Thursday, March 12, 1988

'Junk yard dog of justice'

Lawson (Photos by
Michael E. Keating)
| ZOOM |
Lawson file

  • Occupation: Attorney, Lawson & Associates.
  • Born: April 19, 1963, in Cincinnati.
  • Home: Woodlawn.
  • Education: Princeton High School, 1981; bachelor's degree in sociology, Wittenberg University, 1987; law degree from the University of Cincinnati, 1989.
  • Family: Married since 1984 to Marva Lawson, a psychiatrist. Three children: Kenny, 14; Erin, 11; and Kirby, 4.
  • Religious affiliation: Baptist.
  • Annual income: He won't say, but jokes: ''Not enough for what (Hamilton County prosecutor) Joe Deters and (his staff) put me through.''
  • BY JOHN JOHNSTON
    The Cincinnati Enquirer

    Attorney Kenneth L. Lawson won't apologize.

    Not for his "junk yard dog of justice" Yellow Pages ad. (Unprofessional, some say.)

    Not for his 1996 "Warlord" poster/calendar. (Racist and violent, critics say.)

    Not for the Rottweilers imprinted on his legal stationery. Or for the big-hooped earrings he wears to court if the mood strikes him.

    He won't apologize for harshly criticizing Cincinnati police and their treatment of mental patients and African-Americans.

    Or for calling a defendant - his own client - a derogatory name in front of a judge and jury. "I don't believe anybody in the courtroom was offended by it," Mr. Lawson says, "because he was an (expletive)."

    And he won't apologize for his English. "I don't know a lot of big words. I don't speak grammatically correct a lot. But all I can be is me."

    No, Mr. Lawson, 34, won't apologize for being who he is. For being a fighter. For having a smirk on his face and a swagger in his walk. For working hard to become one of the busiest criminal defense lawyers in Cincinnati, and in the process, an increasingly powerful voice in the African-American community.

    His caseload includes Nathaniel Livingston Jr., under investigation for his "shoot the prosecutor" remark on radio; Shawnta Robertson, the man Covington police were chasing when officer Mike Partin fell from the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge; and the family of Lorenzo Collins, the brick-wielding psychiatric patient killed by police a year ago. Numerous sports stars, including Deion Sanders, Danny Fortson and Aaron Pryor, have hired him, too.

    "Some people describe me as arrogant. I wouldn't dispute that," Mr. Lawson says, sitting in his 15th-floor office in the Kroger Building. "My mother used to say it, but like I told her, to me it's not arrogance, I'm just confident.

    "I enjoy fighting for the underdog. That's what's driven me all my life, because I believe I've been an underdog all my life."

    His parents, Etta and Lawyer Lawson (they are now divorced), first saw him - and his fighting spirit - in an orphanage 34 years ago.

    "He was scrapping over a box of Girl Scout cookies," Etta, a Woodlawn councilwoman, says with a chuckle. "He was winning." They named him Kenneth Levon Lawson. He was the second of their four children, the only one they adopted. They made sure he knew that early in life. And the Lawsons made sure they treated him no differently from the others.

    His skin color was lighter than that of his siblings, but "I never knew I was biracial," Mr. Lawson says. "I never knew my (biological) mother was Italian." Until he started looking for her eight years ago, not long after he'd earned a law degree from the University of Cincinnati.

    Catholic Social Services, which handled his adoption, told him he was born at Longview State Hospital, a mental institution in Bond Hill. That led him to library and probate records, and finally, to a face-to-face meeting with his biological mother, Stella Angelo. She was living at Tender Mercies, an Over-the-Rhine agency that houses people who are homeless and mentally ill.

    "She had been homeless for a while, had been a prostitute some parts of her life," Mr. Lawson says, his voice quiet and raspy. "We got to know each other for a few years. She always called me Tony. She had named me Anthony Angelo."

