From the Barre to the Bar
Rebecca A. Nitkin traded in her pointe shoes for a criminal defense practice
Published in 2015 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine on December 12, 2014
Recently a man walked into a house where a woman was home alone, then started talking crazy about black magic and computer chips in his head. The terrified woman fled and contacted police.
Rebecca A. Nitkin was outraged—about the first-degree burglary charge against her client. “It’s one of the worst charges,” she says, “because it’s somebody breaking and entering into your home with the intent to commit a violent crime.”
All the man was guilty of, Nitkin argued, was going off his meds and visiting the house of a man he once knew. When the man’s wife opened the door, Nitkin’s client went in. But he didn’t force his way in, she says, and the woman never told him to leave. The judge acquitted the man on the first-degree burglary charge, and the jury came back in 10 minutes on the remaining count of fourth-degree burglarly: “not guilty.” He now checks in with Nitkin every two weeks and is doing well.
Criminal defense wasn’t Nitkin’s original career goal. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a ballerina. She started dancing at age 5, even went to a dancing college. Then she met some professional dancers with a dark secret: “I was watching this and saying, ‘Oh, my God. They don’t eat. They just do drugs.’” She still went pro, but after five knee surgeries, she decided to change careers.
At 5-foot-2½ inches tall and all of 105 pounds, Nitkin was soon snapped up by a petite-modeling agency. But the lifestyle was also out of step with her values. So she put her master’s in social work to the test and spent the next seven years with Prince George’s County Child Protective Services. “I would drive my Jeep to the area in Prince George’s County, get out of the car all by myself at 3 o’clock in the morning, and march on into someone’s house with the pit bulls and a gun, and everything else.”
Then one night, she found her car surrounded by men calling out sexually explicit remarks. Unarmed, Nitkin belted out, “I’m a cop and you’re all going to get shot in two seconds if you don’t get the fuck out of my way.” She got away safely, but the experience broke her courage. “I just had this belief system that I was doing God’s work and I had absolutely no fear, ever. This destroyed that.”
She was already attending law school at night, hoping to become a prosecutor. “I was so naïve,” she says. “I believed … that the state always did the right thing, that cops never lied and that the whole court system made sure that innocent people never got charged.” But when she graduated, jobs in the prosecutor’s office were hard to come by. Finally, she begged her brother, a doctor, to hire her at his office. Her brother’s medical partner called a lawyer friend named Mark Futrovsky, she says, “and [he] said, ‘You have got to hire this girl. She’s got two degrees and she’s begging to be a nurse.’ Nitkin soon talked Futrovsky into letting her set up a criminal law practice. “For the first month I did nothing but stand next to the prosecutor and listen to the prosecutor talk to every single defense attorney,” she recalls. “And that is how I learned criminal law.”
Her first clients had picked up a dead deer off a road and taken it—for which they were fined about $3,000. They spoke little English and were mystified by the ticket. “I called up the [official] … I’m like, ‘Excuse me. I’m a brand-new attorney. … How can you get mad at someone who is cleaning the road of a deer?’ All this guy did was laugh at me. He’s like, ‘I’ll tell you what. Because you’re so sweet’—I used to be sweet—‘you tell them to come and see me tomorrow with a hundred bucks and I’ll get rid of all the tickets.’
“And that’s kind of how it works. You just call up and beg. I’m very good at [that].”
One client’s notoriety launched yet another career for Nitkin: on-air analyst. Her client, a 23-year-old man, met a female acquaintance online and went to her basement bedroom for sex. She turned out to be 11.
Nitkin recalls, “I said in the courtroom, ‘Your honor, I just took a poll. And even though now she’s scrubbed free of makeup, her hair is pulled back and she’s wearing matching Garanimals, the poll still comes out 16, 17.’ If you add to that the dim lights, a private apartment, tons of makeup, sexy clothes, cigarettes, liquor, who would ever think she’s 11?”
The judge’s words to the girl’s father—“It takes two to tango”—plus a light sentence outraged women’s rights advocates. Nitkin says the words were taken out of context. “The judge is like, ‘Basically, your kid shouldn’t be on the Internet at three in the morning,’” she says. “’Your kid shouldn’t be giving directions to strangers to come into her basement.’”
Soon after, Nitkin’s phone started ringing with requests for the news-show circuit, and it’s still ringing.
She opened her own office in 2008, and her latest project is a documentary alleging police brutality in Montgomery County.
While Nitkin has found her calling, she’s carried something from each previous career, including the earliest one—dancing. “Incredible discipline,” she says. “And I would like to say diminishing stage fright, but that’s never happened. I think if you lose it, that’s the time to quit.”