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Samuel Alito Jr. was just 36 when he was plucked from his post at the Justice Department, in March 1987, and named U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Although he was an accomplished appellate litigator, his trial experience was virtually nil. He was also quiet, reserved, cerebral, and funny, in an understated way — about as far from the popular image of a publicity-happy, swashbuckling U.S. attorney as a person can get. Somehow, though, in an office full of brash trial attorneys who handled everything from organized crime and terrorism cases to drug charges and white-collar crime, that didn’t matter. His arrival was a homecoming for the Garden State native, who had been an assistant U.S. attorney in the same office 10 years earlier, as a member of its tiny appellate litigation division. And he was an immediate hit. “I remember when he took over, everybody was thrilled,” recalls Susan Cassell, who is still an assistant U.S. attorney there. “He was a New Jersey guy who was above reproach. It was just a wonderful time of great morale and promise for the office.” Adds Richard Lavinthal, the former spokesman for the U.S. attorney for New Jersey: “Sam was deferential to every person who walked in that office, from the phone operator, to the person coming in after 5:30 p.m. to clean up, to his first assistant.” (That was Michael Chertoff, who took over the office in 1990 and is now secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.) Alito served as U.S. attorney for a little more than three years before being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in 1990. During his tenure he personally handled two trials, including scoring a successful judgment against former Japanese Red Army member Yu Kikumura, in the first international terrorism case on U.S. soil. Ronald Kuby, who along with William Kunstler represented Kikumura, remembers telephoning Alito after he was confirmed for his appeals court seat. “I gave him a call and said, �Congratulations. I guess this is the last time I get to call you an asshole without going to jail,’ ” Kuby recalls. “ He laughed and I laughed, and then we chatted. Certainly I couldn’t have said that to most U.S. attorneys.” A WASHINGTON RÉSUMÉ Alito’s father, Sam, was a well-known figure in New Jersey politics, running the statehouse’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services for more than 30 years. But then-Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican, who recommended Alito to the Department of Justice over several other candidates for the U.S. attorney slot, says he recalls no outside influence on his decision. “I knew his dad. His dad was one of the most respected people in Trenton, and Sam came off that tree,” says Kean, New Jersey’s governor from 1981 to 1990. “But my memory is that he didn’t push for the job. He could have had 10 people, including a couple of former governors, call. But I don’t remember a single call.” In fact, it was then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III who tapped Alito for the post.
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“Sam hadn’t any trial experience, but he had appellate experience, and he had distinguished himself as a lawyer in both the [Office of Legal Counsel] and the [Solicitor General's] office,” says Meese, referring to Alito’s stint from 1981 to 1987 at the Justice Department. “He was exactly the mold we were looking for: good people who would be good enforcers of the law, not boisterous types,” adds Meese, now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “We put a lot of young people into top jobs. He did a good job. And that’s why he was a natural for a judgeship after that.” When Alito arrived at the U.S. attorney’s Newark headquarters, the office was in the midst of an unprecedented mob case initiated by his predecessor, Thomas Greelish, aimed at gutting the Lucchese crime family. But despite a 21-month trial — the longest federal mob case in history — Anthony “Tumac” Accetturo and 20 associates were all ultimately acquitted of federal racketeering and narcotics violations. The trial ended under Alito’s watch. (Years later, it was discovered that one of the jurors had been paid off.) The Accetturo trial was the culmination of almost two decades of action by federal officers to shut the mob down, an effort that started in earnest with the appointment of Frederick Lacey as U.S. attorney in 1969. That year, Alito was a sophomore at Princeton University, and “New Jersey was completely rife not just with mob corruption but public corruption,” says Lacey’s son, John, who worked under Alito in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “Every aspect of government was polluted. And Fred Lacey came in, and then Herb Stern and then Jonathan Goldstein after him,” recalls Lacey, now a partner at Connell Foley in Roseland, N.J. “There were an awful lot of threats, and they put away a lot of mobsters and a lot of people, including the mayor of Newark.” Stern, who succeeded Lacey’s father as U.S. attorney, became a federal judge. Goldstein, who was the U.S. attorney in New Jersey from 1974 to 1977, is now a lawyer in Newark. Although the Accetturo trial began in November 1986, months before Alito was appointed, it ended in the summer of 1988, after he’d been in charge for little more than a year. It was clearly the low point in his tenure. According to his colleagues at the time, Alito took the loss personally and deeply. “There was a cloud over him like that Peanuts cartoon character,” recalls a former AUSA in the office. “It was a large embarrassment, and the reputation of the office went down. And he felt responsible for it.” Grady O’Malley, who was the lead prosecutor on the case and still works in the office, remembers Alito’s reaction well. The case had been handled by the office’s strike force division, which at the time reported directly to Main Justice in Washington. “Sam could have cut us loose, he could have been very standoffish, he could have said: �If you have anybody to blame, blame the Justice Department for overstating the case. This is your gig, it was strike force authorized, and Greelish signed the indictment.’ In fact, he was very supportive of us when he didn’t have to be,” O’Malley recalls. As soon as the jury acquitted, O’Malley says, “My recollection is, we started drafting small indictments [for the 21 defendants], from possession of weapons to filing false tax returns. Another U.S. attorney might have said, �Lay off, you took your best shot.’ But he didn’t feel we were being vindictive. He said if you have a good case, go for it.” Indeed, recalls Robert Stewart, who led the strike force division at the time, “Sam rolled up his sleeves and within a couple of months we had a whole new project started on the Accetturo organization. And all those people [eventually] went down.” Adds O’Malley: “We’re not supposed to lose cases, and certainly not high-profile cases. Sam was a �buck stops here’ guy, and he certainly had to be affected.” TRIALS BY FIRE By the time the Accetturo case had ended, however, Alito had already tried the first and only case he would bring to a verdict: a 1987 trial involving John Stonaker, who trafficked in stolen backhoes and bulldozers and who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for shooting Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Edward White. It was the perfect case for a fledgling U.S. attorney, especially one without any trial experience, in part because it showed the FBI, with whom federal prosecutors work closely, that the office was taking the shooting of an agent seriously. “It’s not complicated, it’s not lengthy, but it’s important,” says a former supervisor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Alito. Stonaker’s defense attorney, Lawrence Lustberg, argued that the weapon, a 9 mm Berretta semiautomatic handgun, had gone off accidentally during the scuffle. Lustberg put a firearms expert on the witness stand who was able to depress a nodule on the trigger bar that fired the gun, without the trigger actually being pulled. “This guy must have had hands of steel. None of us could do what that expert did,” says Stuart Rabner, a young AUSA at the time who now heads the office’s criminal division. “So Alito went straight to the jury and said, �You try it, and you’ll find the defense doesn’t hold water.’ There were no grand theatrical flourishes; it was simply a sensible, level-headed approach.” Lustberg, who was then an assistant federal public defender, says that many prosecutors would have been tempted to put their own firearms expert on the stand —at their own peril. “That would have created an opening for me,” says Lustberg, now a partner at Newark’s Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione. “I would have cross-examined and created a reasonable doubt in their expert. Sam went with the jury and turned the jury into his expert.” In the spring of 1988, just a few months before the Accetturo case concluded, Alito started working on the other case he personally handled, the arrest of Japanese Red Army member Yu Kikumura. On April 12, 1988, a New Jersey state trooper had observed Kikumura acting suspiciously at a rest stop; a search revealed three homemade bombs, which Kikumura had allegedly intended to use to bomb the Navy recruiting center in New York City. Alito worked the case with John Lacey. “It was a trial on stipulated facts, which was essentially a plea,” Lacey says. “We had witnesses from Japan and the Netherlands, and had been preparing the case for months. We expected the trial to take place.” Kikumura’s attorneys instead made a motion to suppress the evidence, which was denied. “So they agreed to the facts, which made a trial unnecessary, and the judge found him guilty,” says Lacey. Responds defense lawyer Kuby, who lost the bitterly contested motion to suppress the evidence: “There was blindness to the facts and distortions to law in order to get someone they perceived of as a really bad guy.” Kuby is the rare lawyer who will say anything even mildly critical of Alito, who, through his father’s job in the state Legislature, literally grew up in New Jersey politics. Alito’s Trenton background also gave him a wider vantage point, at least when it came to hiring. Former New Jersey AUSA Robert Mintz had been working as a counsel in the governor’s office when Alito interviewed him for a job. No one from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Mintz recalls, had ever looked to the governor’s counsel’s office to make a prosecutorial hire. “We were in completely separate worlds,” says Mintz. “We were state, they were federal. We weren’t going to court, we were advising the governor on legislation. But Sam grew up with an understanding of Trenton. And I absolutely credit the fact I was hired at all to the fact that Sam understood what I did.” Alito also made one important hire right from the start: Chertoff, a former AUSA from the Southern District of New York. “Mike was a practiced trial guy; he was very aggressive; he had a skill set that really complemented Sam’s,” says Paul Fishman, who headed the criminal division under Alito and is now a partner at New York-based Friedman Kaplan Seiler & Adelman. Alito’s quiet manner also seemed to be a positive thing. “You have to remember the office was, and still is, stocked with young, ambitious trial lawyers itching to get into court and fight the good fight,” says Mintz, a partner at Newark’s McCarter & English. “Sam was a wonderful counterpoint to the personalities pervading the office. He was not a heavy-handed manager, but he surrounded himself with absolute top-flight supervisors. Sam was introspective, almost to the point of shyness. He was not the typical U.S. attorney in that office.”


T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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