The trial still haunts the author
By Gary Blankenship
John Contini sat down to write a book about perhaps his most high profile case and a funny thing happened.
In the course of research, he sought out people he considered enemies from the case and they became friends.
While he still thinks his client got a raw deal, Contini’s book, Danger Road: A True Crime Story of Murder and Redemption, has an interesting perspective. Not surprisingly, he is hard on those he saw as having a hand in a flawed trial for his client. But he is also equally hard on himself for mistakes he made.
And the book ends with an epilogue, where Contini updates the reader on where many of the major players in the trial are now — complete with their views of the case and its twists and turns.
It doesn’t change his opinion, but it humanizes one of the most sensational criminal trials in Broward County history.
The just-published book recounts Contini’s defense of Gil Fernandez, Jr., a former Miami-Dade cop and a Mr. Florida-winning body-builder and karate instructor who was one of two men charged in 1990 with a drug-related triple homicide that occurred in 1983. If that wasn’t enough, the pair was alleged in news stories to be part of a group of weight lifters who acted as enforcers for local organized crime figures, with several of that group being murdered supposedly because they knew too much about the defendants. And several months before his arrest, Fernandez became a born-again Christian, a redemption that soon figured prominently in Contini’s life.
In 2003, he began writing about the case, which still features the longest jury selection — at five weeks — in Broward County history.
“For me it was a catharsis, to get all that frustration out by telling the real story . . . to finally give the facts and issues that I was stopped from trumpeting throughout the trial,” Contini said.
“In court, we’re stifled by the rules of criminal procedure and the rules of the courts. They’re good things, but too often judges and prosecutors can be horrified by what they perceive to be the facts and truth and, wittingly or unwittingly, have a bias to stop the defense from being heard.” he added.
It can be tough to get a break in the media because ultimately reporters and editors choose what snippets to air, and might prefer an unproven but sensational allegation over a dry legal point, he said.
In this case, “Regardless of guilt or innocence and without ever addressing whether he [Fernandez] did or didn’t do these things he was accused of, he did not get a fair trial,” Contini said.
The book, he said, is an unsparing look at why that happened.
“I fall on my sword in my book on some of the things I could have done differently, but you will also see where all of the players in this so-called trial were exposed in the book for the things that were done — not in the name of justice, but to win at all costs,” Contini said. “Really that trial had nothing to do with justice, but with winning at all costs.”
The book also deals with lessons learned along the way, not only professionally, but personally. Indeed, the reason Contini was hired after the arrest is Fernandez’ father had heard that Contini was a Christian lawyer, a fact the lawyer concedes at the time was only half true.
Or as Contini put it in the book, “I had only been a Christian for a short while, and unless I was in church on Sunday morning, I was a closet Christian at best.”
His client’s actions were a revelation.
“At that time, I had never seen a Saul/Paul conversion, a radical transformation; someone who might have been the antithesis of Christianity . . . and then see that person who is so radically different, who could be praying with AIDS patients, holding Bible studies in the jail.
“Even law enforcement concedes he has been consistent in his faith for 15 years [in prison],” Contini said. “That transformation and example by him left a major impression on me. I was changed on that spiritual level and on a personal level.”
Spiritually, Contini too became a reborn Christian by the trial’s end. Professionally, Contini said he learned how to better balance his personal life and his law practice, and to handle adversity.
“I learned that we as lawyers have to do the best we can and even if we lose, we win. We win if we do the very, very best we can and we give it our best shot. The result is the result,” Contini said. “Compartmentalize your job from your personal life. Mine were inextricably interrelated and my whole identity was wrapped up in what I did for a living.”
Contini said he gets the inevitable questions about how he can be a criminal defense attorney and represent people who are probably — or even certainly — guilty.
“Everyone has someone in the family who gets jammed up,” he said. “When someone in the family has a problem, the whole family has a problem. So I see this as helping whole families get on with their lives.”
A challenge in writing Danger Road was protecting the confidences of his client while still telling a compelling story.
“We as lawyers have to keep a million secrets. We have the attorney-client privilege and we have to keep our clients’ secrets. That doesn’t mean we have to keep our own.”
His intent was to put the reader “at the table and you’re feeling what the lawyer is feeling, and you’re hearing what he is thinking, not necessarily what he is saying. Now you get to see what goes through the mind of the lawyer who is in that spot with figuratively a gun to his or her head, and he or she has to speak. The jury is waiting and the judge is looking at you. The families of the victims are in the courtroom, and they’re looking at your client, and they’re looking at you, and they hate you for representing him.”
He thinks lawyers will identify with having a strong case but where everything is stacked against the client: news stories, victims’ families, and rulings in the courtroom, and appeals. He also thinks all lawyers have similar stories to tell and could — if only they could find the time to write their own books.
“Every one of us lawyers has a book in us, because we’re forced to write all the time,” he said. “It’s finding the time to do it that is the challenge. It’s a huge challenge.”
Contini, though, has met that challenge a second time. He’s finished his second book, Guilty as Sin, covering six or seven other legal stories, but is thinking about breaking one or two of them out into their own books.
In the meantime, Danger Road, according to the Miami Herald, is proving a must read at the Broward County Courthouse, where many of the lawyers and court system employees personally know the players in the book.
It has won praise from several trial lawyers, although Broward Judge Cindy Imperato, who was one of the prosecutors in the Danger Road trial, has a more reserved view.
“I thought it was very defense-oriented, but that’s his perspective. It’s very factual, except for perceptions,” she said.
Of the trial itself, “It was pretty hostile most of the time during the trial between us and him. Part of the reason is it was a death penalty case,” said Imperato, who still stays in contact with some of the victims’ families. “He thought we all had these sinister motives and that wasn’t the case. . . . I think a lot of his portrayals of the prosecution as this sinister, do-anything-to-win was not true.”
Prosecutors, she said, never bought that Fernandez became a born-again Christian, saying that occurred after he knew he was under investigation for murder.
Danger Road is distributed by Bookworld Companies and available at booksellers throughout the United States.