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Geoffrey Fieger: Behind the mouth

The Kevorkian case has become Fieger's joy and burden. It has brought him fame, but also taken over his life (Free Press photo by David P. Gilkey)

Trickery and bluster

For the record, critics say Fieger has a habit of stretching the truth beyond recognition, or he just tells outright lies, then backtracks with great bluster.

"More than once, he will lie," says Michael Modelski, former Oakland County assistant prosecutor who handled the injunction against Kevorkian before going into private practice. "In fact, once he got into the case, an attorney called me and said, 'Let me warn you, if you deal with Fieger, you should have two other people with you: One with a big stick to beat him off you, and another person to just take down whatever he says.'

"He will reverse himself every five minutes. In fact, sometimes he'll lie just to lie, even though the truth may help him more, just to have the power of selling you a lie. It's a game. He'll say things he knows are quotable quotes, that will make a headline, whether they're true or not. He did that all the time.

"If people weren't so afraid of Fieger," Modelski says, "they'd dance on his head."

Fieger's attacks can get so personal and vulgar, they suggest an adolescent who has never learned restraint. During a recent malpractice trial, Fieger denounced his prey, a hospital, in a court hallway, using a locker-room-loud voice. "I wouldn't send my dog to that place!" he said.

Such behavior is typical, says Yale Kamisar, a criminal law professor at the University of Michigan who opposes assisted suicide.

"He never seems to be willing to admit that anybody who disagrees with him is acting in good faith -- they're in the pope's pocket, they're sadists, or they're just plain stupid. He'll caricature someone," he says.

Thomas Kienbaum, president of the State Bar of Michigan, took the unusual step in March of publicly criticizing Fieger for his outrageous behavior in a letter to the editor of the Detroit News. "I felt I had to do it for my profession," Kienbaum says. "Even plaintiffs' lawyers who are his colleagues come up to me and say, 'I wish you could control the guy.' "

Fieger calls Kienbaum "an ass-licking brownnose" and insists his in-court behavior is fine.

But Fieger is facing disciplinary proceedings before the Attorney Grievance Commission for professional misconduct for his "squirrels, mollusks and lizards" comment and for accusing a prosecutor of covering up a murder.

Fieger says he was simply exercising free speech. And, he notes, clients aren't complaining.

Actually, at least one is. A former client is suing Fieger, charging him with legal malpractice in an employment discrimination case. During proceedings related to that case, Oakland County Circuit Judge Barry Howard recommended sanctions against Fieger, saying the attorney "intentionally engaged in discovery abuses, signed pleadings which were not well-grounded in fact and knowingly misrepresented facts."

Fieger shrugs it all off, since another judge overturned Howard's decision, although an appeal is pending, as is the malpractice case.

Fieger's friends have told him that his mouth gets him into trouble. He either doesn't listen or can't help himself. Look past all that, most agree, and he's a first-rate lawyer who gives his all for his clients.

With his size, long hair and bronzed face, Fieger has undeniable presence in or out of a courtroom. He seldom walks into court unprepared. And, "his ego does not get in the way of his getting help," said attorney Mayer Morganroth, who assisted Fieger in the last Kevorkian trial.

"The way Geoff is able to absorb facts and then to put them into use -- very few can match the way he's able to do that," says Louis Genevie, social psychologist and president of Litigation Strategies in New York, a jury consulting firm Fieger hired for the Kevorkian trials. "He's an incredibly effective communicator. He's been able to take information and spin it into a story."

"I like him," says Oakland County Circuit Judge David Breck, who presided at Kevorkian's third and most recent trial last spring. "I find he can be charming. He's a brilliant guy. But sometimes he's his own worst enemy. He's a zealot."

It was Fieger's well-known ability to sweet-talk juries that probably won the Kevorkian trials. Using essentially the same closing argument for each trial, with variations and without notes, Fieger played on emotion and common sense. He told the juries they could make history.

They did.

"It was the best closing argument I've ever seen," Breck says.

Even Modelski agrees.

"He uses emotion, silence. He uses these nice big displays. He'll blow up pictures of the victims. He'll say, 'You want to see the law in Michigan on assisted suicide? Here it is.' And he puts up this thing, and it's totally blank -- 'There is no law!' And things like that. As a showman, he's fantastic. His cross-examinations are usually good, too."

During the Kevorkian injunction hearing, Modelski put a medical ethics expert on the stand.

"I gave Fieger a copy of his resume. It was like 40 pages. And Fieger starts off saying, 'Are you a Nazi?' 'What?!' 'Are you a Nazi? Are you a homosexual?' He threw all this stuff out . . . to disconcert (the witness). If you react, you've lost control," Modelski says.

It is widely assumed that Fieger taps his theater training for his arguments to a jury and for his press events.

Rubbish, he says. His abilities as a performer and public speaker predated his theater training. "The first time you try to act in front of the jury or play a role, they will beat the shit out of you. You better be yourself."

And, he says calmly, he is the best.

"There is a certain point that Muhammad Ali realized he was the greatest fighter on earth. I'm positive Wayne Gretzky realized he was the greatest hockey player. And there was a point at which I realized I was as good as they make them," he says.

"I know that sounds conceited, but I just know that I am. I've done everything. I've done civil, I've done criminal, I've done the biggest profile cases. One unique thing that no one ever points out is: Darrow lost Scopes. The Chicago Seven got convicted. Martin Luther King got convicted.

"Kevorkian didn't get convicted. Nobody ever points that out. I mean, not to say they weren't great lawyers. I'm even better, though.

"I understand that the courtroom is a very limited arena. Look at the impressionists -- Monet, Picasso -- look at Vincent van Gogh. It's not that he didn't know how to paint a picture to look like a photograph. He had gone so far beyond just the basic fundamentals, he could create masterpieces.

"I have such a fundamental understanding of the law. I am able to create things. Every case, I get to paint a new picture, I get to paint a new reality. And that's what makes it fun for me. When I go in there, I create. I'm a master. I'm orchestrating."

Free Press story by Sheryl James

Continues: 'The play is the thing'


Behind the mouth | His father's son | Kevorkian's choice | Trickery and bluster | 'The play is the thing' | Price of fame


CONTENTS

Behind the mouth

His father's son

Kevorkian's choice

Trickery and bluster

'The play is the thing'

Price of fame

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