    From relatives and probate records, he learned this about her: that an uncle broke her collar bone because she was messing with a black man; that she was sent to Longview when she was four months pregnant; that she escaped often, and was released after he was born.

    "From what I understand, and from the years that I knew her, she was a fighter," Mr. Lawson says. He was with her when she died of cancer in 1993.

    The search for his mother led Mr. Lawson to a cousin who told him that his father was the late Ezzard Charles, world heavyweight boxing champ. But no documentation has been found. And when Mr. Lawson asked Stella Angelo about that, all she would say was that she and Mr. Charles were good friends, and he was a good man.
    At his desk
    Attorney Kenneth L. Lawson, huddled in his "war room," works on his laptop computer.
    (Michael E. Keating photo)
    | ZOOM |

    Some attorneys cringe

    Leslie Isaiah Gaines says he saw a "fighting spirit of determination" in Mr. Lawson when they met five years ago.

    Mr. Gaines was about to become a municipal court judge, and planned to close his long-standing legal practice. Instead he turned it over to Mr. Lawson, a young attorney with four years experience handling mostly civil cases at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, downtown.

    (Mr. Gaines retired from the bench three years later and rejoined the firm; he left last month to devote full time to motivational speaking.)

    Like Mr. Gaines, Mr. Lawson has built a reputation as a fighter. Or as the Lawson & Gaines ad on page 626 of the Yellow Pages says, "The Pitt (sic) Bull, Rottweiler, Junk Yard Dogs of Justice."

    That makes some attorneys cringe.

    "I think (Mr. Lawson) is a very sound lawyer. (But) I don't care for his style," downtown attorney James N. Perry says. "In my opinion," he says, referring to the Yellow Pages ad, "that's not professional."

    But it's tame compared to Mr. Lawson's '96 "Warlord" calendar - poster, in which Mr. Lawson, dressed in black beret, black T-shirt, sunglasses and camouflage pants, sits on a throne adorned with skulls and candles. Next to him are two women in similar attire, with swords. The decapitated head of a white man (representing a lawyer) lies at their feet.

    No formal disciplinary complaint was filed with the Cincinnati Bar Association, but some lawyers complained about what they saw as the poster's message: Only a black man can defend a black man, and white attorneys will sell black clients down the river.

    It upset Keith Fangman, who in December was elected president of Cincinnati's Fraternal Order of Police.

    "I felt that that photograph bordered on being racist," he says. "I asked myself, just what is the message that he is trying to get across to the community?"

    Mr. Lawson curses, his voice rises and loses its raspiness when he gets angry. Such as when he discusses the poster.

    "I'm not advocating violence," he says. "It was a damn poster." And aimed, he says, at a clientele that includes people charged with murder.

    "They get the message: It's gonna be a war. People are trying to take that (accused) man's life. And they are doing whatever they can to do it. And (his attorney) better be in there to fight just as hard for it. The stakes are high.

    "(The poster) might not be traditional, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You're not gonna tell me what's professional and what's not. I ain't standing by a bookshelf, taking a picture. 'Cause that's not how I see myself."

    Defense attorney John Burlew, who introduced Mr. Lawson to Mr. Gaines, isn't bothered by Mr. Lawson's posters or ads.

    "You can go so far in trying not to offend and trying not to express yourself, as to have no real identity," he says. "He's made a decision, 'I'm going to carry myself this way; if you don't understand it, or approve of it, that's your problem.' I admire that."

    High-profile cases

    Some of defense attorney Kenneth Lawson's high-profile clients and cases:

    Cases Pending

    Shawnta Robertson. Covington police were chasing him across the Clay Wade Bailey bridge when officer Mike Partin fell to his death. Mr. Robertson is charged with running a red light, possession of marijuana, driving under the influence and resisting arrest. He's in jail in Cincinnati for an unrelated probation violation. Nathaniel Livingston Jr. He is charged with felonious assault and child endangering in alleged attacks against his estranged wife and their son. An investigation is continuing into whether he committed a crime when he urged WLW radio listeners in December to "shoot the prosecutor."

