01/25/12– Miami– Richard A. Sharpstein, with Jorden Burt LLP. (J. Albert Diaz)
Updated at 6:30 P.M.
Prominent Miami criminal defense attorney Richard Sharpstein, a quick-witted defender of people ranging from millionaires to beat cops, was found dead Tuesday by his housekeeper at his Miami Beach home, his law firm said.
“We are shocked and deeply saddened by the death of our partner,” said Akerman chairman and chief executive officer Andrew Smulian. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Richard’s family during this very difficult time.”
Sharpstein, 63, who practiced for 37 years, joined Akerman as a partner in April 2012 after being with Jorden Burt for 10 years. He was a solo practitioner for many years and started his legal career as a prosecutor for Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno.
The Miami legal community was stunned by the news, some openly sobbing when they were told. Shocked law partners gathered in the firm’s lobby of their Miami headquarters as word of his death spread.
Sharpstein, who was gracious and generous but didn’t want any credit for it, often looked at life as a long-running comedy. His tongue-in-cheek voicemail message said he was out fighting for “truth, justice and the American way.”
The skilled trial lawyer who was adept at insightful cross-examination lived a colorful slice of Miami life from its cocaine cowboy days to the present. Clients included Miami real estate agent Brian Alden Davidow, a co-defendant of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.
Sharpstein also represented a former General Development Corp. executive accused with others of running a complex fraud selling Florida swampland primarily to Northerners with no exposure to the Sunshine State. Sharpstein lost at trial, arguing federal prosecutors championed a case of widespread buyer’s remorse. Jurors convicted company officials, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit adopted Sharpstein’s position.
He said of the charges, “If you’re going to charge these men with a crime, you might as well indict Vanna White for hiding vowels.”
Sharpstein attended a Daily Business Review awards ceremony Friday recognizing the Most Effective Lawyers of 2013. He was honored for persuading the Drug Enforcement Administration to reverse the $20.2 million seizure of funds from his client, Republic Metals Corp.
‘Larger Than Life’
Miami attorney Howard Srebnick of Black, Srebnick, Kornspan & Stumpf said he emailed Sharpstein Monday night to kid him about his latest award. “Who was this winning the award?” he wrote next to an attachment showing the award. Referring to a professional wrestler they both liked, Sharpstein responded, “Dusty Rhodes, known as ‘The American Dream.’ ”
Sharpstein received a rare standing ovation while delivering closing arguments in the federal trial of 11 Miami police officers accused of placing guns at the scene of suspicious officer-involved shootings and covering up the planted evidence.
U.S. District Judge Alan Gold, who presided over the trial in the historic Central Courtroom, recalled Sharpstein’s dramatic antics when he casually moved a wooden chair to face the gallery and moments later climbed on it to illustrate the vantage point of police firing down on fleeing felons. Gold “gaveled him down off the chair,” briefly admonished him but couldn’t help smiling.
“He is the only one who could get away with that,” the judge said. “I liked him as a person, and I liked him as a lawyer. He made me laugh a lot even during a tough case. And he was the best at cross-examination that I have ever seen.”
Sharpstein’s parents attended the hearing and thoroughly enjoyed the comic relief. Sharpstein’s clients were convicted, but attorneys for acquitted co-defendants credited Sharpstein with helping their cases.
One of the prosecutors, Curtis Miner, now with Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables, said he spent about six months trying police brutality cases with Sharpstein and witnessed him in rare form one day.
Sharpstein was cross-examining a government witness and somehow got the witness to admit he was lying. That resulted in the government dropping the case the night after the trial started.
“Richard Sharpstein is the only defense lawyer I’ve seen in my career pull off a true Perry Mason moment,” he said.
Coral Gables defense attorney Joel Hirschhorn of GrayRobinson in Miami, who represented a General Development co-defendant, recalled getting a warning from Sharpstein when he left Reno’s office. Sharpstein said, “Look out, I’m going to push you aside.” The two laughed about that line for the rest of their careers.
Hirschhorn witnessed Sharpstein’s dramatic flair when they were defending a Monroe County sheriff’s deputy in a drug case. Sharpstein wore a Columbo-style trenchcoat in one case and used a top hat and cane during closing arguments to illustrate his view of the case as a three-ring circus. His client was cleared of nine out of 10 counts.
Hirschhorn recalled Sharpstein’s trial stress reliever—drawing cartoons.
“He was a clever cartoonist,” Hirschhorn said. “He was larger than life.”
Famed Miami criminal defense attorney Roy Black also expressed “utter shock that such a youthful, vibrant man has died.”
“He was a wonderful, elegant lawyer and a great personality,” Black said. “He was never arrogant, just a man of humility. He was friends with everyone. No one could dislike him.”
Los Angeles attorney and former federal prosecutor Marc Nurik, who was in trial with Sharpstein for four months in New York, said the experience with “the king of sound bites” was one of the highlights of his career.
“Not enough positive things could be said about Richard to capture who he was—a great friend and colleague who was always a pleasure to be with,” he said. “In all my trial experiences around the country, I never met a more courageous lawyer in the courtroom than Richard.”
Sharpstein and his wife of 35 years, Janice, were divorced recently. She said Sharpstein was healthy and had no heart trouble she knew about.
“This is going to be terrible on his parents, who live in Boca,” she sobbed. “I loved him more than half of my life, and I always will. I’m so sorry this happened to him.”
Srebnick, Black’s law partner, said Sharpstein was a regular golfer and frequently took his dog for long walks near his home.
A Miami Beach police report said Sharpstein was found by his housekeeper at about 10 a.m. Tuesday. His body was submerged in a foot of bath water. After calling police, the maid looked at her cellphone and discovered a message from Sharpstein telling her not to come to work that day.
“We are not investigating for suicide,” said Miami Beach police spokesman Bobby Hernandez. “This is a death investigation. We are waiting for toxicology to come back, talking to family members, before drawing any conclusions.”
Sharpstein is survived by his children, Jessica, 31, Catherine, 29, and Michael, 26.
Funeral arrangements were pending.