The Bulldog and the Scholar
How Tara Knight and Hugh Keefe became Connecticut’s criminal law power couple
Published in 2021 Connecticut Super Lawyers Magazine on October 12, 2021
There was a moment during the infamous Beth Carpenter murder-for-hire trial that prosecutor Kevin Kane wondered if his opponent was about to go too far. Criminal defense attorney Hugh Keefe’s reputation had been built on his masterful cross-examinations, and now he was hammering into an important witness for the prosecution, Haiman Clein, Carpenter’s lover, colleague and alleged co-conspirator, who had turned against her.
The salacious details of the Old Saybrook lawyers’ affair—culminating in Clein hiring a hitman to gun down Carpenter’s brother-in-law after a custody dispute over Carpenter’s niece didn’t go her way—had garnered international attention leading up to the two-month capital murder trial in 2002. Carpenter’s defense team maintained that Clein was the real culprit, ordering the hit unbeknownst to Carpenter, and Keefe’s hostile cross attacked Clein’s credibility, forcing him to admit he’d stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients at his by-then defunct law firm.
“He’s a terrific cross-examiner, but he’s a bulldog,” says Kane, who went on to serve 13 years as Connecticut’s chief state’s attorney. He recalls watching Keefe, and at one point thinking, “Boy, if he goes a little farther, the jury is going to start feeling sorry for this witness.”
That was precisely the moment that Keefe’s co-counsel Tara Knight stood up.
Keefe had originally been privately retained by Carpenter, until funds ran out and he was asked to stay on at public defender rates. He said he would if another lawyer was brought on to assist. The state happened to call Knight. It was the first time they had ever worked together. Three years later, they would marry. “Tara got up and whispered something to him and he stopped,” Kane says. “Hugh can be very aggressive. Tara has a sense of balance and knows when to use a different tack, and he listens to her. The two of them are terrific lawyers, and together they’re a great combination because they complement each other very well. Tara is more academic, more inclined to go deeper into the law. Hugh is better dealing with the facts. Together they were formidable.”
Keefe and Knight describe their differences in much the same way, speaking from the conference room of Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante, the large New Haven firm spanning a dozen practice areas that Keefe has called home for 54 years. Knight has made the short walk over from her office at Knight & Cerritelli, the boutique criminal defense firm she founded 27 years ago.
It’s the same conference room where she prepared Carpenter for cross-examination over the course of what Keefe recalls as a couple of days and Knight clarifies was much longer. That cross did not go well; the jury returned a guilty verdict.
“Unfortunately, both Tara and Beth got life,” Keefe deadpans, looking over to check his wife’s reaction. She shakes her head.
“That’s his joke,” she says. “We both got life. Your delivery is really lacking there.”
The exchange illustrates how much easier it is for Keefe to joke about that loss than Knight, but it’s also part of the back-and-forth schtick that listeners of WPLR’s Chaz & AJ have come to know as the two lawyers have been taking calls on the comedic morning show over the last 12 years. In the spring of 2021, Yale University law students also got to witness their banter as they taught trial practice side-by-side.
One of the things Knight likes to impart to her students is the most important trial lesson she learned from her husband. “You have to speak with your own voice in the courtroom. As aggressive as Hugh can be, that’s not necessarily my style.”
“Jurors love her,” Hugh chimes in. He has a habit of interrupting when he thinks she’s being too modest.
“So we have different styles, but I don’t have one thousandth of the experience Hugh has,” Knight says.
“You have the more interesting background,” he counters.
She gives him that one.
Knight’s mother was one of nine kids raised by a single mom on welfare, and her father never graduated high school. When Knight was young, he was arrested for bookmaking and spent several stints in jail. He even retained Keefe to represent him back in the 1970s, and then again around 1999.
“It was nothing lengthy or violent, but I grew up with that in my background and came to the conclusion that sometimes there’s government overreach and that good people do things that are technically illegal but not immoral or warranting jail time,” Knight says. “That, combined with my nature to be anti-authoritarian, made [criminal defense] a good fit for me,” she says.
“When she says ‘nature to be anti-authoritarian,’ that is the greatest understatement in the history of man,” Keefe interjects. “She hates all kinds of authority.”
