• Show Notes
  • Transcript

In this bonus for CAFE Insiders, Elie Honig and Safeena Mecklai take listeners behind the scenes of the second episode of Up Against the Mob. They discuss the qualities that make Murray Richman a superior defense attorney, the head-to-head battle between Richman and Elie at trial years ago, and why Richman is disenchanted with the criminal justice system.  

Thank you for being a member of the CAFE Insider community.

Up Against the Mob is produced by CAFE Studios and the Vox Media Podcast Network. New episodes drop every Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

Executive Producer: Tamara Sepper; Senior Editorial Producer: Adam Waller; Technical Director: David Tatasciore; Audio Producers: Matthew Billy; Composer: Nat Weiner; Editorial Producers: Noa Azulai, David Kurlander, Sam Ozer-Staton, Jake Kaplan.

Elie Honig :

Hey everyone. Elie here. Up Against The Mob is my new Café podcast. We’re pleased to offer this exclusive bonus just for Café insiders with me in conversation with my co-host from the Third Degree podcast, Safeena Mecklai.

Safeena Mecklai:

Welcome back to the second bonus episode of Up Against the Mob with Elie Honig . My name is Safeena Mecklai and we’re here with Elie, reflecting back on the second episode of Up Against The Mob, in which Elie interviews Murray Richman. Hi Elie.

Elie Honig :

Hey, Safeena. So, I… I hope this was a good education for you, hearing what it really is like to be a defense lawyer from the great Murray Richman.

Safeena Mecklai:

It was so awesome, and for those listeners who don’t remember this from Third Degree, Elie knows that my dream job is to be a criminal defense lawyer. So, it was so cool to hear from Murray about what his life is like, and it sounded a little glamorous at points.

Elie Honig :

I’m trying to think of what your equivalent might be of the incident where he ends up going out to drinks with Sinatra. Would that be like you going out to drinks with, like, Halsey or somebody?

Safeena Mecklai:

Yeah. Halsey’s good. You clearly have young kids. Cardi B, somebody in the Bronx. Like, that would be great.

Elie Honig :

You know. Yeah. And, I thought Halsey was a solid reference. I’m a fan. We’ll see if you can top Murray and Sinatra someday.

Safeena Mecklai:

Yeah. I hope so. But, you know, it sounds like you and Murray have and had a really great relationship and in law school, you’re not always told or taught that the relationship between prosecutors and defense attorneys is that good, and I’m wondering what the relationship is generally like between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Elie Honig :

Yeah. Oh, that’s a great question. I guess I’ll say some of what you heard in the Murray episode is very telling and some of it is not. On the one hand, this is fundamentally an adversarial relationship, and this is the part you couldn’t really tell on the show. But, I mean, we talked about it. Murray and I tried a mob murder case against each other. Murray represented a mob boss. I was one of the prosecutors on the case. And, you know, that’s adversarial, and that doesn’t necessarily mean… You know, Murray wasn’t a big in your face finger wagger, but there were defense lawyers and prosecutors, for that matter, who were. And so, it is fundamentally an adversarial relationship.

Elie Honig :

But, that said, it’s a professional relationship and it can and ideally should be collegial. And, Murray, as you can tell, is somebody who I became very close with, really more after, you know, the days when I was trying cases and handling cases with him. But, you know, you have to deal with these people all the time, right? In law school, you talk about repeat players or one time players. I mean, to me, there was always… You know, there are stories of my colleagues getting in physical altercations with defense lawyers, pushing matches. Right? I mean, you can Google this stuff. Shoving matches, exchanging, you know, nasty words with them in the courthouse.

Elie Honig :

I mean, that was never my style. A, it’s just sort of not how I’m wired. B, it just made no sense to me. Why get into a death match with Murray Richman when you’re going to have 22 more cases with him the next five years? You know what I mean? Also, there is a little bit of, like, look, we have this trial together. It’s going to take the next six weeks. We’re all going to go through hell no matter what because it’s [inaudible 00:03:20]. It’s trial. Let’s not make it any more difficult on one another than necessary. Right? Like, let’s be reasonable. Let’s agree to stuff.

