tampabay.com

Lawyer puts aw-shucks in high-profile success

Tampa's John Fitzgibbons is politely having a very good year.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published August 9, 2006


TAMPA - John Fitzgibbons introduced his restaurateur client to potential jurors last week with a little levity.

"I want to make sure there is nobody here who doesn't like Thai food," the attorney said.

Jurors laughed. Fitzgibbons smiled. It was the beginning of a brief but beautiful relationship.

Jurors experienced classic Fitzgibbons - penetrating and pointed, yet endearing and polite. Fitzgibbons won an acquittal for a man looking at 15 years in prison.

"Very few in this town would have pulled that off," said Tracy Sheehan, a Tampa defense attorney.

The same can be said for the year Fitzgibbons is having.

Long one of Tampa's top criminal defense attorneys, he has added three headline grabbing victories to his resume in 2006. First, the U.S. Attorney's Office abandoned its tax evasion case against Hooters founder Lynn "L.D." Stewart. Then schoolteacher Debra Lafave, Fitzgibbons' most notorious client to date, managed to avoid prison for the sexual assault of a 14-year-old male student.

Last week, he beat a manslaughter rap for Lawrence Storer, the Sumos Thai operator who in October 2003 ran down a man minutes after getting robbed, killing him.

Fitzgibbons, 55, celebrated Thursday night with a grouper dinner at SideBern's. The next morning, he flew to Iowa to sort through his parents' possessions in anticipation of selling their home; his father died two years ago and his mother is stricken with Alzheimer's.

His beloved pleasure boat, Acquittal, sat moored on Tuesday. There was no time for relaxing on the bay. After he returned from Iowa, Fitzgibbons hustled back to his office, where the air conditioner was broken, and sat around in a gray sleeveless T-shirt, wading through dozens of pink phone message slips.

"I had to cancel three ski trips this year because I was so busy," the lifelong bachelor said.

He's not complaining. The work keeps him intellectually challenged, earns him more than $500 an hour, and affords him the ability to live in a waterfront home on Harbour Island, where for 14 years he threw Gasparilla parties for thousands.

Being a lawyer fulfills a decision he made around age 5, when he began attending depositions and court hearings with his father.

Francis Fitzgibbons, an accomplished trial attorney who served as president of the Iowa Academy of Trial Lawyers, practiced law in the north Iowa farming community of Estherville. People there didn't lock their doors at night, and a man could instill simple Midwestern values in his Irish Catholic family.

The oldest of eight children, John Fitzgibbons grew up playing basketball and refining his argument skills on the debate team.

Four of the Fitzgibbons children followed in their father's footsteps. John graduated from law school at the University of Iowa, followed by stints as a federal prosecutor in Des Moines and an attorney for the U.S. House of Representatives and Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

He quickly came to miss the courtroom. He decided lawyers in Washington didn't have a life.

A job offer in 1983 from then U.S. Attorney Bob Merkle in Tampa solved that. He worked his way up to become deputy chief of the criminal division. In 1987, he set up shop as a private attorney, eventually moving into his current office, a refurbished marble and mahogany suite six floors above the Tampa Theatre.

Fitzgibbons quickly developed a reputation as a tough negotiator for his clients, turning down plea deals and going to trial in federal and state cases.

He represented Sigma International employee William "Andy" Walton in the 10-week stinky shrimp case and former Mayor Dick Greco's wife when she faced misdemeanor battery charges for throwing hot coffee in a gym manager's face.

He got Buccaneers tight end Tyji Armstrong off an aggravated battery charge, and argued on behalf of a Pasco County man who castrated himself after being accused of rape.

Colleagues say he handles each case professionally, always a gentleman, always prepared.

He's "a lawyer's lawyer, among the guys that the practicing bar tends to look to for leadership and guidance," said Eddie Suarez, who several years ago worked an eight-week federal fraud case with Fitzgibbons.

He also has learned to use the media to build sympathy for his clients. Over the past decade or so, he said, he has gone from a strict "no comment" stance to one that recognizes the power of getting a defendant's story out.

But Fitzgibbons' aw-shucks Iowa accent couldn't temper the fury that resulted last year when he suggested that putting Lafave, the attractive former Greco Middle School reading teacher, in prison would be "like placing a piece of raw meat in with the lions."

Does he regret the choice of words?

"Nope," Fitzgibbons said, grinning mischievously. "It certainly stirred the pot. And the pot being stirred didn't hurt us one bit."

The Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office later sought and received a gag order on Fitzgibbons, arguing that he had gone too far in his public comments on the case.

"I don't always agree with his comments to the media," said Michael Sinacore, who prosecuted Lafave. "But in appropriate cases, he uses the media to try to shape his defense. Whether he's successful or not is subject to debate."

The Storer case was an interesting fit for Fitzgibbons. A registered Democrat who gripes that the country's conservative laws make defense work harder, he becomes downright hostile in describing the "thug" who robbed Storer at gunpoint and for whom a violent death was "just inevitable."

The forcefulness of his argument resonated in the courtroom.

"Prosecutor (Jalal) Harb tried to present it to your face, like just put it right in front of your eyes," said Andrew Thornton, the 27-year-old hospital worker who served as a juror. "And John Fitzgibbons put it down your throat."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.