    The family of Lorenzo Collins. The psychiatric patient was shot and killed as he waved a brick at police in February 1997 after escaping from University Hospital. A civil rights suit alleging excessive force has been filed in federal court.

    Dr. David Henry Gillis. The orthopedist is charged with sexual imposition, public indecency, disorderly conduct and improper record-keeping of controlled substances.

    The mother of Damico Watkins. The 17-year-old boy was killed when he was attacked inside the juvenile unit of Madison Correctional Institution. A federal suit accuses prison officials of failing to protect him.

    1997

    Melissa Kelly. Owner of Brittany's Playmates in Sharonville, convicted in December of promoting prostitution.

    Paul Wayne Lovelace. He led police on a chase during which an officer ran a stop sign, killing Michael Tenhundfeld, 18. In October, a jury convicted Mr. Lovelace of involuntary manslaughter.

    1996

    Krystal White. The West End teen crashed into the car of a pregnant Middletown woman in August 1995, killing the woman and her unborn child. Miss White pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated vehicular homicide; a second count stemming from the death of the unborn child was dismissed.

    Deion Sanders. He faced a $1 million civil lawsuit filed by a Cincinnati police officer who claimed he was injured in a 1994 encounter with the Cincinnati Reds player. A jury refused to award damages. In his criminal trial in 1995, Mr. Sanders was acquitted of resisting arrest, failure to comply and leaving the scene of an accident.

    1995

    Charles Cole. He claimed he fatally shot Charles "Kevin" Blankenship in self-defense, but he was convicted of murder. The shooting was captured on videotape by a camera on Mr. Cole's porch.

    He describes Mr. Lawson as a smart, perceptive attorney. "Certainly he's very aggressive. I think he wears his feelings on his sleeve." Defense lawyer Tim A. Smith, who has worked on some cases with Mr. Lawson, says, "You have to say he's done a better job of marketing himself than any other criminal lawyer in town." Besides the posters, he points to Lawson's Law, a Saturday morning talk show on WCIN-AM (1480 kHz) and his colleague's appearances on Court TV, Jerry Springer, Geraldo, Montel Williams and Inside Edition.

    Mr. Lawson says he does those shows because it's good for business; and because "lawyers like to hear themselves talk."

    And he will talk.

    "I think he's the Joe Deters of the defense bar," says Mr. Smith, referring to the Hamilton County prosecutor. "When Joe gets angry about something, he holds a press conference and speaks his mind. And he says it in sometimes colorful language, not in legalese. Kenny's known for doing the same thing."

    Mr. Lawson spoke out about Darryll Price, who Cincinnati police say was creating a disturbance on a Corryville street April 4, 1996. Mr. Price died shortly after a struggle with officers.

    The next day, the FOP's Officer Fangman says, he heard Mr. Lawson, representing the dead man's family, say on television that officers "beat (Mr. Price) to death with their billy clubs."

    But Officer Fangman notes that separate autopsies from two coroners indicated that the injuries Mr. Price suffered during his arrest could not have caused his death, which was attributed to "agitated delirium with restraint."

    "What ticks me off," Officer Fangman says, "is that those reckless, inflammatory statements, those lies . . . could have easily caused a riot in this city."

    "What I repeated is what witnesses had told us," says Mr. Lawson, who last year filed an excessive-force civil suit on behalf of Mr. Price's family. "My comments could not have started a riot. Period. I find it hard to believe that (police) kill people in custody, but it's my comments that could cause a riot."

    Mr. Lawson says he's on good terms with some cops, but acknowledges "there are those that hate my guts."

    Last year he helped organize marches to protest the death of Lorenzo Collins, who was shot Feb. 23, 1997, as he threatened police with a brick. Mr. Lawson represents Mr. Collins' family.