Elie Honig :

And, what ends up happening over time… And, again, it’s easier once you leave, frankly, is you develop real relationships with people, and I have good relationships like with Murray, like with a lot of defense lawyers now and a lot of my former prosecutor friends are now defense lawyers. So… But, Murray, I think, as you could hear, was a little different, a little something special, I think. You know, I always… I joke with him. My dad’s name is Murray and so I always say Murray Richman is the number two Murray in my life. And, whenever he sees me, he always goes, “How’s Murray Number One doing?”.

Elie Honig :

And, you know, he has a real spark to him and a real sort of humor and passion about what he does and love for life that I really am drawn to. I called him the other day. He had called me and I called him back and it was, you know, 7:30 at night and of course I’m 46 years old and I’m getting ready for bed. He’s out at a restaurant. I hear wine glasses clanking and he’s there with a table full of people. I’m like, “Oh, I’ll let you go.” He’s like, “No. Hey everybody. I’m on the phone with Elie Honig . Hey. Hey.” You know? Like, that’s just Murray. He’s a unique personality and probably, you know, sort of a once in a generation type of talent.

Elie Honig :

But… But I do think that that collegiality and cordiality that you heard between Murray and I is more common than I think the movies or TV would lead you to believe between prosecutors and defense lawyers.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well, that is very comforting and I think that story about Murray being out to dinner just confirms that I might want to be Murray Richman when I grow up. I don’t know.

Elie Honig :

Absolutely. That’s a good goal to have. And, by the way, you know, Murray… I forgot about… Again, some of these questions you’re asking are just triggering memories for me and I’m pretty… I didn’t say this on the episode. Murray… One of my very first cases was like a little case with Murray, a drug case, and he said to me in the hallway, “Look, this guy’s going to plead. Like, just, you know…”. We… We were about to have a pre-trial conference. He said, “This guy is going to plead. Let’s… We’ll work out the numbers pretty soon.” And, [inaudible 00:05:16] you know, that was standard. I said, “Yeah. Okay. Good. I’ll send you a plea agreement when we get back.”

Elie Honig :

We go into court that day and Murray’s going crazy. “Judge, this case is a miscarriage of justice. We’re going to move to dismiss.” And, afterwards, I went to him and I was like, “What…? Murray, what that…? What the heck? You know? What was that?”. And, he goes, “Kid.” He goes, “Just… Just roll with me here.” He goes, “Look. I got to put on a show here for my client.” He goes, “He’s still going to plead. It’s in his best interest. Don’t worry. But I can’t go in there and say Judge, he’s ready to plead guilty. I got to put on a little show. Just roll with it.” And, I was like, “Okay. Good lesson. Good lesson.”

Safeena Mecklai:

I think something that definitely comes across in this episode of how… There’s so much orchestrating, directing, acting. I don’t want to call it manipulating, but there is an art to sort of being in trial mode, and you hear that come through in how Murray prepares, how he acts, even that story.

Elie Honig :

Yeah. I love that story. I remember him telling me that back when, that he would warm up by… By singing. Right? And, he… And, I got him to sing in the episode. I asked him to sing and he said no and then he sang, and you can hear he’s got this beautiful like old-fashioned baritone-y voice. And, I… And, it’s true what I told him. I said, “I was kind of jealous of that.” Because he was with his driver. You know Murray. He did pretty well in the business. And, I’m like, on the PATH train walking [inaudible 00:06:22] I can’t be singing.

Elie Honig :

One thing that I think Murray really brought to life was the fact that it is a battle of storytelling. It is a show. And, I don’t mean that in a cynical way, right? It is like putting on a theater production in front of the jury. You have to make sure that you’re interesting, that you’re compelling, that your visuals make sense. Right? And, we used to say, like, at a certain point, like, you have to think about this the way almost a theater producer does. Okay, I’m going to say this, then I’m going to show this exhibit by putting it up on the screen. Then, I’m going to hand the laser pointer to the witness and ask him… You know, if you don’t work that stuff out, your message is going to be lost.

