Norman Lippitt says an insult by a former Detroit city councilwoman doesn't bother him — but he can't seem to stop talking about it.
"Sheila Cockrel says I'm a soulless person. I read that in a magazine. I'm soulless!" Lippitt laughs as he considers the idea. Cockrel told Bridge Magazine that Lippitt "got extremely wealthy protecting raging police brutality."
The 81-year-old attorney says he's heard it all before. "At my age, what the hell do I care?"
But he does seem to care. The word appears to get under his skin.
"If I represented someone in organized crime, am I a soulless person?" he asks. "If I represented a narcotics dealer, am I a soulless person? If I represented a sex maniac, am I a soulless person? Well, criminal defense lawyers do this every day!"
Lippitt hasn't done any criminal defense work in decades. These days he focuses on commercial transactions at his law firm in Birmingham, about a half hour outside Detroit. Now as the city marks the 50th anniversary of what's known by many as the Detroit riots — and by others as the Detroit uprising — Lippitt has been giving a lot of media interviews about his role in one of the more infamous incidents of those tragic evenings in 1967.
The riot was entering its third day. Police had received word that a gunman was seen near the Algiers Motel, on Woodward Ave. about a mile from where the fighting began days earlier. Police entered the building. Three young black men — Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard and Fred Temple — were killed.
In three different cases, three white Detroit cops — Ronald August, Robert Paille and David Senak — charged variously with murder, conspiracy and federal civil rights violations. Lippitt, then in his early 30s, was lead counsel for the Detroit Police Officers Association.
"My strategy was the same strategy any defense lawyer would use," Lippitt tells NPR's Michel Martin, reflecting on the case a recent Saturday morning, nearly 50 years later. "You look at the evidence that has been compiled against your client. You look at the witnesses. You determine whether or not you can create a reasonable doubt based on their testimony."
Lippitt's strategy for creating reasonable doubt was "self-defense." One of the accused police officers, August, testified that one of the victims, Pollard, grabbed his shotgun while they were in one of the rooms at the Algiers Motel, and the gun went off. Witnesses against August disputed that version of events, but "they had a difficult time making out a cohesive story," Lippitt says. "I did a very good job of destroying the credibility of the witnesses."
Lippitt's lucky breaks
Lippitt says he got a "couple breaks" that gave him an edge in court. First was the mistake made by a prosecutor who wanted to prove that the officers were lying when they explained why they were at the Algiers Motel in the first place.
"The police and the National Guard claimed they heard a gun go off at the Algiers — that's why they converged on the motel," Lippitt says. "They found a starter pistol. [Prosecutor] Avery Weiswasser wanted to prove that nobody would have hearing that was good enough to hear a starter pistol from inside a building while they're out on the street. And so he persuaded the judge to allow him to fire the gun in the courtroom, in the presence of the jury."
Lippit adds, "Well the courtroom in Mason, Mich. was a palatial courtroom with very high ceilings — acoustics were wonderful, it was like an opera house. He fired the gun — it sounded like a howitzer! So that was a blunder."
The starter pistol sounded so loud in the courtroom, Lippitt says, it was easy to persuade the jury that the officers could hear it from the street.
The second lucky break — the "most significant break," Lippitt says, was the racial make-up of the jury. The all-white jury took only a few hours to return a "not guilty" verdict.
He says the white jury definitely helped with acquittal. "Let me turn it around for you, OK? What would an all-black jury do in Detroit? I think the likelihood of a conviction with an all-black jury would be greater than it was with a white jury, no question about it."
But Lippitt says he never would have had to try to persuade an all-black jury. Jurors were selected from registered voters, and back then Detroit was still majority-white. "I have 20 peremptory challenges in a murder capital case," Lippitt says. "I can throw 20 people off the jury before I have to accept the jury. And I can do it without a reason. The likelihood of an all-black jury in Detroit in those days was zero. It would have still been a majority-white jury."
Lippitt has represented "many many black officers"
It's been years since Lippitt represented police officers. But among some detractors, he is still known for his time defending cops — cops that sometimes abused their power. In the same article where he was described as "soulless," a University of Michigan professor said his tenure representing Detroit officers made him the public face of the city's white ruling class.
Lippitt's countenance turns serious. "I guess what really upsets me: Do you know how many black officers I represented? The most infamous case was the Rochester Street incident, where I represented three black officers with a white jury, who were acquitted. I represented many, many black officers over the years. I was a hero to the black officers as much as I was the white officers. I couldn't get a ticket in the city of Detroit, from a black officer or a white officer."
Tasked with defending officers accused of crimes against black Detroiters, Lippitt says he didn't look at things from a racial perspective. He just approached the task from the perspective of a young lawyer who came of age before the heyday of the civil rights movement.
"I grew up in the 50s, the Eisenhower administration. I never saw a marijuana cigarette until I was a prosecutor. Can you imagine that? I wasn't a part of the Civil Right's movement, the college protests in Vietnam — that was all after my time. I was 31 years old, practicing law, raising a family."
He says he's not making excuses, but that these issues weren't in the scope of his thinking, that he never talked about race relations.
"I kind of feel bad that people believe that I was part of a movement to suppress people," Lippitt says. "I was a criminal defense attorney. I was doing my job."
Host Michel Martin, radio producer Elizabeth Baker and digital editor Maquita Peters contributed to this report.