Keefe is the son of Irish immigrants with a grammar school education—his father was a meatpacker and his mom a waitress. He says his path to criminal defense was less about personal conviction—he could have been just as happy as a prosecutor—but when he graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1967, the cases going to trial just happened to be criminal cases.
“I wanted trial experience,” he says. “As long as I could get into a courtroom, I was happy. I had some early successes in criminal law, so I stayed with that.”
Knight lists off some of his clients from the period, such as Lou Rawls, Jesse Jackson, the Black Panthers, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Jack Schlossberg.
“He’s literally tried hundreds of cases and is the first attorney in the U.S. to be board-certified [by the National Board of Trial Advocacy] in both criminal and civil law,” Knight says. “He truly was the premier trial attorney in state of Connecticut by anybody’s standard. He was it. And when I say was, I don’t mean to suggest he’s not anymore, but he’s older now, not trying as many cases with COVID. But at his peak, he was the man to see.”
Hubert J. Santos, the equally legendary criminal defense attorney, agreed when he spoke with us in June 2021—a day before he passed away.
“He is the dean of the Connecticut criminal defense bar,” said Santos, who had also been given that title. “There’s no one better than him. He is the role model for lawyers that do criminal defense work, not only in Connecticut, but throughout New England.”
Santos cited Keefe’s defense of former Danbury Mayor James Dyer in a federal court trial on extortion and racketeering charges as a classic example. “The government called all kinds of contractors to testify they bribed the mayor and Hugh Keefe cross-examined them to show they all received immunity, and as a result the jury acquitted the Danbury mayor,” Santos said. “That’s not unusual for witnesses to receive immunity, but in this case he totally turned the tables by pointing out you cannot trust these witnesses. As a result, the U.S. attorney adopted a policy that they no longer would give immunity to cooperating witnesses. They would require them to plead guilty and testify. That was revolutionary.”
In the case of Hartford police officer Robert A. Murtha’s trial on charges of first-degree assault, false reporting and fabricating evidence, Santos said Keefe won a not guilty verdict with a defense that the officer was basically a good guy who got himself entangled in a mess.
“He’s got a touch with jurors, and that is his gift,” Santos said. “He has the ability, which is rare, to pick apart a prosecution case even when the prosecution case is substantial, and to sense jurors’ suspicion of overreaching by the prosecution.”
Santos said Knight, too, is an accomplished criminal defense lawyer with an uncanny ability to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, and that she is known for being meticulous, much more so than her husband, who once threw away his co-counsel’s carefully crafted cross-examination outline to not be overwhelmed by the details.
Knight’s partner of more than 20 years, Gregory Cerritelli, says that Knight’s reputation for being incredibly hardworking is born out of genuine passion for the work and compassion for the people she represents. Recently, he watched her try two significant cases—a sexual assault involving a minor and a cold-case murder—back-to-back. She put in 17-hour days, 7 days a week; he’d never seen anyone work harder.
“What motivates her to work as hard as she does is her clients,” Cerritelli says. “She is not the type of person who is going to judge her clients. It doesn’t matter what they did, they always get her best game. She is ethical to a fault. She has a great reputation with prosecutors and judges. They know they can take her at her word. She gets better results because she is so diligent and prepared. She has very high standards for herself and everyone in her circle. She demands perfection or as close to it as you can get. You will not find a person who is more honorable than Tara Knight. In criminal defense work, where women are underrepresented, she’s stood out and made a name for herself.”
As a woman, Knight still gets asked if she’s a lawyer when she waits in the courthouse metal detector line, and she wants to scream when people assume the beach cottage she recently bought herself was a gift from her husband. She says that being Keefe’s wife has meant she’s had to work extra hard to prove her accomplishments are her own, just like she fought to be taken seriously entering the male-dominated private bar early in her career.
“As a lot of women do, you overprepare and overprove, and to this day I’m an over-preparer because there’s always the insecurity of not measuring up,” she says.
Keefe says all that prep means that Knight is tough to live with when she’s on trial.
“When Tara’s in trial, everyone’s on trial,” Knight admits. She’s also the more likely party to invite intellectual conversations about the law at home. “I always have to preface a conversation with, ‘This is only going to take two minutes, but what do you think of this legal issue?’”
“It always takes longer,” says Keefe, who’d rather talk about the Red Sox.
