Steve Sadow was 11 when the idea hit him with life-defining force during commercial breaks for an old black-and-white TV show, The Defenders, starring E.G. Marshall. “I turned to my father and said, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to be a criminal defense lawyer,’” says Sadow, 60.
It was all he ever wanted to do. It’s all he’s done.
“I’ve never been a prosecutor,” Sadow says. “I’ve never handled a contract case. I know nothing about civil law; I don’t even venture a guess. Everything has been geared toward being a criminal defense lawyer.”
Sadow, who combines an anti-authority personality with a belief that government will abridge civil liberties when given the opportunity, works in Schulten, Ward & Turner’s downtown Atlanta office but maintains an independent practice. He thrives on the natural and often theatrical tension of a courtroom, representing his mostly well-heeled clients with Captain Kirk swagger, turning no-win situations into improbable victories. “The true criminal defense attorney fights to protect the rights of an accused because he is the law’s front line against tyranny,” he says. “This is precisely why I never was, nor ever could be, a prosecutor.”
“He is one of the smartest people I know, if not the smartest—always two steps ahead of everyone else,” says criminal defense attorney Bruce S. Harvey, a frequent co-counsel. “He’s got no lack of ego. But at the end of the day, he’s a stand-up guy and a great lawyer. I mean, a great lawyer. He’s fearless, never intimidated. He’s not afraid to try a case, not afraid to get his hands dirty. In fact, he relishes it.”
“He lives and breathes this stuff,” says his wife, Susan J. Sadow, a workers’ compensation attorney whom her husband calls “the best workers’ comp attorney in the state of Georgia” and “the real lawyer in the family.” “He’d rather be in court than anywhere else,” she adds. “He’d be in court every day of the week if he could.”
If you read the news, you might think he is. Sadow’s high-profile cases include the Ray Lewis trial, where he represented Lewis’ friend Joseph Sweeting, who was charged with aggravated assault, murder and felony murder; the Gold Club trial, where he was lead counsel of a team (dubbed “The Magnificent Seven” by one juror) representing club owner Steve Kaplan, et al., against federal racketeering charges; and the Anthony San Juan Powell trial, which led to Georgia’s sodomy laws being declared unconstitutional in 1998. “That was the right case at the right time,” says Sadow. “My client was heterosexual, so the Supreme Court of Georgia didn’t have to embrace homosexuality in order to overturn the sodomy statute.”
He was also lead attorney for the team that defended rap star Clifford “T.I.” Harris after his arrest for unlawful possession of silencers and machine guns, and possession of firearms by a convicted felon—a sting operation in which T.I.’s bodyguard became a federal informant. “It occurred to me that I could weave an entrapment and setup defense here,” says Sadow, whose tactics helped reduce a potentially career-ending sentence for T.I. to a year and a day in prison, $100,300 in fines and 1,500 hours of community service.
Many of Sadow’s clients are convicted in the press before the trial begins. Of the Ray Lewis defendants, Sadow says, “Everyone wanted their heads on a platter.” He defended Howard K. Stern, the domestic partner of and lawyer for the late model/actress Anna Nicole Smith, against charges of prescription drug fraud and conspiracy. “He was hated, literally and universally hated,” Sadow says.
Then Sadow performs an alley-oop in court and everyone is stunned by the results. Sweeting was acquitted. Stern was acquitted of all charges except conspiracy, which the judge threw out post-trial. (In November 2014, the California Supreme Court reinstated the conspiracy charge. “We are back before the trial judge on a motion for a new trial,” Sadow says.) The prosecution wanted three years for Kaplan but the judge sentenced him to 16 months. Of Kaplan’s codefendants, 13 received probation, two were acquitted, one had charges dismissed. During the trial, an FBI agent actually threw an audiotape at Sadow. “The government overstretched. They used witnesses that were the scum of the earth against my client,” says Sadow, whose cross-examination of one longtime mobster turned the tables on the government’s witnesses. “I treated him with respect, and he destroyed the other witnesses.”
Another great TV lawyer, Ben Matlock, played by Andy Griffith, was reportedly based on legendary criminal defense attorney Bobby Lee Cook, who mentored Sadow early in his career. “I’ve tried cases in 37 states and two or three foreign countries, and I’ve watched Steve in action many, many times,” says Cook. “He is the best that I have seen.”
Sadow grew up in Trotwood, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, the older of Ray and Shirley Sadow’s sons. Both became lawyers. Younger brother Eric, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, is chief compliance officer for PHH Mortgage. “We’re like night and day,” Steve says. “He’s a very easy person to get along with.”
Ray was an engineer who spent his career working for the U.S. Air Force. Shirley was a homemaker with a strong personality. “She could drink whiskey with the men,” Sadow says, “and was very nearly a professional bowler. I think I’ve got my father’s intellectual capacity and my mother’s personality.”
Sadow was a multi-sport athlete at Trotwood-Madison High School, earning all-region honors in football as a middle linebacker. He also worked at a local pool hall for a dollar an hour, learning how to hustle shooting nine ball. “Now that was a useful education,” he says. “It helped me learn how to deal with the stress and intensity of competition. You don’t make the nine ball, you lose. Which means you lose money.”
