I received a blast from the past last week when the decision came down in a case I left a long time ago. The case? State v. Noe, one of my three forays into criminal defense work in my eleven-year legal career. The decision: Tom Noe’s conviction affirmed. His eighteen year sentence – which still has around sixteen years left on it – upheld. I wrote that appellate brief a good eighteen months ago. Maybe longer. Glad to see the wheels of justice spinning so swiftly.
For reasons that aren’t worth going into here I think it’s an awful decision.* Most people familiar with Tom Noe’s story don’t lose any sleep over him rotting in jail, but the fact is that Tom was unconstitutionally overcharged, shafted on a dozen procedural motions, convicted in the press long before a jury was ever seated and handed a sentence that outstripped his actual transgressions by orders of magnitude (query: how does one engage in a criminal conspiracy with oneself? Only that Lucas County jury can say for sure). Still, there’s a difference between not guilty and innocent, and when you play the kinds of games, make the kinds of decisions and make the kinds of enemies Tom Noe made in his life you’re not going to get a lot of calls in your favor. The upshot: I’m not terribly surprised by the outcome even if, legally speaking, it’s the wrong outcome.
People who know about that case ask me how I, a liberal guy with a strong aversion to backroom political messiness could defend a hardcore, admittedly corrupt Republican dealmaker like Noe for as long as I did. I have two answers to that. Well, two answers other than “he was my boss’s client so I had to do so if I didn’t want to get fired.”
The first one is the boring one: I truly do believe that quaint stuff about people being innocent until proven guilty, about the government having the burden of proof, about the Fourth Amendment protecting people from illegal searches and seizures and about people being treated equally under the law. Tom Noe deserved a defense just like anyone else, and if he was going to choose my boss and, by extension, me to give it to him, I felt duty-bound to give it to him.
It was the second reason, however, that made me quite happy to defend Tom Noe day-in-day-out for nearly two years: he’s a neat guy. He’s funny. He’s strange in a harmless though highly interesting way. For all the malevolence of which he has been accused (and convicted, I probably need to add), he’s the kind of guy you just want to hang around. And before you assume that I was either a victim of Stockholm syndrome or hypnotized by his power, wealth and charisma, let me note that by the time he entered my life he had no power or wealth left and little in the way of charisma, if indeed he ever had any. Because of the scandal and media circus that preceded his indictment, by the time I met him he was basically an unemployed guy living off of the generosity of his family and the very small number of friends who hadn’t abandoned him while waiting for his inevitable trip to prison.
I have about 50 Tom Noe anecdotes, most of which I can’t share due to the attorney-client privilege. This one, however, kind of sums up his personality during his limbo of 2005-06, and it’s the kind of thing that made me come to like him.
Tom was living in Florida when he got indicted. The indictment came down on a Thursday. He surrendered himself to the local authorities, was arrested, booked, and cavity-searched on Friday, flown to Ohio for his arraignment on the following Monday during which he had to pledge both his home and his elderly mother’s home in order to make bail. He was given the perp-walk to end all perp-walks, his kids were tracked down and interviewed at school, and his name and face led every newscast in the state. When he was finally released late Monday evening he flew back home to Florida.
Our co-counsel up in Toledo was handling the nuts and bolts of the arraignment and bail, so I hadn’t heard from Tom this entire time. On Tuesday morning he calls me. I answer the phone.
“Hey buddy!” he says cheerfully.
I jokingly ask him if anything is new.
“You bethca! They gave me a first class upgrade on the flight back last night. Free booze! And man, there’s a lot of legroom! You shoulda been there! Really nice. You and me fly anywhere, we gotta fly first class. It’s the best!”
I laugh, thinking he’s joking around, but Noe is genuinely jazzed about his upgrade. Talks about it forever. Asks me to help him figure out the best way to get upgrades the next time he flies. This, by the way, from a man who was just indicted for stealing tens of millions of dollars. If he actually had any of the money they said he stole, he certainly wasn’t using it on airfare.
Anyway, it was at that point I decided that Tom was either (a) in total denial as to the seriousness of his situation; (b) had plans to take a boat to Belize soon; and/or © was some kind of sociopath criminal mastermind like the Joker or something, completely dismissive of the trouble he was in. It’s been nearly four years since that conversation and I haven’t been able to rule out any of those options (though if he still has plans to book it to Belize, it’s gonna take a jailbreak at this point). All I know for sure is that he spent three nights wearing blaze orange in jail cells, and first class seats on a two hour flight home was all he wanted to talk about.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not defending any of Tom Noe’s actions here, proven, alleged or otherwise. And none of this makes Tom Noe a good guy. The judicial system and public opinion has decided pretty clearly that he isn’t. I’m just saying that little stupid things like that are the reason I liked defending the guy. And given how few of my clients in my eleven years of practice I can say that about, it has to count for something.
*Given that I haven’t worked for my old law firm since 2008 and haven’t talked to Tom Noe since well before that, it should probably go without saying that the opinions expressed in this post are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of my old law firm, Tom Noe or anyone else except me. I’m sure the old law firm will give a bunch of no comments about the court’s decision if they haven’t already and would probably call me a whack job if asked about that. At this point I’m sure Tom Noe would talk to you if you asked him.