After racketeering case, Camden lawyer reflects on acquittal

Donald Manno with a large display card that he held during closing arguments of the trial. He defended himself in the case, practicing his five-hour argument at home for two weeks. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Donald Manno with a large display card that he held during closing arguments of the trial. He defended himself in the case, practicing his five-hour argument at home for two weeks. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 08, 2014

Representing himself at the federal racketeering trial that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life, criminal defense lawyer Donald F. Manno carried a likeness of St. Rita in his shirt pocket every day.

He'd had the holy card for years; Rita is his wife's name, and the couple had long been fond of the South Philly parish named for the saint.

But Manno came to rely upon his renewed Catholic faith almost as much as he depended on his family during the arduous, six-month proceeding in U.S. District Court in Camden.

On July 3, the 12-member jury convicted four of Manno's codefendants, including his longtime client, mobster Nicodemo Scarfo, of conspiring to defraud a Texas mortgage company of $12 million. Manno and two other lawyers were acquitted.

"An experience like this . . . changes you," says Manno, 68, reflecting on the personal and professional ordeal that began with a 2008 search of his Cherry Hill law office.

"I always was able to empathize with my clients on an intellectual level. Now I can empathize on an emotional level, [because] I know what it's like to be handcuffed."

That's how Manno was led from his Mount Laurel home around 6:30 a.m. Nov. 1, 2011.

"They didn't have to take me out in handcuffs, or drag me into the marshal's office to be strip-searched" and cavity-searched, he says.

"The government did everything they could to embarrass Don," Rita Manno, a former newspaper colleague of mine, says via e-mail. "The emotional scars from that experience will always be with us . . . [but] we are very proud of Don."

An erudite, soft-spoken, yet commanding figure in shirt, tie, and suspenders, Don Manno greets me in the same office where paper and electronic records were seized six years ago.

The pleasant space is decorated with memorabilia from the Buffalo-area native's 44-year law career. One photo on the wall shows Manno with other Marine Corps veterans at a reunion, talking to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The corps is one of those things that sticks with you," says the Jesuit-educated grandfather of two. "I learned a lot about dealing [with] difficult situations."

Like the trial, for instance. "It was totally consuming," he says. "It was the hardest trial I've ever done in terms of the personal involvement, the emotional involvement."

Manno, who prosecuted Philadelphia organized crime as a special federal attorney in the mid-1970s, went into private practice in Camden in 1980. After several years doing what he calls "a process of elimination" of other areas of the law, he settled into criminal defense work almost exclusively.

So he's well aware that a lawyer who represents criminals, particularly those involved in organized crime, often is viewed as crooked, too. He also knows it's unusual for lawyers to represent themselves, but says it was a practical move.

"I've always felt the jury should [come to] know the defendant personally," he says, adding, "My defense was very simple: I was a criminal defense lawyer doing my job. And what better way to demonstrate that than [by doing] the job in front of the jury?"

The case against him relied on documents and secretly recorded conversations Manno argued were circumstantial and "misinterpreted." He rehearsed his five-hour closing argument at home for two weeks, with family members as an audience; earlier in the trial, his two grown daughters testified as character witnesses.

The closing featured a PowerPoint presentation that had photos - including one of his dog, Cleo - as well as animation and quotations from Rudyard Kipling.

Manno wanted to put in the sound effect of an explosion ("for the government's exploding case against me"), but family members nixed that notion.

Which strikes me as wise, given that he was characterizing the case against him as an exercise in excess.

The government, Manno says, "has such incredible power," noting that after he was charged, two financial institutions severed ties with his family.

He's still trying to get his passport back, and a federal lien remains on the family home. "When the trial was over," he adds, "I had no clients."

But Manno intends to keep working. "I'll die with my boots on," he says, adding, "Criminal defense lawyers are not there to help criminals. They're there to make sure that everybody, no matter how they're perceived, gets their constitutional rights."


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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