At Marietta College, he became school billiards champion. “I would get on a table, play eight ball or nine ball, and when I won, the other side bought a drink,” he remembers. “I usually won, so there were drinks lined up for everyone.”
There was another reason Sadow was a good friend to have in college: He was known to defend fellow students before administrators or disciplinary councils. At Emory Law School, he also began developing a routine of cramming that has served him well. “When I didn’t go to class but still had to take exams, my friends would teach me a given subject in two or three hours, and I would be able to retain it long enough to take the exam, then let it filter away,” Sadow says. “Having learned to study that way, it makes it easy for me to prepare.”
His talent for absorbing information drives Harvey crazy.
“I believe ‘bat shit’ is the legal term for it,” Harvey says. “In the Gold Club trial, for example, we’d get, I don’t know, thousands of pages of discovery late Friday afternoon. Saturday morning he’s calling me. ‘Well, whaddya think?’ He’s gone through all of it and committed it to memory.”
Another frequent co-counsel, B.J. Bernstein, who shared office space with Sadow for seven years, adds, “I’ve seen him working large federal trials where the room is filled with boxes, and he would have personally seen every page in every box, and marked up a lot of them, and stored that information in his memory.”
He isn’t much for taking notes, but when he does, he uses red and black felt pens, a habit he picked up from Cook.
“I don’t prepare like other people, I don’t write things out,” Sadow says. “I’ve never written out an opening statement or closing argument or line of questions.” In the Stern trial, he gave a seven-hour closing argument using just one page of scattered notes. “This all sounds too egotistical, but I have the ability to immediately understand what was said and instinctively know what next to do or say to get to a particular point,” he adds. “Preparation is really key, although what you do with it, I think, is what makes the difference between a good lawyer and a great one.”
He’s only interested in what he needs to know. His senior year at Marietta College, a political philosophy professor, Robert Hill, asked Sadow where he wanted to go to law school. “So I asked him, ‘Where do you think I can get in?’” Sadow recalls. “He said, ‘I can get you into Emory.’ I said, ‘great, I’ll go to Emory.’ And then, ‘Where’s Emory?’ I didn’t see the school until the week before the semester began, when I drove down to Atlanta to find an apartment. I wasn’t concerned with the curriculum or the professors or any of that stuff. As far as I was concerned, school was simply a means to an end.”
Sadow’s first job out of law school in 1979 was with Ed Garland, criminal defense lawyer par excellence, a great first gig with a growing firm. But it was doomed.
“Eddie was a mentor, and is a phenomenal lawyer,” says Sadow. “But my style and his are quite different. Eddie has more charm in his little finger than I have altogether.”
For his first case, Sadow literally took it off of Garland’s desk.
“Eddie wasn’t there, and I was walking through and saw a note that said, ‘Somebody wants to see you about a murder case but he doesn’t have any money.’ So I stole the note and called the guy on the phone, he came in and I took the case,” says Sadow. The client was acquitted. Sadow won his next case, too, “and probably lost my next 50. I tell young lawyers, once they’ve lost 50 cases, come see me. After you’ve gotten the shit kicked out of you over and over again, it’s time to become a trial lawyer.”
On a mid-October Monday in Atlanta, a long line of potential jurors forms outside a fourth-floor courtroom in the Fulton County Justice Center. Some of them will be there from early morning until seven at night. Sadow has turned jury selection into an art: a long and arduous art. He’s preparing to defend a young man, one of three codefendants, in a murder trial. The victim was shot in the head during a scuffle for a gold chain, a botched armed robbery. Sadow’s client, who was sitting in the back seat of the car, will be acquitted. His codefendants, the front-seat guys, will be found guilty.
“Once again, I used the state’s witness as my witness,” says Sadow. “Remember in My Cousin Vinny, where Joe Pesci is doing cross-examination, and there was an issue over what his witness could see through a dirty screen, with bushes and trees in the way? I knew there was an issue with what the state’s witness claimed to see my client do.”
My Cousin Vinny is probably Sadow’s favorite courtroom movie. He relates to the title character’s chutzpah and iconoclasm. “He goes against the grain, and I like that. It shows what you’re able to accomplish if you are creative,” Sadow says. “And that’s the basic idea: Stay creative, never give up, never stop fighting. Because even in the darkest hour, there’s always the possibility of something going right, something in your favor. People pay me for those miracles.”
So the guy who became a lawyer because of the grand, idyllic heroism of The Defenders now identifies with the down-and-dirty Pesci version. Is this a commentary on what the law truly is? Or is it a comment on society’s changing perception of lawyers and the law?
Neither, to Sadow.
“On a societal level, the practice of courtroom law, by necessity, has changed to keep pace with our real-time, instant gratification-driven, Internet information-based culture,” he says. “For example, most modern-day jurors are no longer attuned to long-winded flights of oratory with references to literary passages, historical events or deep philosophical concepts. So I must keep it relevant for it to be meaningful.
“Yet while my technique may reflect cultural changes, my passion against injustice remains constant. In that sense, the lawyers portrayed in The Defenders or in My Cousin Vinny are remarkably similar. They reflect the idea of a warrior standing up for his client against all odds and the great might of the sovereign. That’s what I instinctively embraced as my calling. How that is best accomplished is my evolution.”
Photo by: Stan Kaady