Elie Honig :

Now, Murray happened to be masterful at this and you can imagine, right? I mean, just having listened to the episode. Imagine being a juror, right? And, imagine this guy with all of his charisma and humor and sort of folksiness. Right? I mean, you can see why he was really compelling to a jury.

Safeena Mecklai:

Absolutely. And, as you know, I’ve been on a jury before. I’ve had jury duty. And, how engaging and enthralling the lawyers can be and how well they can tell their story is a huge part of convincing the jury, even when you know the law and you’re supposed to be sort of grounded in the facts. The person marshaling you through them is so important.

Elie Honig :

Yes. And, a really important distinction here that I want to make sure I stress. There is a fundamental difference in the role that a defense lawyer plays and the role that a prosecutor plays, and here’s… Here’s what I mean. So, right before my first trial… And, I don’t write about this particular anecdote in the book, but I write about Rich Sullivan, who was my supervisor, who was the… Who’s now a federal appellate judge and was this sort of master of trial in the Southern District at the time.

Elie Honig :

And, the night before, I said to him, like, “This is a stupid question.” But I said, “So, Rich, what am I supposed to be tomorrow?”. And, he goes, “What…? What do you mean?”. And, I said, “I don’t know. Like, what…? How am I supposed to be in front of the jury?”. And, he said, “Oh, okay. Listen.” He goes, “Leave the hit… You’re not there to wow them. You’re not there to have them fall in love with you. Your job is to be clear and credible and that’s it. And, leave the dramatics and the histrionics and the showmanship to the defense lawyer.” And, that… That’s good advice.

Elie Honig :

Now, look. Over time as a prosecutor, you develop your voice. You find your voice. You find what works for you and you can do more and sort of bigger stuff. But nobody would ever do the things Murray did, right? Some of the stories he told about, you know, the thing with the sleeping client and all that. Right? Like, you would never openly try to crack jokes or bring in props or that kind of thing. Defense lawyers, however, sometimes do do that and it’s not because… I mean, maybe it’s because they’re sort of, you know, just wired a little bit differently. But also, they have a different job to do and I think what they’re hoping sometimes is if you can just win them over emotionally, you can maybe win the whole jury or maybe just grab a juror or two and get a hung jury.

Elie Honig :

So, it’s kind of like the straight man and the… You know, and the comedian or whatever in that context.

Safeena Mecklai:

God. That totally makes sense to me and I am a recovering theater kid as well, which you could probably tell that about me, just knowing me as a person.

Elie Honig :

I think a lot of prosecutors, if you dug back in their background, were theater actors or in singing groups or whatever. I got to say that none of that applies to me.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well, I think that’s why the defense bar appeals so much to me, because you can totally be the character actor, whereas it seems like there is a norm or a culture around prosecution that looks a little more straight man, maybe.

Elie Honig :

Yeah, for sure. It’s really just two different roles in the process.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well, I love that this episode was so focused on the trial, trial prep, trial strategies, and I loved hearing the singing story that you mentioned. Did you have any prep tactics that you didn’t share in this episode or routines?

Elie Honig :

Well, look, the music thing really resonated with me, and so, while I couldn’t sing while walking through the streets of Manhattan, I definitely had my headphones on. Like, you know, if you ever see those videos of Kobe or LeBron, you know, or Tom Brady walking into a game with their Beats on. I mean, I didn’t have headphones that were that nice and I probably didn’t look nearly as cool as those guys. But I would definitely try to dial in that way.

Elie Honig :

Different people had different ways to deal with it. One… You know what I would do? Gosh. Again, I haven’t thought about this in years. In fact, when I gave the jury address that Murray talked about… I distinctly remember doing this. So, I knew I was no good to sleep the night before a jury address. Like, [inaudible 00:10:39] maybe two, three hours or whatever. But I just physiologically couldn’t and I would just wake up when I was up and that was like four in the morning and I would just go for a run through my neighborhood. Like, I would run my normal route, like, you know, three, four miles.

