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Punish attorney, motion requests

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2000


TAMPA -- Federal prosecutors filed a motion Friday seeking sanctions against lead Aisenberg defense attorney Barry Cohen, saying he violated court rules by discussing the case in radio and newspaper interviews.

In addition to the sanctions, which sometimes carry a fine, the motion requests a gag order barring all the Aisenbergs' defense lawyers from commenting on the case outside the courtroom.

The motion accuses Cohen of "reprehensible conduct." It claims he intentionally misstated the evidence in an attempt to convince potential jurors of the innocence of Steven and Marlene Aisenberg. They are awaiting trial on charges of lying about the disappearance of their infant daughter Sabrina in Hillsborough County in 1997.

Interviewed Friday, Cohen said only that "I'll deal with the government in the appropriate forum at the appropriate time."

The motion marked the latest blow in the unusually combative relations between the prosecution and the defense in the Aisenberg case. Cohen and co-counsel Todd Foster have filed motions accusing prosecutors of misconduct and claiming investigators staged a rush to judgment.

In response, prosecutors Steve Kunz and Rachelle Bedke wrote Friday that Cohen and Foster have manufactured an "intruder defense" designed to sway public opinion. Friday's motion gave several examples:

There was no blond hair found in the crib of the dark-haired Sabrina, as Cohen has claimed -- the hair that was found might have proved to be Sabrina's, if any sample of her hair remained.

And the unidentified "shoe print" that Cohen cited as evidence of an intruder in the house actually was found on a part of the crib skirt that was off the floor, behind crib bars -- not in a place any intruder could have walked the night Sabrina disappeared.

In seeking the sanctions, prosecutors argued that Cohen had violated a "local rule" adopted by the federal courts in Central Florida that bars all involved lawyers from commenting on pending criminal matters outside the courtroom. As evidence of Cohen's unauthorized communication with the media, they cited interviews he gave to WFLA-AM 970 and the St. Petersburg Times.

Cohen will have a chance to respond to the accusations before the judge decides on the request for sanctions.

At a hastily called hearing Friday morning at which motion deadlines were discussed, Cohen asked U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday to take the Aisenbergs' case off the July trial docket. Merryday did not rule on the motion, but he did say he wouldn't force the Aisenbergs to go to trial until they and their lawyers were ready.

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