of the prosecution for unjustly accusing an innocent man. He recognized that if he got lost in the courtroom so would his client and there would be an acquittal. He did and there was. That is the work of a brilliant lawyer.

The wait, all three years of it, was worth it.