Defending the “Indefensible”
Alleged terrorists, accused cops: Joseph M. LaTona defends them all
Published in 2008 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine
on August 22, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Buffalo criminal defense attorney Joseph M. LaTona has some advice that might have sounded paranoid a decade ago: Never say anything to anybody that you wouldn’t mind having played back in a courtroom someday.
Even the most innocuous conversation, when coupled with other evidence, can be used against you, says LaTona, who began handling electronic surveillance investigations and prosecutions as a young lawyer in 1977. “Our zone of confidentiality and privacy is shrinking,” he says. “Shrinking because of government intrusions, shrinking because it appears that whatever the younger people do in their life, they’ve got to put it on a computer or on YouTube.”
LaTona’s first surveillance case involved the bugging and wiretapping of an assistant district attorney accused of receiving bribes. Since then, LaTona has had at least one wiretap case in his practice at all times. “I really believe that it is important to have people in our country stand up for the Constitution. When the government points its finger of accusation, the citizen needs someone to stand up and be counted. To me it’s probably the most important thing that any lawyer can do.”
“We pride ourselves on having some very good defense lawyers in Buffalo,” says reporter Dan Herbeck, who has covered federal court for The Buffalo News for the past 20 years, “lawyers we believe are on par with the top lawyers from bigger cities like New York or Los Angeles. Joe LaTona has been around a long time and is rated as one of the best.”
LaTona has represented clients in some of western New York’s most highly publicized and compelling cases, which have involved allegations of fraud, conspiracy, murder and criminally negligent homicide. But, in LaTona’s view, the high-profile cases are no more significant than the scores he has handled quietly. “I’m proud of my whole career,” he says. “When you’re fortunate enough to be hired by someone, you do the best job that you possibly can. I don’t invite the media. If they show up, they show up. It shouldn’t matter in terms of me representing someone.”
Still, some cases stand out because the media did show up, and the Lackawanna Six case is one of them. Reporters from all over the world focused on little Lackawanna, a hard-luck former steel town that figured into the Bush administration’s fight against terrorism post 9/11.
The case involved six young Yemeni Americans from Lackawanna who traveled to a camp in Afghanistan in the first part of 2001. Among them was LaTona’s client, Faysal H. Galab. They were on a religious quest, LaTona says. “After Osama bin Laden addressed people at the camp and mentioned that there were 50 martyrs on their way to attack American interests, my client and several others got rapidly disillusioned and wanted no part of that.” When they came back into the country in June of ’01, the authorities had already been alerted and they were under extensive surveillance. They were arrested in early fall 2002.
The men had been too scared to come forward, and they didn’t have specific information anyway, LaTona says. Then the events of September 11 frightened them even more. “There came a time when the government came to my client through me and made an offer to explore whether we were interested in a plea, and ultimately Faysal was the first one to plead guilty.” He did not, however, plead guilty to providing material support to a terrorist organization. He pleaded guilty to going to Afghanistan and engaging with the people who were running the camp. “He didn’t do anything to provide material assistance to al-Qaida or bin Laden, and that’s why we refused to plead guilty to that,” LaTona says.
LaTona also had the foresight to insert a provision in the plea agreements that, based on the information about the events in which Galab admitted participating, the government would not consider him to be an enemy combatant. “I knew if he was going to take a plea, the last thing I wanted was to have him end up in Guantanamo Bay. They [the government] went along with it. I understand Rumsfeld had to sign off on that.” Galab, who was 26 when he agreed to the guilty plea in early 2003, was sentenced to seven years.
Herbeck notes that LaTona “realizes there are times when the best thing to do for the client is to work out a reasonable plea deal. That is what he did in the Lackawanna Six case. Joe’s client was the first in that case to plead guilty, and he got the best deal from the government. The other five defendants followed Joe’s lead.”
LaTona graduated from law school in 1974 from Omaha’s Creighton University. Having grown up in Niagara Falls, LaTona took both the Nebraska and New York bar exams and was hired immediately after graduation by Buffalo attorney John W. Condon, “one of the foremost criminal defense lawyers I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” he says. “That’s how, at a relatively early stage of my career, I was exposed to high-profile cases, sophisticated white-collar cases.”