Elie Honig :

And, I remember doing it in the pitch black in this trial with Murray and it was like so cold out. In fact, I remember that verdict came back in April, so it was probably March or early April. But it was cold. It was four in the morning. And, I remember a town cop pulled up next to me and said, “Are you okay?”. And… And, I didn’t quite know what to say. Like, you know, it was a little too long to explain. Like, well, yeah, I’m a prosecutor. I have to give an opening… Or, you know, a closing later today. So, I think I just said, “Yeah. I go to work early.” Or something. And, he was like, “All right.”

Elie Honig :

But that helped me sort of get out… You know, like exercise helps, I think, with stress.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well, you mentioned that you put on headphones as you were walking out of the PATH. I feel like I have to ask you. What’s your go-to prep music?

Elie Honig :

You know, hip-hop would do it a lot of times. And, I’m like a nineties hip-hop guy. You were probably born in the nineties.

Safeena Mecklai:

Uh huh.

Elie Honig :

But I like… I like, like the early… Well, it wasn’t early in his career, but like LL Cool J from around that time, Cypress Hill. You know, groups like that. Warren G. Early Dr. Dre. All that stuff. And, also, honestly, it’s so… It’s so trite and cliché for me but Springsteen would do it, too, just because it was so uplifting. So, there was times when I would listen to that as well.

Safeena Mecklai:

You’re required by the state of New Jersey to say that, right?

Elie Honig :

I know. And… And, I almost like wish I had something less on point, but that is true.

Safeena Mecklai:

You mentioned the closing that you gave that Murray was so fond of that he said was the best closing that he’s ever heard. And, as you know, I was on the mock trial team at NYU. I’m, like, obsessed with figuring out the right way to do trial. So, I was wondering if you could tell us more about that. Do you remember doing it? What…? What made it so good?

Elie Honig :

Yeah. I remember it. Okay. I’m going to give you two… Two things that made it so good. None of them were me, per se. One of them is I always used to say to younger prosecutors, sometimes you’re only as cool as your evidence. Right? Like, you know, I mean, we happened to have… That happened to be a great case with multiple murders and compelling witnesses and great evidence that backed up what each witness said and just… Just devastating, sensational evidence. And so, a part of it was just the function of that. And, I did… I did other trials where the evidence sucked or where the… You know, I mean… You know, it was enough for reasonable doubt, beyond a reasonable doubt. Or, the charges were just sort of bland and… You know, loan sharking and who cares. Like, so a lot of times, you’re just… You’re only as cool as your evidence.

Elie Honig :

The other big thing is this. The judge made me cut it down the night before the trial. So, I had… I was sort of known or maybe infamous in the SDNY for working on my jury addresses like for weeks and months in advance. And, there were people, by the way, who would write their jury addresses the night before, which I thought was insane, and you can’t possibly do it right that way. But I… I worked on this jury address for literally months and I had it down to what I thought was going to be this masterpiece. And, I remember the judge said the night before closing, he said, “Counselor, who’s going to close for the prosecution?”. I was like, “Me.” He said, “How long are you going to need?”.

Elie Honig :

And, [inaudible 00:14:05], this is a case that involved five murders, murder attempts or murder conspiracies. Three defendants, RICO. I mean, like, you know, a large, large case. And, I very proudly said, “Judge, I’m going to be able to do this closing tomorrow in under three hours.” And, the judge literally threw his papers in the air. Like, there were papers that got air. And, he went, “You got to be kidding me. You have 90 minutes.” And, I remember going back to the trial room that I talked about before with my trial partners and going like, “I don’t know what to do. I have to cut this in half.” And, they were like freaked out too.

Elie Honig :

And, I just sat there that night and I just cut, cut, cut. You know? And… And, it hurt, but you know, it’s, as we say in the writing business, you have to drown your kittens sometimes, right? And, I cut it down to 90 minutes and it was so concise and it was so action packed. There was no dead time. There was no spinning of wheels. And, it was just like a 90 minute… You know, it’s the difference [inaudible 00:15:04]… If you could take a three hour movie and cut it down to 90 minutes, you know, it would be… And, you could keep the storyline. It would be riveting and it would be sort of action packed and… And, for that reason, because I was forced to cut it down, I think it ended up being really compelling.

