• Vinny Asaro's lawyers are women, and so are the prosecutors
  • Men are far more likely to be lead lawyer in a criminal case

There may be nothing more macho than a mob trial: Recall Rudolph Giuliani and John Gotti, or Eliot Ness and Al Capone. Then there’s the “Goodfellas” case going on in Brooklyn, New York, against accused Bonanno crime family captain Vinny Asaro.

His lawyers are women, the prosecutors are women and the judge is a woman.

Asaro in Court
Asaro in Court
Source: Elizabeth Williams via AP Photos

Women comprise almost half of the students at top law schools and more than a third of the attorneys in the U.S. Yet their ranks remain especially thin in criminal defense, making the Asaro trial both an anomaly and another sign of progress for female lawyers. Men are almost four times as likely as women to be the lead lawyer in criminal trials, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis published this year by the American Bar Association. When women are in the courtroom, they are prosecutors far more often than defense lawyers.

Mob cases “have always been so male-dominated, with guys with their coiffed hair” browbeating their way through trials, said Sally Butler, a longtime New York defense lawyer who has been observing the Asaro trial.

“It’s an entirely different feeling in the courtroom now,” said Butler, who helped represent an alleged associate of Asaro’s last year. “It’s more serious. If we’ve gotten mob cases with only women in the courtroom, there is no glass ceiling.”

Final Arguments

Asaro, 80, is accused of a host of crimes including loansharking, extortion, murder and planning an air cargo heist made famous in “Goodfellas,” a 1990 film that depicted women as ditzy wives, girlfriends or subordinate accomplices to leading men. Final arguments were scheduled to begin Friday after a monthlong trial presided over by U.S. District Judge Allyne Ross.

Most of the women at the trial have experience in mob cases. Lead prosecutor Nicole Argentieri, 38, is deputy chief of the organized crime unit in the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office. Lindsay Gerdes, 33, won a conviction of an alleged Gambino crime associate in a previous role at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. Alicyn Cooley, 32, has been involved in prosecutions of violent gangs.

On the defense side, Elizabeth Macedonio, 46, has represented accused mobsters including reputed Gambino crime boss John “Jackie Nose” D’Amico, who reached a plea. Diane Ferrone, 39, defended one of Asaro’s co-defendants, who pleaded guilty before the trial.

The prosecutors and defense lawyers declined to comment.

All Men

One old-school male mob lawyer suggested the two bring another advantage to Asaro.

“I think if you are a reputed underworld guy, maybe it softens your image instead of having a blustery guy like me,” said Bruce Cutler, who represented the late Gambino crime family boss John Gotti in the 1980s.

Cutler, who once declared to jurors that an indictment against Gotti was “rancid” and “rotten” and “makes you want to retch and vomit,” has noted the changing scene at trials.

In the past “all the reporters were men, all the lawyers were men, the defendants were men,” Cutler said in an interview. Now, he said he’s seeing “the effeminization of America. It’s like women run the show.”

‘Old School’

That’s not quite the case, of course. It remains far more common for women to have leading roles in courtrooms if they’re prosecutors who work for the government or judges than if they’re attorneys in the private sector, said Michele Coleman Mayes, chair of the American Bar Association commission on women in the profession.

“Noticeably more men than women are hired as attorneys by private firms so the number of women who are lead counsel in litigation is still much smaller,” said Mayes. “The Asaro case stands out, especially because the mob traditionally has been a male culture and the defendant is an 80-year-old guy whose profile is pretty old school.”

Female lawyers also lag at the highest-levels of law firms. Women in 2014 comprised just 20 percent of partners in private practice in the U.S., and only 4 percent of managing partners at the 200 largest law firms, according to the ABA.

In its study of the defense bar, about 80 percent of trial lawyers in a sample of criminal cases filed in federal court in Chicago were men.

No Pants

Still, Susan Kellman, a lawyer who has represented accused wise guys since the 1980s, said she sees change in her specialty. She recalls how 20 or 30 years ago female defense lawyers in New York could have been counted on one hand. Female prosecutors were sometimes barred from handling homicide cases, and an unwritten rule of the courtroom frowned on women wearing pants, which was followed “without question,” according to Butler.

Now, some women defense lawyers have established reputations for themselves on par with male counterparts, even finding some advantages to being a woman.

“I can make jokes that men can’t get away with,” Kellman said. At a recent trial, she put her arm around the prosecutor and told jurors, “Isn’t he adorable?” before launching into a harsh take-down of his case.

‘Tough Client’

Stacey Richman, daughter of prominent defense lawyer Murray Richman, and a noted defense attorney in her own right, said there is “no question of the quality, of the intellect and the tenacity and strategy of women in the criminal defense realm.”

With incriminating recordings and no shortage of gruesome mob-related tales, Macedonio and Ferrone are facing an uphill battle that would be challenging for any defense lawyer, Butler said. Asaro is also a “tough, tough client,” she said.

In a bizarre outburst last week toward the end of a grueling day of testimony, Asaro, clad in a sweater, button-up shirt and slacks, stood up before Judge Ross while jurors were out of the courtroom and expressed frustration with his lawyers, complaining that when he tried to lend input “they get annoyed with me.”

The spat was quickly over, and he assured Ross that he was “satisfied with both of them.” As Asaro was led out of the room to return to jail, he caught Macedonio’s eye and waved.

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