Condon, who has since retired, calls LaTona “one of the finest lawyers I’ve ever known.” He’s also a decent human being, says Condon. “I was privileged to be able to practice with him.”
LaTona and Condon, along with another partner in the firm, Joseph V. Sedita, worked on what was probably the trial of the 1970s in Buffalo—the Richard Long case. LaTona and Condon represented two off-duty officers accused of killing Long; Sedita represented a civilian who was with them. The men were on a rolling stag party, driving from one Buffalo watering hole to the next. When Long cut in front of their Cadillac with his sports car, the officers gave chase. The ultimate confrontation led to Long getting knocked unconscious. “Under normal circumstances, it would not have resulted in death,” LaTona says. “He was bleeding from the nose, put on his back, and he basically exsanguinated. It was very tragic.
“A lot of times the job of an attorney is a damage-control job,” LaTona says. “On occasion, people are indicted and charged at a level of offense above what they actually did. The Long case is a perfect example. These men were indicted for manslaughter in the second degree and assault in the second degree, which are more severe felonies than the criminally negligent homicide that they actually committed and were convicted of.” The charges may all be felonies, but the length of incarceration differs considerably, he says. The police officers lost their jobs and went to state prison for the maximum sentence at that time, which was four years.
LaTona left Condon’s firm in 1988, and went on to become a senior partner with Lipsitz Green, also in Buffalo, but the Long case wouldn’t be his last high-profile police trial.
In January 1997, LaTona represented Lt. Gregg G. Blosat, one of several officers called to the scene of an altercation between police and a van driver named Mark Virginia. “Mr. Virginia had a history of certain mental and emotional issues,” LaTona says. His job involved a lot of lifting and so he was a strong, powerful man. “There was a struggle, no question about it. Several officers were engaged with him. My client tried to subdue him.” Other officers cuffed Virginia behind his back and placed him on his stomach in the patrol car. “At that time, I think everybody felt he was alive. By the time he got to the hospital, he had stopped breathing and he died.”
A female officer claimed that Blosat was at fault. “Her statement was she observed Lt. Blosat manually strangle Mr. Virginia for a period of 60 to 90 seconds,” LaTona says, noting the importance of that time frame. It actually takes about four minutes of occlusion of the carotid arteries to cause death, he says. He brought in forensic pathologists to testify on the phenomenon of positional asphyxia, which is known to occur in individuals with a physical and emotional profile like Virginia’s. “It was an accidental death,” LaTona says. “The jury found Blosat not guilty of manual strangulation.”
At 59, LaTona takes a philosophical view of his profession. He says it’s all about human frailties. “A lot of times people find themselves in the criminal justice system because of poor judgment, maybe a weakness, the use or abuse of alcohol or drugs. Very few people that I have seen in my career are what I consider quote ‘evil.’ For most of them it’s a human tragedy situation, no question.”
Currently, his roster includes several white-collar investigations and a smattering of DWIs, along with wiretap, assault and drug cases. “It’s a full plate,” he says. “You keep rolling along, drinking in the human condition. You’re experiencing it, learning from it, becoming wiser, hopefully.”
Divorced for 22 years, LaTona has two grown daughters and one grandson. In February 2001, he went into solo practice and couldn’t be happier. “These last eight years I’ve been in practice have been the best years of my career,” says LaTona, who shares office space with a group of other independent lawyers.
“Every single case is significant to me. That’s one of the reasons I’m a sole practitioner. If you hire me, you get me. You won’t get some junior partner or some young associate working your case. You’re going to get me.”
Practicing law, LaTona says, offers a great deal of personal satisfaction. “I like the action, I like the challenge. In any given case you can be exposed to a different business, a different way of thought, culture. When you’re the type of person who’s kind of thirsty for all that knowledge, it’s great to find out things. And it never ends. You never stop learning. The day you stop learning is the day you should hand in your license and go out to the farm.”