Safeena Mecklai:

The power of good editing is definitely something that I think law school taught me. I feel like I used to be so verbose and all of my edits back were just like cut, cut, cut. And, it really forces you to focus on the things that matter.

Elie Honig :

And, this varies, by the way, by prosecutors’ offices because you’ll see things out there or you’ll hear people say or you’ll read stories about, oh, the prosecutor delivered a three day opening or the prosecutor gave a…

Safeena Mecklai:

Yes.

Elie Honig :

You know, a 19 hour closing and he had the witness on the stand for two and a half days. That makes me cringe so hard, and I was already, by the way… With this three hour closing, I was already like known in the office for being on the extreme side of brevity. Extreme side of brevity. I used to tell my people, “If you can’t open in 20 minutes, then you’re not doing it right. If you can’t…”. But, I mean, I figured in a three defendant, five murder case, and other… A whole bunch of other extortions and stuff. Like, three hours is at… Didn’t feel like it was much to me. But, you know what? You almost never feel like, well, that was too short. Right? So, yeah. I’m a big… And… And, now that I do media, I’m even more of a proponent of that.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well, I think it… It feels like one thing to sort of plan and do a trial for someone else, but I was shocked in this episode to hear about Murray defending himself when he faced criminal charges, and I wondered if you were ever… Knock on wood. God forbid. Faced with any kind of criminal charge or even a civil charge. Would you ever defend yourself?

Elie Honig :

No. I would hire Murray Richman. No. Absolutely not. I was actually surprised. I think you can maybe hear it in the episode. I didn’t know… I knew he had been indicted and tried, which by the way, is insane. Right? The fact that, like, the guy got indicted by the SDNY and then tried and then [inaudible 00:17:00]. I mean… But I was a little surprised when he said he defended himself because, you know, there’s the old axiom about any lawyer who defends himself has an idiot for a client or something to that effect.

Elie Honig :

But… And, I said to him in the episode, I think I said, “So, you stood in front of the jury and said I didn’t do it or, you know, I am not guilty because of this or that.”? And, he’s like, “Yeah. It was much more effective that way.”

Elie Honig :

I mean, I… I don’t know. I guess… You know, I guess… So, my… My instinctive answer is no. I would definitely hire somebody. But I don’t know. I guess a part of me thinks like it’s… It’s more compelling if they get to know you, especially if they kind of like you, right? And, the other thing is like I’m pretty demanding and critical of what lawyers do and so I’m not… I would probably be going crazy if I felt like my lawyer wasn’t performing up to my standards. So, I’m pretty sure that I would go hire somebody, but I’m also pretty sure it would be one of my former SDNY colleagues, so, you know, that’s where I would come out on it, I think.

Safeena Mecklai:

It reminded me of when I did student government in undergrad. I was brought to like a fake criminal… It was a real trial for election fraud, which I was totally innocent of…

Elie Honig :

What?

Safeena Mecklai:

And, they gave me like a school appointed lawyer to defend against the charges. I had run for student government.

Elie Honig :

Okay.

Safeena Mecklai:

And, I told him, like, it’s your case, man. Like, you got this. You do it. I was, you know, a senior in college. And, as he was taking… You know, he was cross-examining witnesses, directing witnesses. I literally took the notes out of his hand and was like, “Sit down. I got to do this myself.”

Elie Honig :

So, hold on a second. Hold on. So, you’re like… You, like Murray, were charged officially?

Safeena Mecklai:

I was charged with like violating… They… The other party at school charged everyone who they thought was going to win.

Elie Honig :

Oh my God.

Safeena Mecklai:

I was the only person that won. And, I thought I was capable of handing it over to a lawyer to defend me, but I had to take over because I just couldn’t… I couldn’t help it.

Elie Honig :

What were…? Were you…? Were you acquitted like Murray?

Safeena Mecklai:

I was totally acquitted.

Elie Honig :

All right. Good.

Safeena Mecklai:

It was like a headline for one day and then everyone moved on.

Elie Honig :

Wow. I had no idea. But, yeah. I think I’d be the same way. I’d be like, “Give me those notes. Sit down. I’m doing this.”

Safeena Mecklai:

Yeah.