    "A lot of lawyers don't like taking on the police because it's not a popular thing to do," he says. "But damn, who's going to do it? If our Constitution means anything, it should mean all of us have rights. And those rights should be respected by (everyone) and the police."

    Mr. Fangman says he would like to see Mr. Lawson use his talents and energy to form partnerships with the police to help combat violence and drug abuse.

    "I have no problem in that," Mr. Lawson says. "I think we have to come to a point where we say we do have problems that exist, and we have to work together and not against each other."

    Indeed, since the December shooting deaths of Cincinnati Police Spc. Ronald Jeter and Officer Daniel Pope, and last month's attack on Officer Kathleen "Katy" Conway, Mr. Lawson says he has "more respect for what (police) do, and the danger. (But) it would not deter me from still criticizing things other officers do that are wrong."

    For his part, Mr. Deters faults Mr. Lawson as much for what he doesn't say.

    "On a personal level, I like Ken," the prosecutor says. "I think he is a good attorney." But he doesn't like the way Mr. Lawson deals with people who call his radio show and bad-mouth the prosecutor's office.

    Says Mr. Deters: "A guy will call and say, 'They're all racists down there, a black guy can't get a fair trial.' And Ken doesn't say, 'Hang on a second. I know these guys, they're not like that.' He says, 'Right on brother. Next call.' "

    That's unfortunate, the prosecutor says. "He has a unique opportunity because he reaches a segment of the black community that even many black leaders don't reach.

    "The only thing in my mind that keeps Ken from being a great lawyer and a great citizen, is his reluctance to relate to his constituency the realities of the court system. And in many respects I think that is divisive, and he knows better."

    Instinctive nature

    Mr. Lawson's spacious private office offers a panoramic view of downtown. A Rottweiler statue sits by the door; a smaller one, on his desk. When he talks about the dog, he could be describing himself. "I think they've been given a bad rap as being nothing but attack dogs. Rottweilers have an instinctive nature to protect those they care about. When they're doing that, they can be extremely aggressive."

    He unleashed his aggressiveness on the football field at Princeton High School, where he was middle linebacker. At 5-foot-8, 168 pounds (he weighs 185 today), he was too small to make a career of the competitive, confrontational game he loves.

    Trial work "is the closest I can get to it. To me, it's combat." He readies himself in the "war room" adjacent to his office.

    "This is where I make it all happen," he says. "I come in here and close the door, and learn how to fight like hell." He arrives at 6 a.m. most days to study videotapes and books on lawyerly topics such as opening statements and cross examination.

    His favorite movies are here, too: The Godfather and Scarface.And gifts from clients, including baseball bats and balls and unopened liquor bottles.

    This is where he prepares cases for clients such as Willie Moton, who was 21 in 1994 when he was charged with the murder and robbery of a Roselawn teen. Mr. Lawson won an acquittal.

    But in January, Mr. Moton was arrested again. This time, he is charged with the murder and robbery of an Avondale man.

    "It bothered me," says Mr. Lawson, who no longer represents Mr. Moton. "A lot. I could tell you I'm just doing my job as a defense lawyer, and everyone's presumed innocent. But yeah, it affects you.

    "If you get a drug dealer off, it affects you because you know you just sent somebody back out in your community to kill people. And sell death to other kids, and possibly your own kids."

    But he still believes in what he does.

    "If someone comes in and says, 'Let's go to trial,' then you give them everything you've got. It's hard sometimes, because a lot of times you're standing up against the whole damn system. Police get mad at you, judges, prosecutors.

    "You roll with the punches. Because I can't practice law on my knees. I can't."

    He says he received death threats after taking on the case of Krystal White. The West End teen crashed into the car of a pregnant Middletown woman in August 1995, killing the woman and her unborn child.

    Three days before the scheduled trial date, Mr. Lawson's brother, George, committed suicide at age 31. He was Mr. Lawson's personal assistant.

    "That was probably the toughest time (of Ken's life)," says his father, Lawyer Lawson, a former Woodlawn mayor. "It became very difficult for him to work on any case."