He adds Knight is “right now at the top of her game” and “the go-to lawyer in criminal law in Connecticut,” yet his wife still vastly underrates herself. He can never understand it.
Knight explains it like this. Imagine two lawyers—one male and one female—defending a client on a murder charge. The verdict comes back not guilty on murder but guilty on the lesser charge of manslaughter. When they get back to the office, she says, the male lawyer will beat his chest and characterize the not guilty as a huge win; the female lawyer will focus on the manslaughter conviction and think, “Oh my God, I screwed up.”
State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Waterbury Maureen T. Platt, who has opposed Knight and Keefe on numerous occasions, says that Knight’s reputation has long preceded her.
“When people meet her, they realize they’re dealing with an incredibly skilled, experienced attorney,” Platt says. “They both are universally respected and well-known attorneys with a thorough and complete knowledge of the law. They are incredible advocates for their clients, appropriately fierce. They’re not afraid to fight for what they feel is correct. As prosecutors, we respect that. We respect attorneys that bring their A-game.”
Despite the headline-making crimes and courtroom dramas, both lawyers say their more meaningful victories are the ones few know about. Keefe says his biggest successes are the clients that never end up in arrest or indictment; there’s just a quiet withdrawal of the investigation.
For Knight, it was representing a young woman who was so battered by addiction she got caught up letting her apartment be used for drug sales. She pled guilty, but because she was also cooperating in a federal capital case, she wasn’t sentenced for years, and during that time got clean, married, and bought a home. Knight knew a felony conviction would have grave implications for her career—she wanted to be a nurse—and fought to get her guilty plea withdrawn. The federal prosecutor wouldn’t budge, so she had to fight it with the judge.
“I don’t know of any other case where a federal judge reopened a case and put it back on the docket,” Keefe says.
Knight ended up getting that plea withdrawn with no jail, no conviction. Her client became a nurse, got custody of her child back and stays in touch with Knight.
“It was a hard-fought battle that really impacted someone’s life in a positive way,” she says. “In terms of highs and lows, you would think the not guilty verdicts would be the biggest highs, but they’re not. They’re the biggest causes of relief. The losses are felt so much more in terms of impact than wins. Losses are just devastating because the consequences and stakes are so high.”
In the case of Beth Carpenter, the stakes could not have been higher. Even after the death penalty was taken off the table (Ireland, where Carpenter was living at the time the arrest warrant was issued, would not extradite her otherwise; Knight and Keefe traveled there and to London to interview witnesses leading up to the trial), their client was facing life without the possibility of parole. After days of deliberation, Knight remembers the guilty verdict like a punch to the stomach.
“She took it hard,” Keefe says.
Knight was quiet on their drive back to the office. They hadn’t even traveled a mile when Keefe asked her what was wrong, a question she couldn’t fathom given what had just happened.
“You gotta get over it,” she remembers him saying.
They stopped at a Chili’s and had beers in frosted mugs. Knight tells the story as a way of illustrating how different they are, but Keefe offers another interpretation.
“You got to set the stage,” Keefe says. “This business can kill you. You can spend all your time working at the office and go home and go to sleep and come back and do the same thing the next day, and worry and stress about the next witness. It can kill you if you don’t relax and put it in perspective.”
“That’s Hugh putting things ‘in perspective’ pretty quickly,” Knight says, with air quotes and a raised eyebrow.
She still didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks, but she gets the sentiment about needing an oasis from the stress of the job. That’s why they never went into practice together. Their historic 1890s home, with its stained-glass windows and oak pocket doors, is that oasis. It’s the kind of place that invokes a deep exhale, not because it’s big or fancy, but because of the detail and craftsmanship.
When they are not in the midst of a trial or at one of the many social functions and fundraisers that come with the job description, they like to have their own quiet happy hour at home, with a glass of wine in front of the fireplace before making dinner. “I am the cook,” Knight says. “He is an Irishman who likes meat and potatoes. He does not appreciate food like I do.”
Located on Orange Street in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, their home is within walking distance to coffee shops, markets and restaurants, even their offices.
“It’s a lot of fun, like being back in college,” Keefe says, which for him was a while ago.
Asked if he has any plans to retire, he gives a hard “No.”
“There’s only one avocation for this man and that is to be a trial lawyer,” Knight says. “That’s who he is. Retirement would be devastating.”