Elie Honig :

Yeah. Wow. You were… You were acquitted. I was going to say, such a law breaker. But I’m glad that you were vindicated.

Safeena Mecklai:

Thank you. Yeah. It was… It was like the biggest thing in the world because everything at college is the biggest thing in the world when it’s happening to you.

Elie Honig :

Yeah, of course.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well, I think we should end on something that Murray talked about at the end of the episode. You asked him about his losing faith in the system. You know, he talks about growing up in New York and wanting to be a lawyer and pulling himself up by his boot straps and working in the system. But then, over time, losing faith in it. And, I’m wondering, after your time in it, how do you feel?

Elie Honig :

Murray’s answer surprised me there and I think that comes through in the episode because I think if you talk to most people, especially, you know, guys who have been doing this for 50 years and are… Are… Well, most normal people of Murray’s age are retired. He’s partially retired. But I think usually you get the opposite. I think you get the rose colored glasses and you get the, “You know, look, our system’s not perfect but it’s the best system known to man.” And, you know, all of that.

Elie Honig :

But he really sort of came out on the opposite side and if anything, it sounds like he became more disenchanted later. I’m much more on the idealistic side or the hopeful side. I do think our system works, not… Again, not perfectly. No one would ever say that. But about as well as any human system could work. I fundamentally disagree with Murray on some of the things he said and we talked about this in the episode. Right? This idea that cooperators just go out there and lie all the time and we… We know it. I mean, that’s just completely not true and if it was true, he’d be justified in his belief, and he believes it is true and he can feel that way. That’s fine.

Elie Honig :

But I don’t feel that way because I’m on this… I’ve been on this side and I’ve known that. So, no. I’m much less jaded about it than Murray is. But, look. He certainly has earned the right to have his own views. I mean, nobody’s got more of a body of experience, maybe in the whole country right now, than Murray Richman. So… So, I always respect what he says and I always… I always find what he says inspiring and interesting and thought-provoking.

Safeena Mecklai:

Definitely. And, one sort of follow up to that is he… He says that defense attorneys consider themselves liberty’s last champion, and I wondered in that framing, what does that make the prosecutor? Who’s…? Who’s champion and where does that sort of put you in the system?

Elie Honig :

Yeah. And, by the way, I liked when Murray said that. I thought that was well-put and I guess, you know, one could roll their eyes at that, but I don’t. I think it’s… I think it’s an apt description of what Murray does and what defense lawyers do. And, even if your client’s as guilty as his, you know, mob boss who I convicted of murder, you still have a role to play in protecting their liberty and their Constitutional rights. What would that make me? I don’t know. It would set… Or, not me, but any prosecutor. I guess you would say justice’s champion, right? At the risk of sounding equally corny and sort of high-handed. But, you know, prosecutors seek justice and defense lawyers protect Constitutional liberties, and I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well, I think we can end on a corny note, then, because it was nice hearing justice and liberty and both of those perspectives in this episode and that both of those sides of the coin can be friends. That… I think that came through in this episode and was a really great… Great explanation of how the system works.

Elie Honig :

And, what I love about Murray is, you know, we can talk high handed. We can talk about principles and theories. But… But everything for him is based on things that he did on the streets, in the courthouses, in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, in Manhattan. And so, he’s… He’s sort of earned all of that.

Safeena Mecklai:

Definitely.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well, thank you Elie. This has been the second bonus episode of Up Against the Mob and we will see you next week.

Elie Honig :

That’s it for this episode of Up Against The Mob. If you like what you heard, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners to find the show. And, as always, please send us your thoughts or questions to letters@cafe.com.

Elie Honig :

Up Against The Mob is presented by Café and the Vox Media Podcast Network. I’m your host, Elie Honig . The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Adam Waller. The technical director is David Tatasciore. Music is by Nat Weiner. The Café team is Matt Billy, David Kurlander, Sam Ozer-Staton, Noa Azulai and Jake Kaplan. Special thanks to Nat White for his help with research. And, special thanks to my interviewer, Safeena Mecklai. I’m Elie Honig, and this is Up Against the Mob.