    "(His death) made me understand how victims feel when they lose somebody," Ken Lawson says. "To call my mother and tell her that her son is dead. . . ."

    'I had a temper'

    Early on, Ken Lawson set his sights on becoming a lawyer. Probably, he says, because his mother, Etta, always told him that's what he should be.

    But he had problems with authority while growing up in Avondale, Lincoln Heights and Woodlawn. He hit a teacher in fourth grade, and was suspended for fighting in eighth.

    "I had a temper," he says. "And still do have a temper, to a certain extent. But I don't resort to what I did back in school." He likes aquariums for their calming, soothing effect. There are three in his office, and one in the living room of his middle-class Woodlawn home that he and his wife bought three years ago for $75,000. That's where he is on a weekday evening, looking relaxed in T-shirt and shorts.

    Family
    The Lawson family at home, clockwise starting with dad Ken in the lower left corner: Erin, 10, Kenny II, 14, Kirby, 4, and Ken's wife, Marva.
    | ZOOM |
    Four-year-old daughter Kirby, the youngest of his three children, walks by in a shirt that says "No justice, no peace," the theme of Mr. Lawson's "Warlord" calendar.

    "What I'm gonna do this year - and my wife knows this - is spend more time with my family and my kids," he says. "Because I spend so much time worrying about everyone else's kids, worrying about their loved ones, that I have neglected my family. That, I'm not going to sacrifice anymore."

    Carving out time could be difficult for a man who works about 70 hours a week. "He's really driven," says Marva Lawson, his wife of 14 years and a resident psychiatrist at Central Clinic. "He never lets anyone else's expectations exceed his own."

    They met at Princeton High. She was the shy, petite cheerleader, class of '83, with dreams of being a doctor. He was the cocky, outgoing jock, class of '81.

    After his freshman year at Wittenberg University, he ran out of money. He returned to Cincinnati, got a job at a swimming pool and wiled away his nights on street corners and in beer joints. Then he hit the streets.

    "It was nothing for me to come out of a bar . . . get on a motorcycle at 3 in the morning, drunk, and come down I-75 at 120 mph with no helmet on," he says. "I look back on it now, and it's ignorant."

    He was about to join the Air Force when he got word that his financial aid had come through, and he could return to school.

    Marva joined him at Wittenberg after the birth of their first child, Kenny. They married and worked their way through school, pinching pennies, sometimes unable to pay their utility bills. Then little Kenny came down with scarlet fever, complicated by pneumonia.

    "I'll never forget going into the hospital and seeing him in this bubble," Mr. Lawson says, "and thinking, 'I can't even afford to keep him safe.' "

    Kenny recovered, and the family got on more stable footing after Mr. Lawson graduated from UC's law school and landed a job at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister. He was the firm's first African-American lawyer.

    Few criminal cases came his way during his four years at Taft. So he snuck out occasionally to local mayor's courts, where he defended traffic violators.

    "I wanted to argue."

    Clients 'are real people'

    Whether the charge is disorderly conduct or aggravated murder, he finds something to like in each of his clients. "They're just real people," he says.

    It's not so hard for him to imagine different circumstances: what it would be like to be in the other chair in a courtroom, with his life in the hands of an attorney.

    "I do pray," he says. "I look at my life, from the time I was born at Longview, till now, and I know I've been blessed. God has looked out after me. No matter how many times I've fallen, how many times I've gotten off the right path, he has blessed me."

    Last month a letter arrived from a school friend that Mr. Lawson hadn't heard from in years. In junior high brawls, they had fought alongside each other with clenched fists. "One time, he stood up for me when it was going to be three on one," Mr. Lawson says.

    The man has been in prison since August, and faces a legal battle to have his three-year sentence reduced. He has no money to pay an attorney.

    But he got a letter back, on stationery imprinted with a Rottweiler. He has a lawyer now. A guy who's ready to fight.